Just once were we far away from home on New Year’s Eve. It was at Key West and it was wild. We ate dinner at a restaurant. I don’t remember much of the dinner (it wasn’t the champagne, honestly, it wasn’t.) But it was the first time I’d tried creamy crème brulée. Remember, it was the early 70s, iceberg lettuce was the only lettuce in a supermarket and I’d never tasted oysters.
In the next few years, I added New York City to my geographical resumé and tasted lobster, Mexican food, Szechuan dishes and escargots. I began to write about restaurants, although still pretty green, but not that many people were “criticizing” food.
More important, I started to cook. I was the daughter of a woman who didn’t cook and I had married a man whose mother did cook but hated it. I had seen a way to nurture my husband. I loved to cook and I was fearless in the kitchen. My husband loved my food. We had to go out to eat. I was paid to go out to eat, but my real laboratory was my kitchen.
After that New Year’s Eve, and one at the “21” in Manhattan, our New Year’s Eve was at home or at friends’ home. The following day, my husband always made oyster stew for dinner. Now that I am husbandless, I still make oyster stew, but I no longer have to shuck them. Instead I go to one of the many fish markets in our area and get the shucked oysters and a pint or more of their “liquor.”
Oysters Rockefeller Stew
From “Chowder land” by Brook Dojny (Storey Publishing, N. Adams, MA, 2015)
Yield: 4 servings
4 ounces bacon, cut into one-inch pieces (about 1 cup)
2 tablespoons butter, plus more if needed
1 large leek, cleansed, thinly sliced (white and pale green parts only)
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
One-eighth teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cups bottled clam juice of seafood broth
1 cup water
2 pints shucked oysters with its liquor, cut in half if large
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce (I would use way less)
2 cups heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
4 ounces baby spinach, thinly sliced (about 3 cups)
1 tablespoon medium-dry sherry (never use cooking sherry)
Cook bacon in large heavy soup pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat until crispy and fat is rendered, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove cooked bits with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towels and reserve. You should have 2 tablespoons of fat in the pot; if there is too much, pour some off; if too little, make up the difference with additional butter.
Add butter to pot and cook leek and celery over medium heat until softened but not browned, about 8 minutes. Stir in cayenne. Add clam juice and water and bring to a simmer.
Add oysters and Worcestershire and cook over low heat until edges of the oysters begin to shrink and curl at the edges, about 2 minutes. Stir in cream and season with salt and pepper to taste. If there is not enough liquid, add a bit more water. Let sit at room temperature for at least an hour, or refrigerate overnight.
Reheat over very low heat so the stew does not curdle and stir in spinach; cook for 2 minutes, or until spinach wilts. Stir in sherry, ladle into soup bowls and sprinkle with reserved bacon.