Holiday tradition

I don’t really get into the commercialized Christmas–in fact, it’s definitely a bah humbug time of year as far as I’m concerned, but I do have some holiday traditions that I observe. As you might guess, food is involved in at least one of them.

Photo of the top of an oyster

from Wikipedia

It’s not holiday time without oysters. On Christmas eve and for New Year’s eve or New Year’s day. This tradition goes back more years that I’ll admit–to childhood. I’ll eat oysters almost any way you put them in front of me; the only way I don’t like them is overcooked–which happens all to often with oysters. So, I usually eat my oysters at home where I can cook them myself.

My usual Christmas eve oysters are something that I learned from my grandmother–she called it oyster stew, but I soon learned that what she did was a far cry from what most people call oyster stew. I’d be reluctant to consider eating oyster stew  at most restaurants.  I’d be expecting (and probably get) a bowl of milk and perhaps, with luck, an over-cooked oyster or maybe three, and those weird little crackers.

I guess I really shouldn’t call what make for myself oyster stew–there are way too many oysters and not enough milk–it’s really just some oysters poached very gently in cream with some seasonings.

One of my holiday rituals is deciding what I’m going to use for seasoning with the oysters this time around.  Although oysters, cream, a black peppers, and a bit of salt is always good, it is fun to try different combinations.  I’ve use chilli peppers to spice things up a bit, or Pernod and/or fennel with oysters.  I still have a few days to decide what it will be this year.

While I’ve been skulking about the web looking for unique ideas, I found a delightful blog that I need to share with other oyster lovers out there:  The Oyster’s my World.  There is a great list of informational books, websites, and even oyster-related apps here–a good starting place if you wish to explore the world of oysters.

Now, back to the web to “design” the oyster dish for this Christmas eve, and to select an appropriate wine.

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Poached fish

This is so simple, and so easily adapted to cooking for one that I just had to share it.

Rufus' Food and Spirits Guide

Poaching fish is my favorite way to cook fillets. The liquid used can be very simple or very complex. Sometimes I will reduce it into a sauce afterward, and sometimes I like to leave it as a thin broth. This recipe is very quick and is perfect for a nice weekday meal or second course in a large dinner party. Always use fresh fish with firm flesh.

I like to buy whole fish and fillet them myself. Then I use the bones and heads to make a quick fish stock. The butcher should be able to cut the fish into fillets for you if that is too much work.

Poached Fish

  • 1 1/2 lbs fish fillets, skin still on
  • 3 cups fish stock
  • 4 garlic cloves sliced into long slivers
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
  • Salt/pepper
  • 1 tbsp olive oil

Season fillets with salt and pepper. In a saute…

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Oyster-corn chowder

I’m an oyster lover!  One of the few Christmas traditions that I do keep is Christmas eve with Handel’s Messiah, and oysters in some form.  I got this tradition from my grandmother–Christmas was oyster time.  My uncle would drive to the coast and bring home a bushel of oysters on Christmas eve day.  We had oyster stew (more like poached oysters the way my grandmother made it) on Christmas eve, and fried oysters on Christmas day.  I don’t do the fried oysters, but I’ve staunchly held onto the tradition of having oyster “stew” of some sort on Christmas eve with friends who also love oysters.

I’m always looking for recipes for oyster chowder, or the like, so that I can try something new while oysters are in season.

This year’s oyster chowder is one of my absolute favorites from Jacques Pepin Celebrates (pp.19-21).  I’m so taken with this recipe that I wanted to share it with any of you out there who love oysters.  I think that you’ll also like the little cornbreads with it.

Oyster-and-corn chowder with small cornbreads 

Small cornbreads (8 individual servings)

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup sliced leek (or shallots)
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cornmeal
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
  • 1 large egg
  • 3 tablespoons milk

(To make preparation easier, you can combine all the dry ingredients ahead of time so that all you have to do is add the wet, mix, and spoon into muffin tins. )

Preparation

  • Preheat the oven to 425 ° F
  • Using 1/2 tablespoon of the butter, butter your muffin tins or pans.
  • Melt the remaining butter in a small skillet and sauté the leeks or shallots over medium heat about 90 seconds, and cool.
  • Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl
  • Add the wet ingredients:  egg, milk, and finally the sautéed leeks or shallots and stir well.
  • Divide among your pans.
  • Bake for 10 to 12 minutes until set and nicely browned.

Chowder

Ingredients

  • 3 dozen oysters, shucked with liquid retained
  • 3 cups corn kernels
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 medium leek, trimmed, quartered, and thinly sliced
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
  • 3 or 4 large garlic cloves, peeled, crushed and finely chopped
  • 3 cups milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon salt (more or less depending on the saltiness of the oysters)
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon minced chives

Preparation

  • Check the oysters, removing any shells, and return to the liquid
  • Heat the butter in a heavy pan, and add onion and leeks.
  • Sauté over medium heat for 3 or 4 minutes, or until translucent, but NOT browned
  • Add garlic, stir for 20 or 30 seconds until it smells fragrant.
  • Add milk and cream.
  • Bring to a boil. (You can quit here, cool, and hold in refrigerator until you’re ready to make the chowder.)
  • Bring back to a strong boil (if you’ve prepared this in advance).
  • Add corn (in winter, substitute frozen for fresh–I think that it’s better than supermarket corn-on-the-cob.  I particularly like the white shoe-peg kernels. For frozen, I rinse in a strainer under cold water and drain well to at least partially thaw it.)
  • Turn the heat down to medium to medium low–you do not want to boil this again now.
  • Add oysters and the oyster liquid.
  • Heat until the temperature reaches about 170 or 180 ° F  at the most.
  • If you’re not using a thermometer your want the edges of the oysters to just begin to curl.  Don’t boil it–the oysters will turn tough and harshly flavored.
  • Should any scum come to the surface, skim it away.
  • Add the chives, mix well, and serve with the cornbreads.

(This recipe is easily cut down or doubled, but I usually make the whole amount and just have it as the main course, with a salad (bitter greens, mesclun, and fruit and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano to follow).  I like champagne with this–as awesome treat for a special evening.

Variations:

  • Add some chipotle chili power or ancho chili powder to taste.
  • Add minced red bell pepper, and/or poblano for a red and green touch.  I would  not add green bell pepper to this as their flavor is too bitter/green  to complement the oysters.
  • Add minced ripe jalapeños or Serrano to give just a hint of heat.  This is not a chowder that you want to have much heat.  It should be gentle on the tongue!
  • Substitute shallots for the leeks.

A son goût!