Why It Works
- Using fresh herbs instead of spinach brightens up this classic New Orleans dish and deepens the flavor.
- Cooking the vegetables separately from their greens results in a vibrantly colored topping rather than the usual sad army green.
- Broiling instead of baking the oysters ensures they brown on top without overcooking.
There aren't many dishes that have a clear-cut origin story. When researching recipes, we're used to parsing a lot of folklore and conjecture, with the hope of understanding more about the food we're cooking by finding out where it got its start. Most of the time this ends up being a fun but futile exercise—maybe French duck à l'orange actually came from Italy, or maybe not. But there are a few iconic dishes we can track back to a source. Oysters Rockefeller is one of those dishes.
We know the dish was invented by Jules Alciatore at Antoine's restaurant in New Orleans in 1889. There is one problem though: To this day we still don't know what exactly is in the original oysters Rockefeller. The story goes that Jules needed to find a more affordable and readily available alternative to French escargots, and he decided to tweak the popular snail preparation by pairing it with native Gulf oysters. It's a secret recipe guarded to this day by the owners of Antoine's with the same vigor as Colonel Sanders's blend of 11 herbs and spices. We know oysters Rockefeller is an incredibly rich (what's in a name?) dish of oysters on the half-shell topped with a buttery green sauce and then roasted or broiled. Every non-Antoine's rendition of the dish is an approximation. And in some ways, that's liberating. When nobody else can claim to make the "true" version of a dish, you don't have to worry as much about getting it totally right.
While we may never know the exact ingredients in Antoine's oysters Rockefeller, it's fun to play culinary Carmen Sandiego and make some educated guesses. The main matter of debate is whether or not the green color of the topping is achieved with the help of spinach. According to representatives from Antoine's, spinach is not an ingredient in the original Rockefeller. This jibes with the snail story—escargots are usually cooked with a garlic and parsley compound butter, not spinach.
In 1986, the writer William Poundstone snuck a couple Rockefeller oysters out of Antoine's and had them analyzed in a lab. The results indicated the topping did include parsley, as well as celery and green onions. Thanks to the excellent food podcast Proof, I now know celery was the it vegetable of the Victorian era, so it makes sense that it would be used in a well-heeled restaurant dish of that time. Absinthe was also popular in New Orleans then, and I came across old menus in my research that indicate it was a common ingredient in oysters Rockefeller before it was made illegal in 1915. Absinthe is legal again, so we might as well use it, no?
After picking through historical tidbits like these, I cobbled together my best-guess version of classic oysters Rockefeller and then went off-book to make a Mexican-inflected version of my own. If every version of this dish is wrong, I figured we might as well celebrate that.
How to Make Classic Oysters Rockefeller
Make Some Green
For my take on oysters Rockefeller, I use the classic escargots compound butter of shallots, garlic, and parsley as a starting point. My research helped inform my additions of green onions and celery (I’m trying to get on that Victorian bougie vegetable tip), and fennel provides a fresh vegetal complement to the anise notes of absinthe. I temper the alliums' bite by cooking the garlic, shallot, and scallion first in order to not overwhelm the flavor of the oysters themselves. Because we want the topping to end up being a vibrant, rather than an army, shade of green, it's important to break up the process for the topping. First, by cooking the sturdier vegetables to soften and mellow them and then incorporating raw green herbs into the mix in the food processor.
The first step is to sweat garlic, shallots, fennel, celery, and scallion whites in butter. The goal here is to gently cook the vegetables, softening them while also drawing out their natural sweetness as well as water content. Seasoning them early in the cooking process with a healthy pinch of salt helps speed up this process. Make sure you take the time to fully cook down these aromatics, otherwise you will end up with a loose and watery Rockefeller topping.
Once the vegetables are soft and their moisture has evaporated, remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in a tablespoon of absinthe (you can substitute Pernod or Herbsaint here). In order to preserve absinthe's intense anise notes, I don't cook the alcohol off at all; for this reason a little bit goes a long way. If you aren't into anise, or don't drink alcohol, you can obviously leave this step out.
Next, I transfer the mixture to a food processor, process it to a coarse paste, and then let it hang out for a few minutes to cool down slightly. I always like to blend or process vegetables while they are still hot because they break down more readily, giving you a smoother result while also putting less stress on the motor of your appliance.
It's now time to incorporate the greenery. Along with the requisite parsley (again, this dish originated as a riff on traditional escargots, which is all about butter, garlic, and parsley), I add the green parts of the vegetables that I cooked down earlier—fennel fronds, celery leaves, and sliced scallions. I process it all together just until the herbs are broken down and incorporated into the cooked vegetable paste. Then, with the food processor still running, I gradually add room temperature butter, one tablespoon at a time, until fully emulsified. At this point the mixture should be the consistency of a loose pesto.
Finally, in go some panko breadcrumbs, which are processed just until the breadcrumbs are incorporated. The breadcrumbs act as a binding and thickening agent (think Spanish gazpacho) rather than as crunchy topping: Under the broiler, the panko helps stabilize the compound butter as it melts, keeping it from fully melting and breaking in the heat.
The compound butter needs to be seasoned with salt and pepper, but keep in mind the natural salinity of the oysters themselves; this is a situation where you want to be a conservative in your salt application. If you have disposable pastry bags, this is a great time to use them. Bag up the paste, or transfer it to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic onto the surface of the paste to prevent a skin from forming and the greens from oxidizing. With the topping squared away, it's time to get shucking.
Before busting out the oyster knife, turn on your broiler and position an oven rack in the highest position possible. Set up a rimmed baking sheet to place the oysters on. You have a couple options for doing that: You can either lay down an even layer of rock salt (sometimes labeled "ice cream salt") on a sheet tray, or you can crumple up a piece of aluminum foil.
Grab your properly stored and scrubbed oysters from the fridge, and get shucking, arranging the shucked oysters on the prepared sheet tray as you go. Once they're all shucked, it's time to cover them with the herb-butter topping. Pipe or spoon a heaping tablespoon of topping over each oyster, and then use a small offset spatula or a butter knife to spread it into an even layer, capping the oysters. Cover them evenly, since we want the topping to shield the oysters from the direct heat of the broiler, which will otherwise quickly overcook them.
The Broil Treatment
Pop the sheet tray in the oven, and broil the oysters until the topping starts to brown and the oysters are warmed through, which will only take a few minutes. While staring into an oven might not be your idea of fun, I wouldn't recommend walking away from the oysters at this moment. Home oven broilers are consistently inconsistent, and the last thing you want to do is burn the topping or hammer these beauties into chewy oblivion. I can't overstate how unpleasant overcooked oysters are to eat; please don't do it.
Remove the baking sheet from the oven, and serve up your Rockefellers. How you go about that depends on the type of company you keep and how fancy you want to be. You can just present them straight up on the baking sheet with lemon wedges, or if you are looking to class things up, transfer the oysters to a more attractive serving platter lined with rock salt.
January 09, 2019
8 tablespoons (4 ounces; 115g) unsalted butter, softened and divided
2 large shallots (4 ounces; 115g), thinly sliced
2 celery ribs (3 1/2 ounces; 100g), thinly sliced, plus 1/4 cup (1/4 ounce; 6g) celery leaves, divided
1/2 fennel bulb (3 1/2 ounces; 100g), cored and thinly sliced, fronds reserved
4 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 scallions (2 ounces; 60g), white and green parts divided and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon (15ml) absinthe (optional, see note)
3 cups (1 1/2 ounces; 40g) fresh parsley leaves
1/2 cup (1 ounce; 30g) panko bread crumbs
Rock (ice cream) salt (see note)
24 fresh oysters, scrubbed
Lemon wedges, for serving
In a medium (3-quart) saucepan, heat 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat until foaming. Add shallots, sliced celery ribs, fennel bulb, garlic, scallion whites, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft, have released all their liquid, and liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Off heat, stir in absinthe. Transfer mixture to food processor bowl.
Process vegetables, scraping down sides of food processor bowl as needed, into a coarse paste, about 30 seconds. Stop processor and add parsley, celery leaves, fennel fronds, and scallion greens to food processor bowl. Continue processing until herbs are broken down and well-combined with vegetable mixture, about 30 seconds. With food processor still running, gradually add remaining 4 tablespoons butter, making sure butter is emulsified into paste before adding more. Stop processor and add panko bread crumbs. Pulse mixture until bread crumbs are fully incorporated. Season to taste with salt, erring on the side of less salt, since the oysters are briny. Transfer mixture to disposable pastry bag or small mixing bowl, and set aside. If using a mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap, pressing plastic against surface of the paste to prevent skin from forming. If not serving immediately, mixture can be stored in refrigerator for up to 1 day; let sit at room temperature to soften before using, about 30 minutes.
Adjust oven rack to 6 inches below the broiler element and preheat the broiler on high. Line rimmed baking sheet with an even 1/2-inch layer of rock salt. Shuck oysters and arrange them on prepared baking sheet. Pipe or spoon butter topping over oysters, and then use an offset spatula or butter knife to smooth topping and fully cover each oyster.
Broil oysters, checking them frequently, until topping begins to brown and oysters are warmed through, 4 to 6 minutes. Serve immediately, passing lemon wedges at the table.
Absinthe is the original booze of choice for making oysters Rockefeller, but you can substitute other anise-flavored liqueurs, such as Pernod or Herbsaint. You can also leave alcohol out entirely.
If you don't have rock salt, don't fret. A scrunched-up piece of aluminum foil can also hold the oysters in place on the baking sheet during the broiling step. For serving, mix a couple lightly beaten egg whites with kosher salt to form a wet paste that you can perch the finished oysters on.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Topping can be refrigerated overnight. Always keep plastic pressed directly against the surface of the topping when storing it, to avoid allowing a skin to form. Let topping sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to fully soften before using it.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 5g||7%|
|Saturated Fat 3g||14%|
|Total Carbohydrate 6g||2%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||2%|
|Total Sugars 1g|
|Vitamin C 10mg||52%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|