I'm broke. Of course, so is nearly everyone else these days. The belts, they are a-tightening. Practical choices, which seemed almost unheard of a couple of years ago thanks to easily-obtained credit, have to be made.
Do I want to meet friends for dinner at the newest hipster restaurant? Sure I do, but I also need new towels and underwear, so I'm going to have to pass, thank you very much. Maybe I'll meet you after dinner.
It's a state of fiscal being that I'm quite familiar with-- I've never had a lot of money to begin with, so everything is a matter of either/or.
Once, while staying with a very wealthy friend of mine when at University, he performed a little fashion show for me, displaying his back-to-school shopping finds. Now for most of us, back-to-school shopping means a trip to The Gap or something equally affordable. To my friend, this meant a couple of weeks in Paris and Milan. So when he popped out of his bedroom door asking in his posh little English accent, "Do you like my belt? It's Valentinoooo..." I asked the following question:
"Alex, exactly how much did that belt cost you?"
"Oh, Michael, you're not supposed to ask that. It was only seven fifty."
"Seven hundred and fifty or $7.50?"
"Don't be insulting. I shouldn't have told you. Do you like it or not?"
"Oh, it's great and all, but your belt costs as much as my rent. It's a question of belt-or-rent for me, and I'd have to say that I love my apartment more than your belt."
"Well, Michael, I can't help it if you're poor."
He paid for that last, unfortunate statement not with his life, but with dinner.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining (loudly). There are billions of people on earth who are worse off than I am. But sometimes I want to feel like the big shot I've never, ever been. So, rather than buy an obscenely expensive car or suit or summer home or any home, for that matter, I allow myself the small luxury of luxurious food and drink. I do my best to have a gorgeous hunk of cheese wrapped up in the fridge as well as a bottle of good champagne , which I keep on hand in case of emergencies. Whenever I am feeling blue or poor or totally hopeless, I open the refrigerator door and look at the champagne. Just knowing it's there lifts my spirits. It tells me I haven't yet fallen through the cracks.
And then I think of the pair of shoes I could have bought with the money I spent on that damned bottle of bubbly.
Today, I wanted something rich. Something that would make me feel like that big shot I will more than likely never become.
So I up and made myself a dish named for America's first billionaire-- Oysters Rockefeller.
Having never been a fan of big business (or big business guys, for that matter), it struck me as odd that I should want to make something that pays homage to the grandfather of corporate culture and American oil-dependence. Of course, Rockefeller also donated vast sums of money for education (he was instrumental in the founding of both the University of Chicago and Spelman College, for example) and was dedicated to the eradication of both hookworm and yellow fever.
So there you have it.
Oysters Rockefeller got their start--and their name-- at the world famous Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans. In 1899, chef Jules Alciatore substituted Gulf Oysters (which were plentiful and local) for the French snails (which were scarce and, well, from France) in a dish the restaurant had traditionally served.
It was a terrific success. The dish of oysters (which were typically eaten only raw until this time) covered in rich, green sauce and subsequently baked was as novel as it was rich. In an apocryphal story, one Antoine's customer was so astonished by the heft of these baked oysters that he decried (people, incidentally, decried much more often in the 19th Century than they do in the 21st), "Why, this is as rich as Rockefeller!"
And so the name stuck. Of course, it also helps that the sauce is green in color, which is coincidentally the color of American money, of which Mr. Rockefeller had more of than anyone else.
There has been some debate as to the original, correct recipe for Oysters Rockefeller. Jules Alciatore swore that he would take the secret of the recipe to his grave.
He was a man of his word.
Some people insist that spinach was not part of the original recipe, and that the green of the sauce came from parsley and slow-cooked celery. Others, like Emeril Legasse suggest the option of green food coloring. Seriously. Parmesan or no parmesan? Herbsaint, Pernod, or Absinthe? Frankly, I don't care. I say make it whichever way you like, as long as you make it rich. That is, after all, the point of the dish, isn't it?
This is my own, particular version.
Makes enough sauce for 18 oysters, or 6 servings in my book.
12 to 18 medium-sized oysters. Fresh, please.
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons spinach, finely chopped
4 tablespoons shallot, finely chopped
3 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, even more finely chopped
1 tablespoon chervil (if you can find it), finely, finely chopped
5 tablespoons fresh breadcrumbs, toasted, plus 3 tablespoons for garnishing
1 tablespoon absinthe (or Pernod)
1/2 teaspoon salt
A few dashes of Tabasco sauce
A few turns of freshly-ground pepper
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
Lemon wedges for garnish
1. Using a small oyster knife (from experience, I can suggest you do not use a flat head screwdriver), pry open the poor, defenseless oysters. Pour off any liquor and reserve. If any oysters have opened themselves up to you without your asking them to do so, they are to be avoided, much in the same way one would avoid a human who does the same thing upon first meeting. Loosen the meat and leave on the half shell.
2. In a medium-sized saucepan, melt butter. Add spinach, shallot, parsley, chervil, bread crumbs, Tabasco, absinthe, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 10 to 12 minutes. Set aside, add reserved oyster liquor, and let cool.
3. Combine the 3 tablespoons of bread crumbs with the parmesan. Set aside.
4. Preheat oven broiler to 400. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil and a layer of rock salt. Or, make as many rock salt mounds as you have oysters to save salt. The purpose of the salt is to stabilize the oyster shells and keep them level when broiling. Lay oysters over the salt, place a spoonful of the spinach mixture, and set under the broiler for about 5 minutes. Watch them carefully. I tend to lie on the kitchen floor, if it is sufficiently clean, and watch. That way, I can get a little bit of rest as I wait for the oysters to brown properly.
5. Once the oysters are sufficiently browned, remove them carefully (they are very hot, after all) to a serving platter lined with more rock salt. Add a few drops of Absinthe to the top of each oyster. Serve hot with lemon wedges and Tabasco sauce on the side. Eat enough hot oysters until you feel as rich as you need to feel**
*My apologies to anyone who may keep oysters as pets. You may not want to read this recipe. I seemed to have upset a lot of people last week, so I'm being extra careful this time around.
** Just a note-- John D. Rockefeller died of arteriosclerosis. He was nearly 98, but it was the arteriosclerosis that finally got him. You have been warned.