I always marvel over the differences between South Louisiana Thanksgiving menus and those in the rest of the country.
If you grew up here, you may not know that “dressings” elsewhere are “stuffings” and they don’t contain oysters. If you grew up just west of here, in Cajun country, you may not know that all dressings aren’t made of rice.
But that’s our way of life; we do things a little differently – especially when it comes to cooking.
Our tables boast oyster dressing made with French bread or rice dressing teeming with meat. We also serve mirliton casseroles laden with shrimp, and sweet potato casseroles shellacked with pecans. Only our local best goes into the Thanksgiving spread.
I love rice dressing with livers and gizzards, and it bothers me no end that our young people often reject these delicious dishes. When I was in college, fried chicken livers were among our favorite treats that we ordered for delivery from the Ole Miss Drive-In. The decline in liver-eating started with health concerns over cholesterol, and I do believe that a taste for these delicacies is acquired at a young age. For example, my husband and I love liver and onions, but neither of our children have ever tasted a bite because we didn’t force them to eat it. So, to be on the safe side when it comes to dressings, I have devised what I think is a rice dressing without the giblets, but with the tasty additions of sausage and eggplant.
Oysters, too, don’t always appeal to youths, but I refuse to sacrifice my favorite ingredient in dressing. It is a shame that our oyster fishermen have had it so hard from hurricanes and oil spills. We should appreciate every succulent bite they give us. It is very hard work dragging up nets of heavy oysters, sorting and shelling them and getting them to our markets when we want them. Stores stock up early for the holidays knowing that the most important ingredient on a cook’s list is usually the oysters. I hope that each and every one hauled in by our hard-working oystermen is enjoyed until the glorious, slurping end of the season.
When it comes to holiday side dishes, stuffed mirlitons or mirliton casseroles have long been mandatory. Most cooks use shrimp, ham, sausage or some combination of those for these mild-tasting vegetables, but for a special holiday event, why not include crabmeat along with the shrimp? Crabs are in season now and I chose the sweet claw meat to match the mild sweetness of the mirliton.
These dishes get all of our best shellfish on the table to accompany the turkey and the ham. We might also look for local treasures for our desserts. I am collecting the few pecans the squirrels have spared me from my pecan tree, and I’ve cooked and frozen my Halloween pumpkin. That is four pies, two of each. Now, somebody else will have to bring a cake and maybe some bread pudding.
1 pint oysters, about 4 dozen
medium, with liquid
1 long loaf French bread
(poor boy-size), stale
4 cups total oyster liquor,
chicken stock or clam juice
5 Tablespoons butter, divided
2 bunches green onions,
2 ribs celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt, pepper and cayenne pepper to taste
3 Tablespoons chopped parsley
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup Italian breadcrumbs
Drain oysters and reserve liquid. (Ask for extra liquid if buying oysters at a seafood outlet.) Check each oyster to remove any shell. Chop oysters roughly. Set aside.
Tear bread into pieces into a large bowl. Cover with stock and oyster liquid, and soak for at least 30 minutes.
In a medium skillet, sauté vegetables in 3 Tablespoons butter until transparent. Add to bowl of bread, along with seasonings, parsley and eggs, and mix thoroughly. Go easy with salt as oysters may be salty. Mix in oysters.
Sprinkle top with breadcrumbs and dot with remaining 2 Tablespoons of butter, cut into small pieces.
Place in an 11-by-13-inch baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until moisture is absorbed. Place under broiler for a couple of minutes until top is golden brown.
Serves 10 to 12.
Mirlitons with Shrimp and Crab
1 pound claw crabmeat
1 pound shrimp
4 Tablespoons butter plus 2
Tablespoons for topping
1 large onion, chopped
4 green onions, chopped, with
white and green parts separated
1 medium bell pepper, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon Italian seasoning
Salt, pepper and Creole seasoning to taste
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1 cup Italian bread crumbs plus
about 1/2-cup for topping
Boil whole mirlitons in a large pot of water until fork-tender. Let them cool enough to slice, and remove and discard seeds. Scoop out the soft inside meat of the mirlitons, reserving 1/4-inch shells if you are stuffing them. Discard shells if making casseroles. Set aside.
Pick over crabmeat to remove any shell. Chop large pieces roughly. Peel and devein shrimp and chop roughly. In a large heavy skillet, melt butter and sauté white onions, bell pepper, celery and garlic until translucent. Add shrimp and sauté until they begin to turn pink. Add Italian seasoning, salt, pepper and scooped-out mirliton. Mix, chopping mirliton into small pieces with spoon. Cover and simmer over low heat for about 15 minutes.
Gently mix in crab, green onion tops, parsley and breadcrumbs and place into mirliton shells or casserole dishes. Top with breadcrumbs and dot with small pieces of remaining butter.
Refrigerate until ready to bake or freeze. If freezing, wrap individually with plastic wrap and freeze on a baking sheet. When frozen, place them in freezer bags and store in freezer. When baking fresh or thawed, bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Place under broiler until lightly browned on top.
Serves 12 to 16.