food: Crowning glory

The Rockefeller of the bi-valve world; Well blow me down, there I was on Rue St Louis, with Antoine's just down the street. It was imperative that I go there, eat some oysters Rockefeller, and find out what the original dish tastes like Photographs by Jean Cazals

While visiting New Orleans, Louisiana, earlier this year, I was reminded of a conversation with a friend of mine. A cook of some renown, she is a passionate conversationalist - not always necessarily about food - with a finely-tuned knowledge of the performing arts, and a burning curiosity about the provenance of certain fabled culinary creations: what are their origins, how was their name arrived at, and why?

Walking round the French Quarter, that conversation came flooding back to me. Oysters Rockefeller. At Antoine's. In New Orleans. This is where the famous dish was created in 1899. Well blow me down, there I was, on Rue St Louis, with Antoine's just down the street. It was imperative that I go there, eat some oysters Rockefeller, find out what the original dish, with its vivid green puree, tastes like. Not only for myself, but, rather more importantly, for my friend, who has been cooking oysters Rockefeller for a few years now. It is a remarkable dish. So good that I asked her for the recipe so that I could put it on the menu at Bibendum.

Well, I went to Antoine's, ate the oysters Rockefeller, just that, drank some inferior Chablis and left a sad man. They were awful. Had a great recipe just been crook from the outset, and my friend's interpretation simply been refined to a higher degree of sophistication? I discovered that Antoine's had published a recipe book in 1980 (the restaurant was founded in 1840) and presumed that all would be revealed.

The first thing I did was to check the index. Yes, oysters Rockefeller, page 32 (or rather huitres coquilles a la Rockefeller). I thumbed the pages excitedly, only to find that three paragraphs of italic writing helpfully explained that the recipe had remained "a secret that I will not divulge". Tush, tush Chez Antoine, what a cop out. Mind you, on reflection, perhaps we are lucky to have been saved from knowing how to prepare this original version of the Antoine's classic.

I know not where my friend found the recipe on which she based her interpretation. There is a clue in Antoine's book where, slightly condescendingly, the writer informs us that "If you care to concoct your version, I would tell you that the sauce is basically a puree of a number of green vegetables other than spinach. Bonne chance!" Oh gee, thanks, matey. From the solid consistency of the Rockefeller topping for the oysters I sampled in New Orleans, I would imagine the sauce might have included that well-known green vegetable, the potato.

However, you will be pleased to know that the version you are about to receive will make you truly thankful. Named after the world's richest man in 1899, reinvented by a remarkable Australian woman and only slightly adapted by her English friend - neither of whom will ever be Rockefellers, but like cooking instead - this is definitely an improvement on the original.

Oysters Rockefeller, serves 6

It is best to buy rock oysters for this dish as the shells are deep, and will accommodate the puree comfortably. If you are a dab hand at shucking oysters, then so do. Alternatively, ask your friendly fishmonger to do it for you and then hurry home. Make sure you ask him to cut the muscle that secures the oyster to its shell so that it is loosened but not completely separated, for ease of eating once covered with the topping (he may not feel quite as friendly towards you after this). At the shellfish stall at the front of the Michelin Building, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3 (0171-589 0864), Simon Thomas will be only too happy to shuck a-plenty.

36 rock oysters, shucked (Loch Fyne are perfect and they do mail order, but naturally un-shucked)

for the Rockefeller puree

700g/112 lb spinach

28g/1oz flat leaf parsley, leaves only

280g/10oz unsalted butter

85g/3oz celery, finely chopped

55g/2oz shallots, peeled and chopped

50 ml/2fl oz Pernod

1 packet fresh tarragon, leaves only

1 tsp Tabasco

1 level tsp salt

a handful of fresh breadcrumbs

Fill a very large pan with water and bring to the boil. Plunge in the spinach and parsley, allow to return just about to boiling point and then drain in a colander. Immediately refresh under very cold running water until completely cold. With your hands, squeeze as dry as possible; do this in small batches. Set aside. Melt the butter in a deep frying pan (I know it seems an alarming amount, but fret not) and very gently fry the celery and shallots until softened - they will almost simmer. Tip the contents of the frying pan into the goblet of a liquidiser. Put the pan back on a moderate heat, pour in the Pernod and allow to warm through, but not to ignite. Add this to the liquidiser. Now add the cooked spinach, tarragon, Tabasco and salt. Puree until very smooth and then push through a sieve into a bowl.

Pre-heat the oven to 450F/230C/gas mark 8.

Tip off any excess juice from the opened oysters (or drink it) and, with a teaspoon, completely cover each oyster with a generous coating of the green puree and place in a large, flat roasting tray (it can be useful to strew the tray with some coarse salt so that the oysters sit neatly and flat). Carefully put a very fine showering of crumbs over the oysters - it matters not a jot that some fall on salty ground - and put into the oven on the top shelf. Bake for about 8-10 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs are lightly toasted. Serve immediately - with lemon to squeeze judiciously over each. My Australian friend came up with the neat idea of putting Pernod in a spray bottle and giving the oysters a last minute misting just before serving. This is an optional idea, but a masterly stroke of intelligent cookery.

The allium family, cooked or raw, marries particularly well with the oyster. Shallot-flavoured vinegar, that includes finely chopped shallots, not just their nuance, is de rigueur when it comes to dressing the noble bi-valve in its naked raw state. The sweet acidity cuts through the saline creaminess and seasons the thing immaculately, but it must, unusually, be red wine vinegar, it just seems to work better.

Apart from eating oysters in their natural state i.e. uncooked, there are other methods of - for want of a better phrase - warming them through. A classic French method is to nap them with a little beurre blanc, mingled with a few chives. For this, white wine vinegar is entirely reduced with finely chopped shallots, then reconstituted with small knobs of unsalted butter until a velvety smooth sauce is achieved. Chop some chives and introduce to the sauce before spooning over the oysters. Again, it is better to use rock oysters to accommodate this buttery lotion.

When preparing oysters for these dishes it is best completely to remove the oyster from its shell - unlike the Rockefeller recipe, where the oysters actually have to cook attached, together with the covering puree - tip into a bowl and then give the shells a wash and transfer to a small and shallow, stainless steel pan. Strain the juices over the oysters, using a fine sieve, and poach very gingerly for a minute or so until they take on a plumped-up shape. Heat the shells for a minute or so under a hot grill, re-introduce the poached oysters and pour over the beurre blanc. It is essentially a warm dish, so do not worry about keeping everything piping hot. The remaining oyster liquor, which is a tad salty, can be added to fish sauces or soups. Freeze it in an empty yoghurt carton.

I have had great success with similar treatments. A topping of hollandaise, flashed under a hot grill until glazed to a pale golden. Another, slightly more unusual, uses an emollient of curry- flavoured butter, further enhanced by a sprinkling of finely chopped spring onions. Curry butter is easily made - melt a couple of ounces of butter (taken from a packet kept at room temperature) in a small pan, add one heaped tablespoon of good quality curry powder, allow it to stew for a couple of minutes and then leave to cool. Mix thoroughly with the remaining butter from the packet and then tip on to a sheet of aluminium foil. Roll up into a small sausage shape and put into the fridge to harden. When you are ready to make the dish, pre-heat an overhead grill, cut a thin slice of the curry butter and put it on each poached oyster in its shell. Sprinkle with some chopped spring onion and flash under the grill for 4-5 minutes, until the butter is bubbling and the springs onions have blistered slightly. Serve with wedges of lime

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