During this time of year, Louisiana Gulf oysters are at their peak with a balanced flavor of salty-sweet and a silky texture with a meaty bite. Their subtle goodness adapts well to all kinds of preparations and ingredients, which is why they’re figured into so many New Orleans holiday menus. My relatives celebrate the season with oysters eaten raw, Rockefellered, fried and even chargrilled. But the dish that reigns supreme has and always will be Oyster Dressing.
I’m the fourth or fifth generation to be making this wonderful dressing which comes together with only a handful of ingredients that enhance, and in no way overshadow, the oyster’s delicate flavor. It’s constructed with the likes of butter, onions and garlic, thickened with New Orleans French bread and moistened with oyster liquor–that flavorful juice found inside the oyster shells and captured in the containers transporting them from shore to store. All of that produces a deliciously creamy side. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, I crave the warmth and familiarity of this dish almost as much as the dish itself.
When purchasing ingredients for this dressing, keep in mind that one pint of Louisiana oysters contains around two dozen oysters. That ratio can vary significantly with other types of oysters. Okay, the actual number of oysters is not really important here since the oysters are chopped. But there’s no time like the present to point out its significance in other recipes that rely on a certain number of oysters per serving. And that precious oyster liquor? It’s packed with flavor. So make sure to incorporate it into the dish. If you end up short of the 1 cup called for in the recipe (see instructions), simply add water or chicken broth. I don’t recommend using canned seafood stock or bottled clam juice because those flavors are distintively different from the oyster. But I do have two arguments to support my chicken broth suggestion. One, it’s very mild. And two, it mimics that turkey-dripping effect you’d get if you cooked the dressing in the bird–which, I regret, few people do anymore. With respect to the bread, I know not everyone has access to New Orleans French bread. The best substitute is probably a French baguette, although you might need to double the amount called for in the recipe since a typical loaf of French bread is at least twice the diameter of the average baguette. And one more thing. In New Orleans, we always refer to this seasonal specialty as Oyster “Dressing” whether it’s tucked into a bird or baked in a casserole dish. The word stuffing is usually reserved for that boxed item called Stove Top. Happy Feasting!
Oyster Dressing Recipe
1 pint oysters (reserve oyster liquor)
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 small onion, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 8 to 10-inch-long piece of stale French bread*
1 cup reserved oyster liquor (or part oyster liquor, water and/or chicken broth)
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon parsley flakes
1/4 cup Italian bread crumbs, plus more as needed
Salt and black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Strain oysters over a bowl to remove grit and separate them from the oyster liquor; reserve liquor. Chop oysters and set aside. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt 1 stick of butter. Add onions, green onions and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until tender, 3-5 minutes. While vegetables are cooking, pour oyster liquor into a 1-cup measuring cup and add enough cold water or chicken broth, if necessary, to measure 1 cup. Add oyster liquor and oysters to pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until oysters are heated through, about 3 minutes. Meanwhile, place bread in a colander under cold running water until moist; drain and squeeze excess water from bread. Tear bread into small pieces and gradually add to oyster mixture, stirring between additions, until you reach a very smooth and moist, but not soggy, consistency. If you run out of French bread before you reach this point, add bread crumbs one tablespoon at a time until the proper consistency is achieved. Remove dressing from heat and stir in egg and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon dressing into a buttered 2-quart baking dish. Sprinkle top with 1/4 cup bread crumbs and dot with reserved 2 tablespoons butter. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake until heated through, about 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 5 to 10 minutes, or until top is golden brown. Serves 6-8.
*If bread is not stale, lightly toast it in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes. Stale bread will hold more flavor without falling apart.