The first dish I go to on Thanksgiving is the oyster dressing.

It isn’t that I don’t love a juicy, freshly cooked turkey or a sinful pecan pie, but there’s nothing like those peak-of-season fresh oysters bubbling in a perfectly seasoned bed of French breadcrumbs baked to a buttery crust. I can’t wait.

I have had the pleasure – and will again in a week or so – of being judge at the oyster cook-off at Gulf Shores’ famous party palace called The Hangout. Set on the Gulf of Mexico beach in Alabama where Highway 59 ends, The Hangout welcomes all travelers whether they turn left or right along the long coast of high rises and beach homes.

Since oysters would be my choice for a last meal, I feel qualified to judge and love nothing better than seeing – and tasting – the many creative ways chefs dress up the lowly mollusk. The last time I judged there I tasted an entry of oysters Rockefeller topped with crab meat and another topped with crawfish. One booth served candied oysters. In the raw category, my favorite shellfish was blanketed with pico de gallo and guacamole; another was covered in Japanese seaweed salad and creamy wasabi. It is hard to beat a naked oyster, but it sure is fun to try these dandies.

There was no oyster dressing among the entries, although there should be since the contest closely precedes the favorite American holiday. I have my own recipe for oyster dressing that I tweak from year to year. We have two dressings at our table, one for the oyster eaters and cornbread dressing for those with Deep South tastes. I always feel free to spice up the oyster dressing the way I like it because some people, especially the children, don’t like oysters or cayenne pepper. I try to hone the children’s tastes into what I consider “normal,” and that’s spicy and loaded with oysters.

Another way to crowd oysters into your holiday menu is with a soup. Oyster stew has been a specialty at our house for eons, but I’ve recently tried adding fresh spinach and mushrooms and like it even better. I never serve soup on Thanksgiving because there are so many other must-haves, but for small groups or those wanting something different, I think soup is the perfect choice. I invented this version when fall was just arriving, when I love nothing better than soup and a good bread for dinner.

For those who love charbroiled oysters – and who doesn’t – it looks like you have to buy oysters in their shells by the sack or half-sack, if you can get them at all. I talked to Al Sunseri, president of P&J Oyster Company, and he said he used to sell a mini-sack retail for those who wanted just 100 to 120 oysters, but industry problems since the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf has left his 137-year-old business with barely enough oysters to serve the wholesale business.

“Oysters, in particular, are absolutely at the lowest production levels in my 35 years of being in the business,” he said. “If we have any extra, we will sell them to the public.”

Some oyster retail outlets offer sacks and half-sacks when oysters are plentiful, but they were in short supply earlier in the season. Let us hope for a boom as Thanksgiving arrives.

Oyster-Spinach-Mushroom Soup

3 dozen oysters with oyster liquid
  (1 1/2 cups if possible)
4 Tablespoons butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 bunch green onions, chopped,
  white and green parts divided
2 ribs celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
1 9-ounce bag fresh spinach
3 cups whole milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper
  to taste
1 Tablespoon Italian seasoning
4 whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
1/4 cup chopped fresh
  flat-leafed parsley

Strain oysters, reserving liquid, and check for and remove any shell. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, melt butter and stir in flour. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, to make a blonde roux. Add white part of green onions, celery and garlic and cook over low heat until wilted.

Add mushrooms and sauté 1 minute more. As mixture thickens, stir in 1 cup of milk. Add spinach, a little at a time, and cook until wilted. Gradually add remaining milk and oyster liquid, stirring. Add seasonings with little salt, as oysters may be salty. Cover and simmer over low heat for about 5 minutes. Add oysters and simmer until they curl. Adjust seasonings, add green onion tops and parsley, and simmer for a few more minutes. Remove cloves.

If not serving immediately, reheat gently, stirring occasionally. Do not bring to a boil or overheat. Overheating will toughen oysters.

Serves 4

Thanksgiving Oyster Dressing

4 dozen large oysters or 5 to 6
  dozen small, depending on size,
  including their liquid
1 long loaf poor boy French
  bread, stale
2 cups chicken or turkey broth
  made from neck and giblets,
  except liver
1 stick butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped, white and green parts separated
3 ribs celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or 2
  teaspoons minced fresh
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup chopped flat-leafed

Strain oysters and reserve liquid. Check oysters and discard any shell. Set aside oysters and liquid.

Tear or cut French bread into 1-inch pieces and place in a large bowl. Pour oyster liquid and 1 1/2 cups of broth over bread and let it soak while you prepare other ingredients.

Heat butter in a large skillet and sauté onion, white onions and celery until wilted. Add garlic and sauté a minute more. Transfer mixture into bowl of bread.

Add seasonings, eggs, green onions and parsley and mix well. Mixture should be very moist. If at all dry, add other half-cup of broth.

Pour into a large baking dish or pan and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 30 to 45 minutes, or until fluffed and slightly crisp on top. It is best to bake the dressing just before serving.

Serves 6 to 10 people, depending on size of menu


Cooking With Oysters

Looking for Oysters?

Try more than 100 different raw and cooked oyster dishes Sat., Nov. 9 at The Hangout, 101 E. Beach Blvd., Gulf Shores, Ala. The sixth annual Oyster Cook-Off, presented by Alabama Gulf Seafood, opens at 11 a.m. and lasts until the oysters run out around 3 to 4 p.m.

The event will feature live music, fresh seafood, games and prizes. Chefs will enter three categories: Rockefeller, Gulf Coast Cajun and Create Your Own Raw Oyster.

Admission is free, and tasting tickets are sold for $2 each or $30 per book of 20.

And, if Louisiana oysters are what you want, you’ll find plenty of them at the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival, Sun, Nov. 24 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The festival has everybody’s favorite kind of poor boy on Oak Street between S. Carrollton Avenue and Eagle Street.

Last year’s winner in the seafood category was Redfish Grill for – what else? – an oyster poor boy.