It’s tasty, it’s got the credentials of an aphrodisiac and its legacy is rich
I first tried this dish somewhere in America during my travelling years, but haven’t come across it in recent times. But it’s a genuine treat, and February being the month of love, readers may want to present their beloved with a dish that is at once super special and super easy to make.
For well over a century it’s been said that oysters are an aphrodisiac. Bringing credibility to the oyster legend is the fact that these slippery critters are full of zinc. Zinc controls progesterone levels, which have a positive effect on the libido. Zinc deficiency can cause impotence in men, so any food rich in zinc is considered an aphrodisiac. Oysters happen to be loaded with it.
In 1850, Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans made a specialty dish of snails called Snails Bourgignon. The restaurant, located on Rue St. Louis in the city’s French Quarter, was opened in 1840, and is the oldest family-run restaurant in the United States. By 1899, when Jules Alciatore took over the business, the taste for snails had subsided. But Jules wanted to use a local product and, because they were easy to get, he chose oysters, adapting the once very popular snail recipe to use the Gulf oysters.
Jules Alciatore is known as a pioneer in the art of cooking oysters: they had previously been rarely cooked. According to the legend, a delighted customer exclaimed after eating the dish,”Why, this is as rich as Rockefeller!” and so the name became “Oysters Rockefeller”.
The recipe is a close-guarded secret. Here is my play on it.
12 fresh (live) oysters shucked and on the half shell
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons finely chopped watercress leaves
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh spinach leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped celery
1 tablespoon finely chopped green onion, white and green parts
1 tablespoon finely chopped flat leaf parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons homemade bread crumbs
Tabasco sauce to taste
1/4 teaspoon Pernod (Pernod has an aniseed flavor)
Salt and pepper to taste
Lemon wedges for garnish
TIP: It’s best to use small oysters for this recipe. The oysters themselves (not the shells) should be no more than 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Any variety of oysters will work – just make sure the oysters you choose are as fresh as possible, still alive and tightly closed.
Using an oyster knife, shuck open the oyster shells and remove the oysters. Discard the top shells; scrub and dry the bottom shells. Drain the oysters, keeping the oyster liquor.
In a large non-stick saucepan, melt the butter; add spinach, watercress leaves, celery, tarragon, green onion, parsley, bread crumbs, Tabasco sauce, Pernod and salt and pepper. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Press the spinach mixture through a sieve and let cool.
Preheat oven broiler. Line an oven-proof plate or platter with a layer of rock salt about one inch deep; dampen the salt very slightly. Set oyster shells in the rock salt, making sure they are level, and then add an oyster to each shell.
Place a little of the reserved oyster liquor on each oyster. Spoon an equal amount of the prepared spinach mixture over each oyster and spread to the rim of the shell.
Broil approximately 5 minutes or until the edges of the oysters have curled and the topping is bubbling. Don’t take your eyes off them; you don’t want them burnt.
Garnish the plates or platter with the parsley sprigs and the lemon wedges. Serve immediately.
Ian Leatt, an experienced chef, is general manager of Pegasus Publications.