The Oyster: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor
In our last post, the oyster had the featured role. As we mention there, the oyster has also performed admirably in historic New England cuisine in supporting parts. This time we offer oysters in such a supporting role from our old friend Amelia Simmons and the book by her that's considered "the first American cookbook."
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, huge numbers of oysters could be included in huge numbers of recipes because there were still huge numbers of oysters ready to be harvested from marine reefs. Oysters—lots of them—formed the basis of pies and ketchups (yes, you heard right—oyster ketchup!), were added to chowders, pancakes, and omelets, and were even cooked with macaroni. But the type of food with which the oyster was most frequently paired was fowl, of every species—snipe, duck, turkey, chicken. Simmons's versatile 1796 recipe for fowl "smothered" in oysters is designed for either turkey or chicken.
The first words of the recipe, "Fill the bird with dry oysters," immediately presented us with a problem. Dry or dried oysters aren't mentioned in other cookbooks of Simmons's day. (They aren't mentioned in books of any type from that period except as examples of Native American food.) Nowadays, dried oysters—oysters that have been soaked in brine, then sun-dried—are associated almost exclusively with Chinese food.
We searched high and low among the Chinese and Asian markets in our part of the world—eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island—for dried oysters, but we couldn't find any even in those types of stores. We ended up buying some frozen oysters from a Japanese supermarket. Unfortunately, we weren't all that happy with them. The dish overall was delicious. But our fowl smothered in oysters would have been even better if we had done as we later did in cooking Hannah Woolley's roasted capon with oysters and chestnuts (see post)—"filled the bird" with fresh oysters that had been parboiled.
25 fresh oysters
1 whole chicken, 4 pounds
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons water
freshly-ground black pepper
How We Made It
What we actually did first is put the contents of a 10-ounce package of frozen oysters inside the chicken.
What we now recommend instead is to shuck the 25 fresh oysters listed above. If you're using an oyster knife, perform the operation of opening the shells over a large bowl, so that the liquor drains readily into the bowl as you open each shell. Or, as described in our last post on Child's "Escaloped Oysters," you can heat the oysters in about an inch of water in a skillet until they open up, then carefully drain the liquor from each into a bowl. Either way, you must then strain the liquor through cheesecloth into another bowl. Then take 10 of the shucked oysters, gently parboil them (just heat them through, don't overcook them), drain them, and stuff the chicken with them.
To hold the oysters in the cavity, we secured the opening with small metal skewers—you can also sew the opening with string or simply tie the legs together with string. Then we rubbed the chicken with the sea salt, and put it in a 6-quart casserole, in enough water almost to cover it.
We brought the water to a boil and reduced the heat to a simmer. While the chicken was simmering, we made the "parsley sauce" that Simmons says should accompany any oyster-smothered fowl except turkey. She gives no directions for making this sauce, so we used a version found in Gervase Markham's seventeenth-century cookbook, The English Hus-wife. We melted 3 tablespoons of the butter,
stirred the vinegar, water, and chopped parsley
into it, and pureed it to make a thick, rich, tart sauce. After one hour, our oyster-stuffed simmered chicken was, as Simmons puts it, "done tender."
At this point, what we actually did was put our remaining pint (16 ounces) of frozen oysters in a saucepan in water, heat them up without bringing the water to a boil, remove the pan from the burner, add the remaining tablespoon of butter and stir until the butter was thoroughly melted and mixed, and further add 8 to 10 twists of freshly ground black pepper. This was our oyster sauce.
What we now recommend instead is placing the remaining 15 fresh oysters and the strained oyster liquor in a saucepan, simmering over very low heat for no more than a minute, and proceeding with the butter and pepper as above.
After we transferred the chicken to a serving platter, we poured the oyster sauce over it and brought the now oyster-smothered chicken to the table.
We partook of it with great relish, accompanied by parsley boiled potatoes, simmered asparagus spears, some crusty french bread, and a glass of good white wine.
A superb spring repast!
The original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, pp. 187-88.