This simple oyster soup -- like several other “stews” in the South, it’s not a stew at all -- is a favorite up and down the Eastern seaboard. In New England, the dish is likely to include bacon and shallots; around the Chesapeake Bay, egg yolks and ham are used.
In "Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking" (University of North Carolina Press, 1989), the author wrote, “A basic Southern oyster stew highlights the simplest ingredients: 3 parts milk, 1 part heavy cream, heated, with 2 parts shucked oysters added and poached lightly, seasoned only with fresh black pepper and whole butter –- salted crackers the only accompaniment.” He then proceeded to give a more elaborate version made with onion, celery, rice, chicken stock, watercress and scallions.
Oyster liquor is the briny, grayish liquid from inside the shell; some shucked oysters are packed in their own liquor. Shucked oysters are more readily available as the fall season gets underway. If a fishmonger shucks the oysters for you, let him know you need the liquid for this recipe.
Serve with a Pouilly-Fumé or a chardonnay from Monterey or Santa Barbara.
Yield: Makes generous first-course servings
- 2 pints freshly shucked oysters, drained, with their liquor reserved (about 1 dozen)
- 1 1/2 to 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 1/2 to 2 cups half-and-half
- Hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco (optional)
- Salt (optional)
- Worcestershire sauce (optional)
- 2 or 3 slices cooked, crumbled bacon, preferably an old-fashioned cure
- About 3/4 cup finely diced vegetables, preferably a mix of cucumbers, carrots, celery, leeks and fennel
- Salted butter, at room temperature, for serving (optional)
- Dill fronds, for garnish (optional)
Drain the oysters and reserve the liquor. Taste to determine the liquor's level of saltiness.
Combine the oysters and equal quantities of the cream and half-and-half in a large saucepan over medium heat. Season lightly with hot pepper sauce (to taste). Add just enough of the oyster liquor for flavor and volume; salt might not be necessary, but if you do add it, start with 1/4 teaspoon.
Cook uncovered for 10 to 14 minutes or until the oysters are plump and the edges begin to curl. Add Worcestershire sauce to taste, if desired.
Divide among small bowls and garnish with the crumbled bacon and thinly cut vegetables. If desired, add a dollop of sweet butter and some freshly snipped dill.
From cookbook author John Martin Taylor (a.k.a. Hoppin' John).
Tested by Dean Felten.
Email questions to the Food Section at email@example.com.