Winter has begun, and its serene and quiet atmosphere becomes an inspiration to the classic velvety oyster stew. But, how to make this classic more seasonal? That was probably 2015 James Beard Foundation nominee Steven Satterfield‘s question when he switched potatoes for the winter crop sunchoke in this delicious recipe from his cookbook Root to Leaf: A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons. (Click here to learn more about Steven.)
What is the function of the sunchoke in this recipe? This is kind of a traditional recipe, but the sunchoke and celery leaf update it and make it feel more modern. Think of it as a seasonal chowder. Instead of potato, however, the sunchoke takes this role in the stew.
If I can’t find sunchokes, what can I substitute for it in this recipe? I have actually made this with parsnips and also with salsify, and the stew is just as delicious. Of course, potato will work also, but I think it is more interesting to try to work in some of the more unusual roots rather than the predictable.
What should I focus on while preparing this dish to have a good result? I think the viscosity of the soup is important. Some oysters have more liquor than others, so if the stew seems a little thick, thin it out with a bit of milk before serving. Also it is very important to pay attention to the texture of the vegetables. Do not add the oysters until the texture of the sunchokes are tender. If they are crunchy, you need to let the soup simmer a bit longer before the oysters are added. Once they are in, you don’t really want to continue to cook the stew.
Oyster Stew with Sunchokes and Celery
8 servings (8 cups)
- 2 dozen shucked oysters with liquid
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 large yellow onion, finely diced (about 2 cups)
- 2 ribs celery, finely diced (about 1 cup)
- 1 pound sunchokes, scrubbed clean and cut into 1⁄4-inch dice (about 4 cups)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1⁄4 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Cayenne pepper
- Roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley and celery leaves
- Benne Seed and Country Ham Oyster Crackers (Recipe below)
Place a wire-mesh strainer over a medium bowl and drain the oysters, reserving the liquor. Inspect the oysters and remove any bits of shell and set aside.
In a medium saucepan, over medium heat, warm the milk and cream just until simmering. Turn off the heat and cover with a lid to keep warm. In a large Dutch oven over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter until foamy. Add the onion, celery, sunchokes, and 1 teaspoon of the salt, stirring well to coat. Cook, stirring often, until the onion is tender and translucent, 8 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetable mixture. Cook for 2 more minutes, stirring well to cook the raw taste out of the flour. Slowly whisk in the warm milk and cream; bring the mixture to a low simmer, stirring often to keep it from sticking. Add the oyster liquor to the Dutch oven and continue to simmer until all the vegetables are tender. Be sure to taste a sunchoke to check for doneness.
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter until foamy. Add the drained oysters in a single layer. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Cook just until the oysters begin to curl around the edges and the gills are exposed. Immediately transfer the oysters and any liquid to the Dutch oven and stir to combine. Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand for 10 minutes. When ready to serve, ladle the hot stew into each bowl and sprinkle each with a pinch of cayenne pepper. Garnish the servings with freshly ground black pepper, parsley, celery leaves, and oyster crackers.
Benne Seed and Country Ham Oyster Crackers
- 2 cups crackers
- 1⁄4 cup benne (sesame) seeds
- 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for working with dough
- 1⁄4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 tablespoons chilled lard
- 1⁄2 cup loosely packed, finely chopped country ham
- 1⁄4 cup whole milk
- Heat the oven to 300°F. Spread the benne seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet and place on the center rack of the oven. Toast, checking frequently and stirring occasionally, until the seeds turn golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the chilled lard and work it into the flour mixture with your fingers, until the mixture resem- bles coarse meal. Add the country ham and sesame seeds and stir to combine. Stir in the milk and mix until all the ingredients are fully incorporated. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface, and knead 4 or 5 times. Dust the dough with a sprinkling of flour, then cover the dough with plastic wrap and allow it to rest for at least 1 hour, refrigerated.
Heat the oven to 400°F. Return the dough to the floured surface and roll out with a rolling pin as thinly as possible. The dough will have become dense and hard and may be a little crumbly. With a small pastry cutting wheel, cut the dough into 1⁄2-inch squares. Transfer them with a spatula to a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake until crisp and lightly browned, 12 to 15 minutes. Serve as a garnish with oyster stew.