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Recipes and Stories

31 January 2019: Cold Weather Comfort and a Favorite Revisited

Oysters in Leek and Bourbon Cream, a variation of the old Lowcountry staple "Chafing Dish Oysters"

 

As January winds to a close, it's deep winter in Savannah, which means that the red buds, tulip (Japanese) magnolias, and wild violets are all beginning to bloom even though it's refreshingly cold and the temperatures are hovering at freezing every night.

 

But even though the landscape is trying to act as if it's spring, it's still bracingly cold and perfect cooking weather. It's also the height of the season for our local oysters. They're wonderfully briny and yet sweet, especially raw, but since they're the clustering type, they don't lend themselves to being presented on the half-shell.

 

What they do lend themselves to, and beautifully, is shucking and serving them ice-cold in a cocktail cup with crisp, horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce. They're also lovely simmered in stew and in that old Savannah winter party staple, "chafing dish" (creamed) oysters, which is oysters and sometimes mushrooms in a thick, rich cream sauce.

 

Of that latter, there are probably as many variations as there are cooks. My own version, inspired by a dish of escargots from a long-vanished local restaurant, is enlivened with sautéed leeks, garlic, ginger, and a splash of bourbon. Instead of serving them from a chafing dish with toast cups, I ladle them over small cornmeal griddlecakes (known down here as hoecakes).

 

It was one of the early recipes developed for New Southern Kitchen, and the dish that helped me woo and win the love of my life.

 

This week while researching for a newspaper column on romantic dining for two, that recipe popped up, reminding me sharply of how we evolve as cooks. Looking through the method, I was startled to realize that it was not the way I make it now. The structure and ingredients were the same, but there are subtle and (a few not-so-subtle) differences in the way I approach it now.

 

It also reminded me that it was time I made it again.

 

Oysters in Leek and Bourbon Cream

 

Adapted from my book New Southern Kitchen, this remains one of my favorite ways to cook Savannah's local briny-sweet cluster oysters. The original recipe served 4, but there's something intimate about this that makes me prefer to it when it's just the two of us. If you want to make it for more people, double everything but the butter (increasing that only by half a tablespoon) and bourbon (don't increase that at all).

 

Serves 2 as a first course

 

1 cup shucked oysters

1 medium leek (or ½ a large one)

1½ tablespoons unsalted butter

1 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced

1 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger root

2 tablespoons bourbon

1 cup heavy cream

Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill

4-6 Mini Hoecakes (recipe follows)

1 heaped teaspoon finely minced flat-leaf parsley

 

1. Set a sieve over a stainless or glass bowl, pour in the oysters, and let them drain for at least 10 minutes. Reserve the liquor to freeze and use as fish broth. Trim the roots and tough outer leaves from the leeks and split them lengthwise. Holding each half root end up, wash thoroughly under cold, running water, bending back each layer to get the dirt from between them. Slice the white and most of the tender greens.

 

2. Melt the butter in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the leeks and sauté, tossing often, until wilted, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and sauté until fragrant, 15-20 seconds more. Carefully add the bourbon and let it evaporate, then add the cream. Bring it to a boil and cook until it is a little thicker than a cream sauce, about 2 to 3 minutes. (The oysters will throw off moisture as they cook, diluting it.) Turn off the heat. It can be prepared to this point several hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate the oysters and sauce in separate containers.

 

3. Half an hour serving, preheat the oven to 170-200° F. (or the "warm" setting). Put the hoecakes on a rimmed baking sheet in one layer and put them in the oven. Return the sauce to the pan over and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. Add the oysters, a small pinch of salt and a liberal grinding of pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until the oysters plump and their gills curl, about 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.

 

Mini Hoecakes

Makes about 12 2-inch diameter hoecakes, serving 4 to 6

 

½ cup stone-ground white cornmeal

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

1 large egg, lightly beaten

About ¾ cup 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. If serving the hoecakes right away, position a rack in the center of the oven, place a large, baking sheet on it, and preheat to 170-200° F. (the warm setting). Whisk together the meal, soda, and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg and buttermilk. Make a well in the center of the meal, pour in the liquids, and quickly stir them together. It should be moderately thick but should still pour easily from a spoon: if it doesn't, add a little more milk.

 

2. Heat a griddle or wide, shallow skillet over medium-high heat. The griddle should be hot enough for a drop of water should "dance" on the surface, but not so hot that it vaporizes instantly. Lightly brush the surface with fat. Pour the batter in about a generous tablespoon-sized portion from the end of a spoon—enough to pool into cakes about 2 inches in diameter. The edges should sizzle and form lacy air bubbles. Cook until golden brown on the bottom, turn, and cook to a uniform brown, about 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer them to the baking sheet in the oven as they are finished and repeat with the remaining batter until it is all cooked. Serve hot.

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8 November 2017: Old-Fashioned Scalloped Oysters

Old-Fashioned Scalloped Oysters

Since fall is my favorite season for cooking, it shouldn’t take a mathematical genius to figure out that Thanksgiving is my favorite cook’s holiday. Normally, the second week in November would find me up to my elbows in planning—gathering recipes, happily mapping out every detail, stocking up on the basics.

And by the week of the feast, my kitchen is fragrant with a simmering broth pot, bubbling cranberry conserve, baking cheese straws, and toasting pecans. For the space of that week, no kitchen job—not even peeling brussels sprouts—seems tedious.

This year, however, my kitchen will be a lot quieter, not to mention less fragrant.  Read More 

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22 September 2017: Savoring Old New Orleans

Oysters Rockefeller at Galatoire's

Last weekend, it was my privilege to celebrate the publication of my latest book, Ham: A SAVOR THE SOUTH® Cookbook, at the Southeastern Independent Booksellers Association’s annual conference and trade show in New Orleans. The big event was sharing a panel moderated by Ashley Warlick with James Beard Award-winning author and dear friend Cynthia Graubart and new friends Melinda Risch Winans and Cynthia Lejeune Nobles (authors of The Fonville Winans Cookbook: Recipes and Photographs from a Louisiana Artist).

But the joy in the trip was a chance to savor some of old New Orleans and it’s legendary food in the company of lovely friends.  Read More 

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1 November 2016: Broiled Oysters

Broiled Oysters, Savannah Style, with Bacon and Green Onions

You’d not think so if you were in Savannah today, where temperatures climbed into the eighties, but we’re now into the traditional oyster season, the “cold weather” months (or, around here, just the months with an R in them).

That season’s not as strenuously observed these days, since refrigeration has made it possible to safely harvest, store, and ship oysters in warmer weather. But Savannahians tend to wait for it anyway, since oysters (especially our local cluster variety) tend to be flabby and murky-tasting while spawning, which happens mostly during the summer months, when the waters in which they live are warm. Read More 

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25 September 2015: Bonnie Gaster’s Perfect Fried Oysters

Bonnie's Perfect Fried Oysters

Whenever I get the chance to spend time in good friend Bonnie Gaster’s Tybee Island kitchen (which isn’t often enough) I know that whatever we do will be a lot of fun and the results will taste fabulous. She’s a fabulous cook who does it with the kind of abandon that Julia Child admired and a keen natural palate that always keeps that abandon in good order. Read More 

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24 October 2014: Broiled Oysters on the Half Shell

Broiled Oysters Savannah

One of the best things about autumn on the Georgia and Carolina coast is that our briny-sweet oysters come into season. Though the old maxim about harvesting them only in months with an R is no longer really observed, savvy locals know that local oysters are at their best when the weather cools and they're past their summer spawning. Read More 

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24 December 2013: Christmas Eve Oyster Stew

Buttery oyster stew is not particularly photogenic, but it's awfully good to eat. Don't neglect to use plenty of butter: this is celebration food, for goodness sakes!

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Nothing stirs memories of the Christmases of my childhood more lucidly than Doris Day singing “Silver Bells.” Yet the memories conjured have nothing to do with city sidewalks, but of the rolling, red-clay fields and pastures of Grassy Pond, the farm community where we lived until I was ten.

There wasn’t one single silver bell, red and green blinking street light, or rushing shopper for miles. Read More 

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19 November 2012: Mastering Thanksgiving VI—Tradition and Oysters

Lucy-Mama's Oysters

This morning my own stock pot came off the pantry shelf and I set to work cleaning and slicing carrots, celery, onions and gingerroot. Deciding to give the broth a little extra color and depth of flavor, I tossed my hoard of turkey wings and necks into a large roasting pan, lightly coated them with oil, and set them to roast in a hot oven (425° F. for about 45 minutes).

While that was going on,  Read More 

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2 October 2011 Oysters In Leek and Bourbon Cream

Oysters in Leek and Bourbon Cream. Photography by John Carrington
Recipes are a roadmap, not a destination.
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. Read More 
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19 September 2011: Veal Scallops with Oysters and Bacon

Lowcountry Veal Scallops with Oysters and Bacon, photography by John Carrington
One of the great, sumptuous splurges of autumn in the Carolina/Georgia Lowcountry, as our oysters come into season, is their pairing with veal cutlets. Given the prices that veal fetches these days, it’s hard to imagine that such a thing has not always been a splurge. Read More 
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