Rolling into Carnival Season
By Marcelle Bienvenu
Here in Louisiana, we barely have time to take down the red and green Christmas decorations before putting up the purple, green and gold colors of Carnival season. On January 12 (otherwise known as Twelfth Night), just about everyone is lining up to purchase their King Cakes. Rather than queuing up, I find it much easier to order my King Cakes online at cajungrocer.com where they come in a varied assortment of flavors. Not only should you order one or more for your festivities, but you should also order some to send to your friends. Make your list NOW!
Ah, what can be better on a cold, blustery winter’s day but oysters, those salty, delectable bivalves that are a favorite treat in south Louisiana? During the cold months of winter, oyster luggers cruise the jagged shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico and the neighboring bays, harvesting the oyster beds.
When I see a bumper stick declaring “Eat Louisiana oysters and love longer,” I run straight to the nearest oyster bar. When I lived in New Orleans, there weren’t too many Fridays that didn’t find me bellying up, standing elbow to elbow with my fellow diners, at the marble counters behind which shuckers pried open countless numbers of oysters to fill the orders during the lunch hour. I had a favorite shucker who knew that I preferred the small ones and would not stop my line up of them until I finally gave him a nod when I had my fill.
I often watched purists slurp the oysters straight out of the shell with no adornments. Others, myself included, preferred to douse them in a custom-made sauce of ketchup, hot sauce, a splash of olive oil and a hefty dab of horseradish. Then there are those who like to squeeze lemon juice over their oysters, and crackers, more often than a cocktail fork, are the vehicles by which oysters get from the tray to mouth.
Nothing but cold beer will do to wash it all down.
I remember too, even further back in my life, when on Friday afternoons, Papa would visit his old friend, Frank “Banane” Foti who had a stand in St. Martinville where one could get roasted peanuts, fresh vegetables and freshly shucked oysters. Mr. Banane packed the oysters in small white cardboard boxes with wire handles, which Papa would then store in the refrigerator for a Friday night feast after the local high school football game. Papa, and usually a couple of uncles, would gather around the kitchen table. I was allowed to put my stool next to Papa and watch the ritual of the men mixing up their cocktail sauce in little paper cups. The white containers of cold oysters were passed around and around as the men jabbed the oysters, dipped them in sauce, and threw them down their throats. I watched in amazement, but then I was not quite ready to put the gray, slimy mollusks in my mouth. I did, from time to time, dip a couple of crackers in Papa’s cup of sauce into which he poured a little oyster juice.
But it wasn’t until I was well out of college and residing in the Crescent City did I experience a host of other oyster dishes at Antoine’s, Brennan’s, and Arnaud’s. And possibly, one of the greatest oyster experiences was when a neighbor invited me to a family gathering where they were prepared to open a sack of oysters and prepare them in a variety of delectable dishes. This repertoire should satisfy the craving of even the most insatiable oyster lover.
OYSTER AND ARTICHOKE CASSEROLE
Makes 12 appetizer servings
- 6 whole fresh artichokes
- 1 stick (1/4 pound) butter or margarine
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2/3 cups finely chopped green onions
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
- 1 pint oyster liquor
- Pinch each of ground thyme, ground oregano and marjoram
- Salt and cayenne to taste
- 6 dozen freshly shucked oysters
- Thinly sliced lemons sprinkled with paprika for garnish
Boil the artichokes in unsalted water until tender. Cool. Scrape the tender pulp from the leaves. Clean the hearts and mash together with the pulp. In a skillet, melt the butter or margarine and stir in the flour slowly and constantly until smooth and well blended. Add the green onions and garlic and cook until slightly wilted. Add the oyster liquor, thyme, oregano, marjoram, parsley, salt and cayenne. Simmer for 15 minutes. Add the oysters and cook slowly until the edges of the oysters curl. Add the artichoke mash and blend into the mixture. Spoon the mixture into individual casserole cups or scallop shells. Garnish with lemon slices and serve. This filling can also be put into small pastry shells, heated and served as hors d’ouevres.
There are several versions of Oysters Casino around. Some make it with a tomato-based sauce. This one was created by a chef friend and it has not a bit of tomato in it, but it is a superb dish that can be served as an elegant appetizer or as a late Sunday afternoon supper. Be sure to have crusty French bread to accompany it.
Makes 4 appetizer portions, or 2 main course servings
- 1/3 pound Italian sausage, removed from the casing and crumbled
- 1 cup finely chopped green bell peppers
- 1 cup finely chopped onions
- 1/2 cup chopped pimiento
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup cream sherry
- 1 cup half-and-half
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1 cup melted butter
- 1 pound grated sharp Cheddar cheese
- Salt and cayenne to taste
- 1 dozen freshly shucked oysters
- 4 slices cooked bacon
In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté the sausage, bell peppers, onions, pimiento, and garlic in the olive oil until the sausage has browned completely and the vegetables are soft. Add the sherry and half-and-half. Cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Dissolve the flour in the melted butter and add to the skillet. Stir until mixture has thickened. Add the cheese and mix well with the mixture. Season with salt and cayenne to taste. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature, then chill in the refrigerator until firm.
When ready to serve, place three oysters on a scallop shell or in a ramekin and bake in a 350 F. oven for about 5 minutes, or until the edges of the oysters curl. Top the oysters with the chilled sauce and a half slice of cooked bacon. Return to the oven and bake until sauce bubbles, or about 15 minutes.
Everyone has probably heard of and had Oysters Rockefeller, the famous dish created at Antoine’s in New Orleans and named after one of the wealthiest men in the United States, John D. Rockfeller. Antoine’s recipe has never been disclosed, but there are many versions served in and around the city. Here’s a rich soup I think you’ll enjoy on a cold night.
OYSTER ROCKEFELLER SOUP
Makes 8 servings
- 1 cup minced onions
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1/2 cup minced celery
- 3 cups chicken broth, in all
- 2 cups cooked and drained spinach, pureed in a food processor
- 2 pints oysters and their liquor
- 2 pints half-and-half
- 3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/3 cup cornstarch dissolved in 1/2 cup Pernod
- Salt and cayenne to taste
- 1 tablespoon anise seeds
- Lemon slices for garnish
Cook the onion, garlic and celery in one cup of the chicken broth for about 10 minutes, or until slightly soft. Add the pureed spinach and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the remaining chicken broth and the liquor from the oysters. Slowly add the half-and-half and blend well. Simmer over medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the cheese, whisking well. Thicken the mixture with the cornstarch dissolved in the Pernod.
When the soup is thick and hot, remove from heat and add the drained oysters. Season to taste with salt and cayenne. Add the anise seeds. Let stand for about 5 to 6 minutes before serving. Serve in soup cups or bowls and garnish with lemon slices.
When I was a child, Sunday dinner was served at noon, after everyone returned from church. After a meal of baked chicken, roast beef, rice dressing, sweet potatoes, green beans and pecan pie, everyone agreed they would never eat again. But surely as the sun sets, we would all be hungry again by the evening. Mama often made this quick soup, which we ate with crackers or toasted French bread.
Makes 6 servings
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoon flour
- 1 cup chopped onions
- 2 tablespoons minced parsley
- 4 dozen freshly shucked oysters and their liquor
- 1 quart boiling water or warm milk
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped green onions
Make a blond roux by combining the butter and flour in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir constantly for several minutes. Add the onions and parsley and continue stirring for two to three minutes. Strain the oyster liquor from the oysters and add this liquor to a quart of boiling water or the warm milk. Pour this mixture into the roux slowly, stirring constantly. When it begins to come to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer. Add the oysters and the butter. Cook until the edges of the oysters begin to curl. Season to taste with salt and cayenne. Add the green onions and serve immediately