During the months ending in “r,” a hedonist’s thoughts naturally turn to oyster stew. In New England, the fall also coincides with a break in the weather, while here in Florida we can simply turn the thermostat down to 58 (if it’s not there already), and declare the season to be suitable for a warming dish.
As with many American classics, the origins of the dish are obscure. Native Americans supposedly taught settlers how to make oyster stew, but dairy products were not part of their diet. Chesapeake Bay residents would probably scoff at New Englanders and call the dish their own. When seeking out an authentic version, remember that geography is no guarantee of quality. My brother-in-law, who has lived in and around Boston his entire life, makes the worst oyster stew I’ve ever tasted. By contrast, many aficionados believe that the definitive rendering may be found at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in Manhattan.
First, understand this: There is nothing wrong with using pre-shucked, pasteurized oysters. They are fresh, and the liquor (essential for flavor) is preserved with them. While it’s wonderful to have your own fishing boat and shuck the oysters directly into the stew, most of aren’t in that position. You don’t need your own cattle farm to enjoy a good steak, either.
Don’t skimp on the oysters—life is short, and six per person is laughable. Allow at least one dozen per head. If possible, make the dish to order, and remember that some of the more aggressive components (Old Bay, Tabasco, Worcestershire) are essential for imparting a savory edge to the stew.
Here is my recipe. It’s an amalgam of the dozens out there, and it has been thoroughly tested. It may not be definitive, but I guarantee it (as Joe Namath used to say):
- 8 ounces (about 24) oysters
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon Old Bay
- Tabasco to taste
- 1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
- 1 small onion, diced
- 2 cups milk, hot (substitute heavy cream or skimmed milk, depending on your feelings about cholesterol)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Simmer celery and onions in butter until tender, add Worcestershire sauce, Old Bay, Tabasco and oysters, with their juice. Heat just until oysters begin to curl. Add milk. Season with Sherry, if desired. Serve steaming in bowls, garnished with paprika and toast rounds.
Serving Size: 4 appetizers or 2 entrees
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); for more information, go to amazon.com