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.
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.