On cool days I love to make chowders and fish stews. And, when it comes to seafood, I always engage my husband to help with the selection. Having grown up sailing the Gulf Coast and exploring all of its nooks and crannies, he is well versed in the subject and is especially knowledgeable about oysters. As a young child, his father would give oysters to clients every year for Christmas. He and his younger sister would happily accompany their dad to collect these delicacies, eating as many raw oysters as the amused boat crew would shuck for the little ones.
My go-to oyster stew is an adaption from two of my favorite men—my father-in-law, David Whitaker, and American restaurant critic, food journalist, cookbook author, and long-time food editor for the New York Times Craig Claiborne. Serve with classic oyster crackers as an accompaniment. This recipe is featured in my book Entertaining at Home.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup celery, finely chopped
3 tablespoons shallots, minced
1/2 cup dry sherry
3 cups whole milk
1 cup half-and-half
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1/4 teaspoon paprika
Salt and freshly ground black or white pepper to taste
1 pint shucked oysters, in their natural liquor
1/4 cup finely flat-leaf parsley, chopped
In a stockpot, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion, celery, and shallots. Cook until soft, 3 minutes.
Add sherry and bring to a low simmer. Gently stir in milk, half-and-half, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, paprika, salt, and pepper. Bring to a low simmer.
Add the oysters with their liquor and simmer until oysters start to curl, about 3 minutes. Do not overcook or the oysters will become tough. To serve, ladle the stew into heated soup bowls. Sprinkle with parsley, and serve with oyster crackers.
An Oyster Primer
Oysters are a lot like wine and reflect the flavor of their surroundings. When choosing oysters, rely on four of your senses.
Smell: Fresh oysters should smell crisp and briny, much like seawater. They should not smell fishy. Pre-shucked oysters should have no ammonia smell.
Sight: Look to see that the oysters are being kept on ice in a well-drained refrigerated case and that the shells are shut tight. You want a flat top and a deep cup (the bottom half). The deeper the cup, the more room for meat and brine.
Touch: Oyster shells are rough to the touch and may have barnacles. Toss oysters with excessive algae, seaweed, discoloration, or moss. These are signs of poor tank storage and water circulation.
Taste: Ask to taste the oysters, if possible. As a general rule, the Atlantic produces oysters with a sharp brininess and an intense hit of the fresh, cold sea. Pacific oysters are rarely salty and often taste complex and sweet. The combination of fresh water and salt water from the Gulf of Mexico contributes to the unique taste of a Gulf Coast oyster; as a general rule, they are larger and meatier than those from other coastal areas.
Photo Michael Hunter