Oysters Rockefeller is one of those legendary New Orleans French-Creole dishes that has wowed locals and visitors alike since 1899. The dish was created back then by chef and restaurateur Jules Alciatore of Antoine’s Restaurant to replace and somewhat mimic the restaurant’s popular Escargots a la Bourguignonne due to a shortage of French snails. The dish was named after the affluent John D. Rockefeller because of its profoundly rich sauce.
Although Antoine’s has never divulged its secret recipe, fifth-generation proprietor Roy Guste, Jr. devised a variation of the same to include in his cookbook, The 100 Greatest New Orleans Creole Recipes. In the footnote to that recipe, Guste explains that the version reflected in the book was developed “to produce the authentic taste of the original with the least amount of ingredients and effort.” It calls for patiently sauteing parsley, green onions and celery with a handful of aromatic seasonings over low heat to allow the vegetables to develop the “rich and marvelous taste for which [the dish] is so justly famous.” His recipe does not call for spinach or any type of anise-flavored spirit. As most locals know, the quintessential Oysters Rockefeller recipes do not include spinach. But I’m surprised by the exclusion of absinthe or some variation thereof like Herbsaint or Pernod. I thought for sure that was part of the classic preparation. Maybe it’s one of the secret ingredients he chose to leave out!
The recipe I’m sharing today is my family’s take on this NOLA classic. Our family jewel is simple by comparison. And although it’s spinach-based and liquor-free, our version is just as divine and just as important to me and my relatives as Jules Alciatore’s recipe is to the Antoine’s family. No family holiday or special occasion is complete without these magnificent bivalves!
Oysters Rockefeller Recipe
2 dozen fresh shucked oysters, with liquor and bottom shells reserved
2 sticks unsalted butter
2 bunches green onions, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 10-ounce package frozen, chopped spinach, thawed and drained
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup Italian bread crumbs, plus more for topping
Salt and black pepper to taste
Rock salt, for baking
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Pour oyster liquor into a measuring cup and add enough water, if necessary, to measure 1 cup of liquid. Heat oyster liquor in a medium saute pan over medium heat. Add oysters and poach until the edges curl, about 1 minute. Do not boil. Strain oysters, reserving the liquid, and set aside. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add green onions and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until tender, 3-5 minutes. Add spinach, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper. Cook an additional 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in bread crumbs. Gradually add reserved oyster liquor until mixture is moist but firm; set aside. Spread an even layer of rock salt about 1/2-inch thick onto a large oven-proof platter or rimmed baking sheet. Firmly set reserved oyster shells in salt (the salt stablizes the shells and keeps the baked oysters warm when served). Arrange one oyster on each half shell and spoon a generous 1-2 tablespoons of the spinach mixture on top (amount varies depending on size of oyster shell), spreading sauce evenly to outer edges of oyster shells. Sprinkle tops with additional bread crumbs. Bake until the sauce is bubbly and golden brown, about 15 minutes.* Serve immediately. Makes 4 main course or 6 appetizer servings.
*This dish can be prepared without the oyster shells. Simply place the poached oysters in individual ramekins or a casserole dish, top with the spinach mixture and bread crumbs and baked according to the recipe.