Home on the Range
February 10, 2013
New Orleans swings below sea level, a fact we are unable to grasp. Near sea level: nice. At sea level: charming. Below sea level: huh?
Those easy afternoons ambling the cobblestone, scalding chicory-au-lait in hand, should, logically, have required waders. Yet didn't.
It's one of those complexities — like the Internet and gelatin — we accept entirely on faith.
Faith well recompensed. In New Orleans we can down a bagful of hot beignets without censure. We can glad-hand the muffuletta, in all it's olive-heavy heartiness. We can admire crawfish, po' boy, and remoulade, at once.
We can engage in the seemingly counterintuitive pleasure — like strolling the cemetery — or lounge appreciatively alongside the street-corner quartet.
We've heard that many a visitor lurches, drink in hand, from one bourbon-doused redoubt to another. We employ an alternative strategy: skimming from one briny oyster dive to the next.
On break one afternoon, anticipating a stack of sticky ribs, we are met with an unexpected round of oysters. It appears, in all its hot, smoky, spicy, buttery perfection, as if from thin air. Which makes sense, below sea level.
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 7 minutes
Makes: 2 dozen
¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 small clove garlic, finely chopped with a pinch of salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
2 dozen fresh live oysters
Rock salt* or coarse salt
Mash together butter, garlic and cayenne.
Scrub oysters under cold water. Discard any that are cracked or open. Set aside.
Pour salt about 1 inch deep into a cast-iron skillet, forming a bed to steady the shells. Set skillet in a cold oven and heat to 450 degrees. Leave in oven another 15 minutes or so until good and hot.
Nestle a few oysters, rounded shell down, into the hot salt. Slide into oven. In about 5 minutes the shells will pop open (just a little). Pull pan out. Pry open oysters, taking care not to spill the flavorful "liqueur." Slide an oyster knife or paring knife under each oyster, loosening it. Leave oyster in its rounded shell; discard flat shell. Spoon 1/2 teaspoon garlic butter onto each oyster.
Slide pan back into oven and roast oysters until the edges curl and butter and liqueur meld into a sweet and briny sauce, about 1 minute. Slide out. Let cool 1 minute. Slurp while hot. Repeat.
This recipe can be prepared fireside. Build a fire, let it burn down to embers. Follow directions above, setting skillet on a rack over embers. Very romantic, that.
Inspired by Cochon restaurant, New Orleans.
*Rock salt, also called halite, is used to cool the old-fashioned ice-cream churn and melt snow. Makes a good oyster bed (also nice for oyster presentation), but usually contains impurities that make for poor eating. Buy it at the grocery or hardware store in a big bag.
Leah Eskin is a Tribune Newspapers special contributor. Email her at email@example.com.