Food: Winter Warmups

Winter stirs my cooking instinct; it’s a time to stay inside, enjoy a crackling fire and indulge the family in good food and conversation around the kitchen table.

It is also the season of great oysters, and crawfish are not far behind. Pot dishes, soups and stews are in order, as well entrées that may not appeal in warmer weather.

I never met an oyster I didn’t like – with the exception of an overcooked one. I love oysters in soups, but they can quickly be overcooked if you’re not careful.

Their liquor can be added early to give the soup flavor, but the oysters must be dropped in at the last minute.

For years, one of our favorite gatherings was opening up a sack of oysters, which provided eight to 10 people with a delicious three-course dinner. First we slurped as many as we wanted with crackers and fresh horseradish sauce. Then we made oyster stew with the smallest of the mollusks, and later we rolled the large ones in corn meal and fried them in hot oil. Wow! We always wondered what people in the rest of the country were eating while we reveled in the riches of our seafood-filled wetlands.

One up from the creamy stew we ate is Cream of Oysters Rockefeller Soup, adding spinach to the pot for a delectable first course. The dish is easy, retaining all the grandeur of its famous namesake without the burden of providing oyster shells for serving it. We know that Oysters Rockefeller were first served in 1899 at Antoine’s Restaurant, under the direction of Jules Alciatore, but I’m not sure who’s responsible for the spin-off soup. I would certainly like to thank both creators from the bottom of my heart.

Crawfish étouffée, a buttery Louisiana stew, typically blankets white rice. Creative chefs kick it up a notch and use the dish as a sauce over a variety of fish.

Catfish is the easiest to find in the grocery store and is usually fresh, thanks to numerous catfish farms in the region. The etouffée is equally good over talapia, grouper or amberjack. The fish fillets in our recipe are blackened but could be grilled or sautéed.

Because of an abundance of marsala, amassed when a daughter lived in the Sicilian town of the same name, I’m always on the lookout for food that goes well with it. Chicken is certainly one of those, and the recipe that follows is simple and quick to prepare. Serve it with some pasta and a good Italian red wine.

Bronzed Catfish with Crawfish Etouffée
4    Tablespoons butter, divided
3    Tablespoons flour
1    onion, chopped
4    green onions, chopped with
    white and green parts separated
1/2    bell pepper, chopped
1    rib celery, chopped
2    cloves garlic, minced
2    Tablespoons tomato paste
1    cup water
    Salt, pepper and Creole season-
    ing to taste
    Louisiana hot sauce to taste
    Worcestershire to taste
1    pound Louisiana crawfish tails
    with fat
2    Tablespoons chopped parsley

Melt 3 Tablespoons butter in medium, heavy pot. Add flour and stir constantly over medium heat to make a light brown roux. Add white onions, bell pepper and celery and cook until vegetables are soft. Add garlic and cook a minute more. Add tomato paste, stock or water, seasonings and crawfish. Simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Add green onion tops and parsley and stir in 1 tablespoon of butter. Remove from heat.

3    Tablespoons butter
4    catfish fillets, about 4 to 6
    ounces each
    Blackened seasoning or
    Creole seasoning
    Salt, black pepper and cay-
    enne pepper
    Vegetable spray

Melt butter in a bowl in the microwave. Dredge each fillet in the butter and sprinkle generously with seasonings, salt and peppers.

Spray a large, heavy, preferably black skillet with vegetable spray and heat to hot. Place fillets in skillet and brown to desired darkness. Each side should take about 2 to 3 minutes. Take up on a platter or individual plates and top each fillet with etouffée.

Serves 4.

Cream of Oysters Rockefeller Soup
3    dozen freshly shucked oysters
    with extra liquor
4    Tablespoons butter
1    small onion, chopped
6    green onions, chopped, green
    and white parts separated
1/2    bell pepper, chopped
1    rib celery, chopped
3    cloves garlic, minced
1    16-ounce bag fresh spinach
    leaves, chopped
1/2    cup flour
    Bottled clam juice or chicken
    stock to make 3 cups liquid
    when added to the oyster liquor
1    cup half-and-half
1    cup heavy cream
    Freshly ground black pepper
    and Creole seasoning to taste
1    ounce Herbsaint liqueur
1/3    cup chopped fresh flat-leaf     
1    shot Tabasco or more
1    shot Worcestershire or more
    Salt to taste

If buying oysters at a seafood store, ask for extra liquor (oyster water) – as much as they will give you. This can be supplemented with bottled clam juice or chicken stock to make 3 cups liquid. Separate oysters from their liquor, straining the liquor to remove any shell and feeling each oyster to remove shell.

In a large, heavy pot, melt butter and sauté onions, white parts of green onions, bell peppers and celery. When soft, add garlic and sauté 1 minute more. Add spinach and sauté until wilted. Stir in flour, stirring constantly. Gradually add liquid (oyster liquor, clam juice or chicken stock). Mix well and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Using a hand blender, purée the soup until smooth. Add cream, half-and-half, oysters, green onion tops, white pepper, Creole seasoning, Herbsaint, parsley, Tabasco and Worcestershire and continue to cook until oysters curl. Taste, add salt and adjust seasonings.

Serves 6 to 8.

Chicken Marsala
1    teaspoon salt
1    teaspoon freshly ground
1    teaspoon garlic powder
3/4    cup Italian seasoned
1/3    cup freshly grated Parmesan
2    Tablespoons olive oil
8    boneless chicken thighs
4    Tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup marsala wine

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place salt, pepper, garlic powder, breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese in a paper or plastic bag and mix well. Grease a medium baking pan with olive oil. Shake chicken thighs, one at a time, in the mixture until evenly coated. Place breaded thighs in pan and sprinkle with butter. Bake, uncovered, for 40 minutes.

Remove from oven and sprinkle thighs with Marsala, dribbling some on the bottom of the pan. Return to oven and continue baking for 15 minutes.

Serves 4.

Herbsaint was first made after Prohibition in the attic of the Uptown home of J. Marion Legendre. It is a greenish-amber liqueur that becomes opaque when mixed with cold water. It was created to replace absinthe, the popular French drink that was outlawed in many countries. It is a key ingredient of Oysters Rockefeller.

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