I first became familiar with Oysters Rockefeller as a young banquet server at a big convention hotel in New York City, where we served many of them at fancy receptions. They were made with bacon, spinach and a sort of Bechamel Sauce topping them. In the years since then, I’ve had them a few times, usually not with the bacon or Bechamel, almost always with spinach. It would be a couple of decades later before I learned this classic dish was invented right in my hometown of New Orleans.
Last spring, I had the opportunity to sample the originals at their source, Antoine’s, the venerable New Orleans restaurant, which also holds the record for being the nation’s oldest continuously owned and operated eatery, owned and operated by the Alciatore family since 1840. Eating at Antoine’s is like stepping back in time, and I highly recommend it for the historical experience. And if you do dine at Antoine’s, you must order the Oysters Rockefeller.
Antoine’s guards their recipe very closely. It definitely does not contain spinach or bacon, but is said to contain parsley, celery and scallions. Tom Fitzmorris offers his recipe for the dish, in his book Hungry Town: A Culinary History of New Orleans (and I’ve included it here for you), which he reports, the fifth generation proprietor of Antoine’s calls “embarrassingly close” to the real thing.
Mr. Fitzmorris says it took him about 50 tries to match the flavor of Antoine’s recipe. So if you want to give it a try, I’d say he saved you a good deal of time and expense.
• 2 cups celery, chopped
• 1 1/2 cup scallion tops,chopped
• 2 cups parsley leaves, chopped
• 1 cup fresh fennel, chopped (bulbs,stalks and/or fronds are fine)
• 1 cup watercress, chopped
• 1/2 teaspoon garlic, chopped
• 3 anchovy filets, rinsed and chopped
• Liqueur from 4 dozen oysters plus enough water to make 2 cups of liquid
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 1/4 cup ketchup
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon white pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
• 1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
• 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
• 2 drops green food coloring (Fitzmorris says this is optional, but authentic)
• 1/2 pound butter
• 1 cup flour
• 1 1/2 cup very fine fresh bread crumbs
• 4 dozen oysters
Preheat oven to 450 degrees
1. Combine the vegetables and anchovies in small batches, and process to a near puree in a food processor, using enough of the oyster liquer/water mixture to keep things moving.
2. Combine the vegetable/anchovy mixture with the rest of the liquid in a saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring every now and then, until the excess water is gone, but the greens reman very moist. Add the sugar, ketchup, salt, white pepper, cayenne, Worchestershire, bitters and food coloring.
3. Make a blond roux with the butter and flour. Blend well into the greens, until the sauce takes on a lighter texture. Mix in the bread crumbs.
4. Place the fresh oysters into oyster shells, small ovenproof ramekins or gratin dishes. Top each oyster with a generous tablespoon (or more, if you like) of the sauce. Bake fifteen minutes, until the sauce barely begins to brown. Serve immediately.
Note: If you bake the oysters on shells, serve on a bed of rock salt to keep the shells steady.
Yield: 4 Dozen