There are certain books in my cookbook collection that I never actually cook from, despite having read them cover to cover. M. F. K. Fisher's The Art of Eating is one of them. I love that book, love reading it, that is, but I've never made any of the recipes. The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is another one. What the two books have in common is that the recipes are just sort of addendums to the real meat of the book, which is the memoir. But then Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking is sort of like that too, and yet I have made lots of stuff out of that book. I dunno. Maybe it's just that Toklas' recipes are so vague, and written in such an old-fashioned way, that I am a bit intimidated by then.
But recently, I was sitting in my favourite chair hiding from the children after a long day spent with them, and reading the chapter in Alice B.'s book called Food in the United States, all about how she travelled with Gertrude Stein on a lecture tour and all the wonderful things that people gave them to eat in restaurants and in homes. I came across a recipe that just happened to use four of the herbs that I currently have growing in my garden, and I couldn't resist giving it a try. The recipe was for Oysters Rockefeller and Alice B. got it from the cook in a small unnamed restaurant in New Orleans (she specifically mentions that it was not the famed Antoine's).
The fact that the recipe called for tarragon, parsley, basil and chives convinced me that I had to make them, even if raw oysters are more suitable for this time of year than baked ones are, and despite not having a proper oyster shucking knife.
Six Pacific oysters bought at Fisherman's Wharf, Victoria:
Because we have no oyster knife, I was a little scared of shucking these beauties myself. Lucky for me, my spouse was eager to give it a try, so I let him. First he scrubbed,
then painfully, carefully, shucked, using two different chisels and two different screwdrivers.
The instructions in The Joy of Cooking were apparently no good, but the ones given here were much better. The key, says Tobias, is "knowing that it can be done". It's a mental game between you and the oyster, and if you let him think he's going to win, he will. So just remember: you can do it!
(Those with oyster knives and/or experience will presumably avoid the shucking-related strife).
Rather than sit in the kitchen biting my nails and backseat shucking, I went to gather the herbs. I intended to pick parsley, tarragon, basil, chives, and chervil. In the end I ended up buying basil, because our basil harvest is so small, and using dried chervil, because we didn't plant any this year (I got confused with last year) and the grocery store was out of it. I also bought the spinach and some parsley to supplement my homegrown stuff. But I used strictly our own tarragon and chives, I promise!
Building the oysters
To make Oysters Rockefeller, first preheat an oven-proof dish filled with sand or rock salt. Then rest your oysters in their half shells on the hot sand or salt and, in Alice B.'s words, "cover them thickly with 1/2 chopped parsley, 1/4 finely chopped raw spinach, 1/8 finely chopped tarragon, 1/8 finely chopped chervil, 1/8 finely chopped basil and 1/8 finely chopped chives".
This instruction, to me, was pretty unhelpful, since she only gives proportions of the various green things, with no mention of roughly how much you might need per oyster. I ended up just chopping lots of stuff and throwing it in a big bowl, and I made way too much. In future, I would suggest that you want to end up with about 1-2 tablespoons of the herb mixture per oyster, depending on the size of the oysters. If you make too much, don't pile on the herbs to use them up. I did this, and it was a mistake.
Then, pat on some bread crumbs which you have lightly seasones with salt and pepper, and dot (or, in my case, smear) with butter.
Then, bake at 450 degrees for about five minutes and serve hot.
We paired this with a verdelho from Tyrrell's Wines in New South Wales. We had bought it to go with chicken the night before and were pretty nonplussed by that pairing, but with the oysters, I think the verdelho really came into its own. The fruitiness was a nice foil for the salty oysters (and see below re: oversalting).
You can Learn from My Mistakes!
Here are all the things I did wrong:
1. Kept the oysters in the fridge in a tightly sealed bag overnight. This can cause them to suffocate and die, and then they're no good. I was lucky that mine didn't die, as evidenced by the trouble they gave Tobias during the shucking. (Live oysters are difficult to open, dead ones are easy).
2. Made way too much of the herb mixture, and didn't chop it finely enough. Next time I will make only about 1 1/2 tablespoons of mixture per oyster, and I will put it in the processor to make it pastier.
3. Put too much salt in the breadcrumbs. Next time I will use maybe 1/2 teaspoon for six oysters.
4. Scoffed at the idea of buying an oyster knife. Next time I will bite the bullet and get one!
5. Didn't read the instructions carefully re: preheating the pan with the sand or salt. This meant that the cooking time wasn't long enough, and I had to put them back in the oven for a second go.
All that said, I want to try making these again soon, and I have an idea that I hope will prove to be a good one. Now that I have the shells, I can buy preshucked oysters and just plop them on the shells that I already have. Genius! With the time saved by not shucking, this dish becomes fairly quick to make, with the most time being spent in the rather pleasant task of picking the herbs.
I best give Alice B. the last word here. She says, of this recipe, "It makes more friends for the United States than anything I know."
This was, of course, before California wine was as popular as it is now.