Our annual survey of seafood in Southeast Louisiana comes to a close today, as we conclude a countdown of the 33 best seafood species enjoyed in our restaurants, seafood markets, and homes. For the full survey so far, click here. Or use the links at the bottom to move up and down the list. The entire survey will remain on line permanently.
The best assessment of how fine our local oysters are came from Richard Collin, in his last restaurant guide in the 1970s. He gave this recommendation:
Best Meal at the Acme Oyster House
One Dozen Oysters on the Half Shell; Beer
Better-Than-Best Meal at the Acme Oyster House
Two or Three Dozen Oysters on the Half Shell; Two or Three Beers
Yep. The only thing better than oysters is more oysters.
Oysters are, to my palate, the most delectable of all the seafood that comes our way in New Orleans. That has been especially true this year. Even while the oyster fishermen rebuild their beds after surges of freshwater killed a lot of them last year in the battle against BP oil, the oysters that remain have been unusually meaty, firm, salty and delicious.
Oyster connoisseurs agree that the best way to eat them is immediately after the shell is opened. Raw oysters on the half shell, despite all warnings about the dangers they present to our health, are the standard presentation. The health warnings are true, although most of the problems affect a small minority of the population.
The resource is so easily available that our cooks have dreamed up hundreds of ways to prepare them. Oysters appear in appetizers, soups, salads, seafood entrees, meat entrees. . . everything but dessert. My own favorite cooked oyster dish is oysters Bienville, above. (This batch was at Keith Young's Steak House.)
Oysters are seasonal, but refrigeration on boats and trucks long ago eliminated the need to avoid oysters in non-R months. That said, it must be noted that oysters reach a low point in July, when the warm water makes them leaner than in the cooler months. They shrimp a lot in cooking then. In early summer, the liquor in the shell can get milky--a function of the spawning cycle. Neither of these effects is harmful, and only slightly impact enjoyment.
I admit to a local-pride aspect to my love of our oysters. But I've had oysters wherever I've traveled, including the famed Blue Points, Belons, Malpeques, Kumamoto, and Olympia oysters. None of them shows me anything that I find lacking in our oysters at their peak. On the other hand, all of those are much smaller than ours, are expensive, and typically sold a few at a time. To hell with them.
Beyond being delicious, our oysters represent a value. On a weight-per-dollar basis, there is no less expensive seafood. All of this adds up to what, for me, is the Number One seafood resource we have.
This was created at Commander's Palace by Sebastian "Chef Buster" Ambrosia, who might have the best name I ever heard for a chef. For many years, Chef Buster hosted a cooking show on WWL Radio. He served this dish in every restaurant he headed, and it was always the best dish in that restaurant at the time. It's as Creole as something can be: seafood with a brown sauce. "It's good, hearts!" as Chef Buster would say.
- 4 dozen big oysters
- 2 Tbs. Creole seasoning
- 1 cup flour
- 2 sticks butter
- 2 cups red wine
- 1 quart strong beef stock
- 6 bay leaves
- 1 Tbs. chopped garlic
- 1/4 cup Worcestershire
- 1 tsp. Crystal hot sauce
- 2 cups flour
- 1 Tbs. salt
- 2 chopped green onions
- 8 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- Vegetable oil for frying
1. Drain the oysters and collect the water. Sprinkle the oysters with the Creole seasoning, and toss around to coat uniformly. Put them in the refrigerator while making the sauce.
2. In a saucepan, make a medium-dark roux with the butter and flour, taking care not to burn it. When the roux has reached the right color, add the red wine and bring it to a boil while stirring.
3. After the wine boils for a minute, add the beef stock, strained oyster water, bay leaves, and garlic. Whisk to dissolve the bits of roux that will be floating around. Lower the Bring the pot up to a simmer and let it cook and thicken for about 45 minutes.
4. Add the Worcestershire and the hot sauce, plus salt and black pepper to taste. Simmer another ten minutes, at most, while you're preparing the oysters.
5. Get the oysters from the refrigerator and coat them with flour seasoned with the 1 Tbs. salt. Fry the oysters till golden brown, about two minutes. Don't add so many that the oil temperature drops radically. Drain after frying.
6. Spoon some of the sauce into a bowl and toss the oysters around in it to coat them well. Place six oysters on a plate and top with some green onions and parsley.
Opulent option: Add some lump crabmeat to the bowl when tossing the oysters in the sauce, and serve them both together.
Makes eight appetizers or four entrees.