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

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?