Every good marriage has a solid base of a few key compromises. For the Critic and myself, one of the most basic compromises revolves around the issue of stuffing a turkey. It's not that we are on different sides of the fence for that divisive issue of "to stuff or not to stuff" (God forbid!). It just that there is His Way and Any Other Way. His Way is more dense than plutonium and requires sausage meat, chestnuts, chestnut purée (did I mention it's dense?) and breadcrumbs. We have it His Way on Christmas. And since I am American and therefore have the right - if not the duty - to celebrate Thanksgiving once a year with a turkey, I can also make it An Other Way, once a year.
I like to play with my stuffing, trying new ideas. Last year, I added raisins. I thought it was tasty, but the Critic didn't like them. Then again, he's always going to Criticize any stuffing that isn't made His Way. This year, I tried something I've wanted to try ever since I read about it in my mother's Fannie Farmer cookbook some 30 years ago: oysters.
Yes, I was a strange child. I liked oysters raw. I liked them smoked. (I still remember the look of disappointment on my mother's face when I tried my first one and said "That was great! Can I have another?" Great mom that she is, she swallowed her disappointment as was doomed to sharing her smoked oysters forever after...) Growing up in Chicago, some 1000 miles from any source of oysters, putting them in stuffing seemed like the height of elegance.
Thirty years later, I have access to proper fishmongers and fresh shellfish. And so I was able finally to realize my childhood dream (strange dreams we Future Foodies have) of making Oyster Stuffing.
I was a little daunted by the fact that it has been nearly ten years since I opened an oyster myself. (The Critic doesn't like them raw and so I've had no reason to bring them into the kitchen.) But in fact, it was a lot less work than I remembered. And I only got one bad scratch, while I distinctly remember needing to walk around with my hands completely coccooned in bandages in the old days after a confrontation with an oyster knife. Either age has brought me more confidence with the knife or maybe it was the fact that I didn't stock up on Dutch courage before starting? For whatever reason, it only took about 25 minutes to shuck 18 oysters and I was not reduced to tears by any of them.
The following recipe has been slightly altered to correct the amount of celery. The Critic rightly pointed out that it was too overpowering a flavor. Admittedly, he thinks ANY celery is too much, but in this case I think he had a point and would halve the amount used next time.
Otherwise, the recipe was lovely. The oysters added a richness to the stuffing without actually giving too much of a fishy flavor. If you have guests who think they don't like oysters you don't even need to tell them they are in the stuffing, as they simply melt into the breadcrumbs. Their flavor is there, but unless you know in advance what it is you could easily be confused by it. The leeks complimented the delicate oyster flavor beautifully and didn't overpower it as onions might have done. And although I wouldn't have expected sage to go well with oysters, it does.
So just in time for your Christmas goose or turkey, here is my recipe for a delicious (and elegant!) stuffing. I think it would work better than most stuffings as an Out of the Bird Dressing, thanks to the flavor kick of the oysters.
Oyster and Leek Stuffing
2 stalks of celery
9 cups of rough dried bread crumbs (or substitute toasted bread cubes)
6 Tbs sweet butter
6 Tbs dried sage
3 Tbs poultry seasoning or a mixture of thyme, basil and any other favorite spices
Clean the leeks and slice the white to light green bits in thin rounds. Clean and chop the celery into small pieces. Sauté the leeks and celery in the butter until soft but not completely melted. Sprinkle them with the sage and poultry seasoning and remove from heat.
Get a medium bowl and open the oysters over the bowl, carefully draining the oyster water (liquor) into the bowl as you go. Scrape every bit of oyster out of the shells and toss them in the pan with the leeks.
In a large bowl, mix together the oysters, leeks and breadcrumbs. Use the reserved oyster liquor to moisten the stuffing to a consistency you like. (Be sure to pour it through a fine seive onto the stuffing mixture so that you filter out the bits of sand and shell.) I found that about half a cup of the liquor was enough and stored the rest in the freezer, properly labelled, where it formed the basis of a wonderful fish sauce a few weeks later.
Either stuff this mixture into the bird, or, if you are faint hearted (some would say safety-minded) put it in a greased casserole dish and bake it next to your bird. If you do the latter, I would cover the stuffing for the first 45 minutes and then uncover for the last 15 minutes of baking.