I have a playlist on my computer titled "Snow Songs," which I put together many years ago while snowflakes as big as cotton balls drifted slowly past my apartment windows. The tracks on it are all wildly different, but each manages to capture, at least to my ear, the soothing calm that comes with such a soft, heavy snowfall. On it is Caetano Veloso's rendition of the Mexican ballad "Cucurrucucú Paloma," followed by Chaka Khan's piano-backed love song "Love Me Still." After that comes Erik Satie's Trois Gymnopédies, composed in 1888, and Led Zeppelin's "The Rain Song," which maybe should have been called The Snow Song. Each, in its own way, is both spare yet comforting—perhaps it's no accident that we describe snow as forming a blanket, a word that conjures nothing but coziness.
If I could pick just one dish to accompany that playlist, it would be oyster stew.
You'll see a lot of different oyster stew recipes out there. Some are thickened with flour, or enriched with cream, or flavored with bits of smoky bacon that make you think of a smoldering fire with every bite. Those are all good, but they're not quite the type I have in mind right now. The kind I want—the kind I find most comforting—is a little more lean, even verging on austere.
Now, don't run away just yet. This isn't some ascetic version of oyster stew made with skim milk or anything horrible like that. It's rich in its own way, thanks to a generous amount of butter and whole milk—that's the comforting part. But it's clean, too, unencumbered by pork fat and flour, allowing the oysters to deliver their full flavor of frigid, briny sea.
As you'll see here, oyster stew is really more of a soup, in the way a lot of fish stews are. It's not slow-cooked in the least. In fact, it's one of the quickest soups I know.
I start by dicing aromatic vegetables, like onion, celery, and fennel if I have it. If I don't, I'll add a splash of Pernod right before adding the milk later.
Then I melt a generous pat of butter in a saucepan and cook the diced vegetables in it. A few sprigs of thyme or a bay leaf deepens the flavor. As soon as the vegetables are softened, but not even remotely browned, I add the milk and bring the mixture just to a simmer.
Then I slide in the oysters and their liquor.
You can shuck the oysters yourself, if you're up for it (if so, take a look at our guide to shucking, or check out the video below).
If not, you can use one of those pop-top tubs of pre-shucked fresh oysters that most fishmongers sell. In cooked dishes, a lot of the finer nuances of freshly shucked oysters are lost anyway, so you won't be making much of a sacrifice in terms of flavor.
I cook the oysters, still at a bare simmer, just until they've firmed up and their edges curl. It doesn't take more than a few minutes.
A little salt, a little pepper, some fresh herbs—parsley, fennel fronds, tarragon, and chives all work—and it's ready. It's not thick like a clam chowder, or hearty like a beef stew, but a steamy bowl manages to soothe in its own perfectly restrained way. Snowstorm not required.