My cooking students have heard this truism hundreds of times, but for rule-bound cooks, it really can’t be repeated often enough. For culinary historians, it is more than an invitation to color outside the lines: it’s a reminder that slavishly following the map is no guarantee of historical authenticity.
Sticking strictly to the bare bones of an eighteenth century recipe is no assurance that you are anywhere near eighteenth century cooking: just as singers in Mozart’s day were expected to ornament a song, cooks were expected to ornament a recipe.
In short, there’s nothing to be gained by making a recipe into a straitjacket.
Cooking is never static: ingredients change, the cook’s mood changes, and each of us brings an individual judgment to the pot that is a complicated mixture of experience, taste, prejudice, and the moment. There’s also the wildcard of outside influence.
While it’s usually a good idea not to ignore the map altogether, it’s also a mistake to deny individual instinct its proper place. If nothing else, it makes the trip more fun and often gives unexpected pleasure to the final destination.
Now that it’s oyster season again, one classic roadmap that’s on my mind and palate is creamed oysters. Whether they’re ladled straight from the pan over homey thick slabs of buttered toast or from a silver chafing dish into elegantly trimmed pastry cups, they’re a staple of Southern entertaining. Here in the Lowcountry, creamed oysters are the very essence of autumn’s table.
There are many traditional embellishments to this simple yet magical marriage of shellfish and cream: mushrooms, a scattering of green onions, or a splash of sherry, Worcestershire, or pepper sauce—all depending on where the oysters and the cook have come from, what’s in the pantry, and, often, who will be at the table.
Then there’s that wild card of outside influence. This wild care for my own creamed oysters is the influence of two very different cooks who by chance happened to work in the same place: a classic continental restaurant in downtown Savannah called La Toque. One of its signature specialties was escargots bathed in a luxurious sauce of leeks, brandy, and cream.
Conceived by the Swiss chef-owner in the classic French style, it underwent a startling and delicious transformation when a French-trained Vietnamese cook took over the kitchen and added ginger and garlic (and plenty of both) to the pan.
The restaurant is long gone, but I still dream about those escargots, and now, leeks, ginger, and whiskey have become an inseparable part of my creamed oysters. Now, these things are all familiar territory to Savannah cooks, and creamed oysters are kissing cousins to those escargots, but would a nineteenth century cook, lacking the influence of that Swiss and Vietnamese cook, have added them to the oyster chafing dish? It seems doubtful. But then again, since ginger, garlic and whiskey were all old hat to Savannah cooking, who is to say that they didn’t?
One thing is certain: no nineteenth century Savannahian would’ve thought them strange—and once you’ve tried it, you won’t, either.
Oysters in Leek and Bourbon Cream
Serves 4 as a first course, 2-3 as a main dish
1 pint shucked oysters
2 medium leeks, trimmed split lengthwise, and washed well
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large, or 2 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
2 quarter-sized slices fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons bourbon
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill
8 small (2-inch diameter) Hoecakes (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1. Set a sieve over a stainless or glass bowl and pour the oysters into it. Drain for at least 10 minutes. Reserve the liquor (you can freeze what you don’t use and use it in recipes calling for fish stock). Thinly slice the white and most of the tender greens of the leeks.
2. Melt the butter in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the leeks and sauté, tossing frequently, until wilted, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and continue sautéing until fragrant, about half a minute more. Add the bourbon and let it evaporate, then pour a cup of oyster liquor. Bring it to a boil and let it reduce slightly. Add the cream and bring it to a boil. Cook 2 to 3 minutes or until it is a little thicker than you want the finished sauce (the oysters will throw off moisture as they cook, diluting it). Turn off the heat. You may prepare it up to this point several hours in advance. Cover and refrigerate the oysters and sauce in separate containers.
3. Half an hour before serving, preheat the oven to 170° F. (or the “warm” setting). Put the hoecakes on a cookie sheet in a single layer and put them into the warm oven. Turn on the heat under the sauce to medium and bring it to a simmer. Add the oysters, a small pinch of salt (go easy, you can correct the salt later), and a liberal grinding of white pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until the oysters plump and their gills curl, between 1 and 2 minutes. Turn off the heat, and taste and adjust the seasonings.
4. Put 2 hoecakes per serving onto warmed individual serving plates. Spoon the oysters and sauce over them, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve at once.
Lemon Pepper Hoecakes
The original hoecakes were very simple griddle breads, consisting of little more than cornmeal, water, and salt. Whether or not it was actually baked on the blade of a hoe is lost in time. Today, it is griddle baked, and in the Savannah restaurants that have made it popular, its batter is generally enriched with milk, eggs, and melted fat.
Makes about 12, serving 4 to 6
1 cup stone-ground white cornmeal
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
The zest of 1 lemon
1 large egg, lightly beaten
About 1¼ cups whole milk buttermilk or plain, whole milk yogurt thinned with milk to buttermilk consistency
Melted bacon drippings, butter, or vegetable oil, for greasing the griddle
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven, place a large, baking sheet on it, and preheat to 170° F. (the warm setting). Whisk together the meal, soda, salt, pepper, and lemon zest in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg and buttermilk. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour in the liquids. Quickly stir them together. It should be moderately thick but still pour easily from a spoon: if it doesn’t, add a little more milk or water.
2. Warm a griddle or wide, shallow skillet over medium-high heat until it is hot enough for a drop of water to “dance” on the surface. Brush the griddle lightly with fat (if it smokes, the griddle is too hot—adjust the heat). Pour the batter in about a tablespoon-sized portion from the end of a large spoon (for larger cakes about 3 inches in diameter use a generous two tablespoons). The edges will sizzle and form lacy air bubbles.
3. Cook until golden brown on the bottom, turn, and cook until uniformly golden, about 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer the cooked hoecakes to the baking sheet in the oven as they are finished and repeat with the remaining batter until it is all cooked. Serve hot.