Monday, September 10, 2012

Oysters Rockefeller: A Lifelong Love Affair

Nothing encapsulates fresh seafood like raw oysters straight from the sea, and nothing says culinary excess like Oysters Rockefeller. The first time I ever tried them was at the Oak Bay Marina in Victoria BC when I was 9 years old, and it was love at first bite. The appetizer, oysters topped with a mixture of finely chopped greens and copious amounts of butter and cheese and then baked in their shells, was considered so rich that it had to be named after the richest man of the day, John D. Rockefeller. A few years later, no self-respecting restaurateur would be without their own version on the menu, even in Oak Bay, and even to an innocent nine-year old.

Oak Bay Marina, Victoria BC

Look at those little sweeties....okay I was six

Jules Alciatore, the creator of the original Oysters Rockefeller recipe and founder of Antoine’s, took the original recipe with him to the grave, so any version of the recipe that exists today is only an assumption, based on descriptions of the original dish. While many have achieved the trademark green colour of the original, easily acheived by using spinach, it's said that few actually get the actual flavour of Antoine's recipe exactly right. The chefs at Antoine’s insist that there's no spinach in the recipe, but many imitations, including this one, does contain the green leafy upstart. Opinions differ on the other green ingredients but guess at them being parsley and watercress that are puréed and then added to the mix, while others support the notion that the primary ingredients are parsley, celery, scallions, chives, olive oil and capers.

Antoine's cookbook compiled by Roy F. Guste, the fifth-generation proprietor, 
features hundreds of recipes from the Antoine's tradition

Although the original recipe still remains a closely-guarded Antoine's secret, you can still order Huitres en Coquille a la Rockefeller, with the original Rockefeller sauce, when you're next at Antoine's in New Orleans. In the meantime, there are many recipes to choose from, including my favourite Oysters Rockefeller recipe, which is the closest I've come to reproducing the rich and delicious bivalves I enjoyed when I was a little girl. Enjoy.

The spinach, onion, celery and cream mixture is spooned over the oysters

Fresh crumbled bacon is sprinkled on top

Then a flurry of finely chopped fresh Italian parsley...

And finally a generous amount of Parmesan

Baked in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes and voila!

Oysters Rockefeller 
Makes 24 appetizers

2 dozen oysters, shucked
5 tbsp butter, unsalted 
1/2 bag fresh spinach leaves, stems removed and finely chopped 
1/2 onion, chopped 
3 tbsp fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped 
1 stalk celery, finely chopped 
1 garlic clove, minced 
3 tbsp cooked bacon, chopped
2 tbsp white wine 
2 tbsp heavy cream 
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Swiss cheese
1/2 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1/2 tsp Pernod
Rock salt
Lemon wedges for garnish

Using an oyster knife, pry open the oyster shells and remove the oysters, reserving the oyster liquor. Discard the top and loosen each oyster from the base of its shell. Set aside and keep cool.

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Spread a 1/2-inch thick layer of rock salt on a large baking sheet and arrange the oyster shells on top, making sure they're all level. The rock salt will stabilize them. Pour a little of the reserved oyster liquor on top of each shell. 

Finely chop the onion and celery. Melt three tablespoons of butter in a sauté pan over medium heat, and add the celery and onion and cook one minute. Add the chopped spinach and the remaining butter, and cook another minute or two until the spinach has wilted. Add the white wine and Pernod and cook another two minutes, stirring constantly. Add the cream and stir to combine. The mixture may be made ahead of time up to this point, and refrigerated until ready to use, up to 3 days.

Remove the chilled Rockefeller topping from the refrigerator, and beat the mixture with an electric mixer to evenly distribute the butter and infuse air into the topping. Spoon the spinach mixture evenly over each oyster, spreading it evenly out to the edge of the shell, then top with the crumbled bacon and a sprinkle of chopped parsley. Combine the Parmesan and the Panko and scatter evenly over the oysters, with a dot of butter if you wish. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, watching carefully, until the edges of the oysters begin to curl around the edges and the topping is bubbling and lightly browned.

Using tongs or a spatula, carefully transfer the hot shells to a salt-covered presentation platter, or individual serving plates, and serve immediately with lemon wedges, bubbly and a big grin.