I first tried this dish somewhere in America during my many miles travelled, but in all honesty, I haven’t tried it for many years. So while thinking about a recipe for the February issue of our paper, it hit me like a lightning bolt: February being the month of love, why not present your loved one with something super special and super easy to make – plus being an aphrodisiac?
One thing that brings credibility to the oyster myth 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 and oysters happen to be loaded with it.
In 1850, Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana, made a specialty dish of snails called snails bourgignon. The restaurant, located on Rue St. Louis in the New Orleans French Quarter, was opened in 1840, and Antoine’s is the United States’ oldest family-run restaurant. By 1899, when Jules Alciatore took over the business, the taste for snails had subsided. Still, he 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 were rarely cooked before this time). According to legend, it is said that a customer exclaimed with delight after eating this dish, “Why, this is as rich as Rockefeller!” And so introduced the name “Oysters Rockefeller.”
This is my play on what is a very closely-guarded secret.
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 part)
1 tablespoon finely chopped flat leaf parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons homemade bread crumbs
Tabasco sauce to taste
¼ 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 1½ 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, then remove the oysters. Dispense with the top shells, scrub and dry the bottom shells. Drain the oysters, keeping the oyster liquor (set aside).
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 ovenproof plate or platter with a layer of rock salt about 1-inch deep, and 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 of them; you really don’t want them burnt.
Garnish the plates or platter with the parsley sprigs and the lemon wedges. Serve immediately, and dine with pleasure!
Ian Leatt, a former chef in Jersey, the Channel Islands, is general manager at Pegasus Publications Inc.