RECIPE OF THE WEEK: Oysters Rockfeller
3 dozen oysters
1 10-oz. package chopped spinach, thawed and pressed dry
1 stick butter
1 bunch green onions, chopped; green and white parts divided
3 stalks celery with tops, chopped with tops divided
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
10 large leaves fresh basil, chopped
1/2 bunch parsley, leaves only, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Several shakes Tabasco
Several shakes Worcestershire
1/3 cup Herbsaint
1/3 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
Drain oysters well, reserving liquid for another use – such as freezing to use in gumbo. If you are opening live oysters, scrape the oysters off the shells, drain, clean off the flat shell and reserve, and discard the other shell. If buying oysters already shucked, you can place them in a casserole dish and top with Rockefeller sauce, or use clamshells that can be purchased in kitchen stores. Keep oysters and fresh shells refrigerated until time to bake.
Meanwhile, thaw spinach and mash it dry in a colander or large strainer.
In a large skillet or pot, melt the butter and sauté the white part of onions, celery and bell pepper until limp. Add garlic, green onion tops and celery tops and sauté for one minute. Add spinach, basil and parsley and sauté one minute more. Add Herbsaint, salt and pepper, Tabasco and Worcestershire and simmer for about five minutes. Remove from heat. In a blender, puree half of the mixture until coarsely pureed. Empty into a bowl and coarsely puree the other half. Place in bowl and add breadcrumbs.
If using oysters on the half-shells, place a drained oyster on each shell. Mound the sauce over the oysters on the half-shells, or place oysters in a casserole dish and top with Rockefeller sauce. Sprinkle lightly with a little more breadcrumbs and bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for 15 minutes. If oysters are not browning on top, place under the broiler for a minute or two.
Serves 6 as appetizer; 3 or 4 as entrée.
Note: This is an easy dish to serve as party food: Bake according to above instructions in a decorative bake proof dish and serve with bagel chips.
THE SAZERAC COCKTAIL
2 1/2 oz. Sazerac rye whiskey
1 to 2 teaspoons Herbsaint
1 teaspoon simple syrup (half water, half sugar)
3 to 4 dashes Peychaud bitters
1 lemon twist, for garnish
Stir all ingredients, except the garnish, together over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add the garnish.
Recently I visited Kentucky, a state best known for horses and bourbon. The gentle slopes grazed by million-dollar studs and a fabulous mint julep served correctly in a silver cup at The Brown Hotel didn’t surprise me, but imagine my shock when visiting a major distillery and finding three products that are the pride of New Orleans.
Herbsaint, Sazerac rye whiskey and Peychaud bitters, to be exact, are distilled at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Franklin County, Ky., where whiskey production dates back more than 200 years on the site of a crossing in the Great Buffalo Trace. What I didn’t know was that the historic Sazerac Company of New Orleans acquired Buffalo Trace Distillery in 1992 as a place to distill its legendary spirits.
Before my visit, I thought the only connection New Orleans had to Kentucky was horses – Louisville’s Churchill Downs having acquired our racetrack. However, speaking with Mark Brown, president and chief executive officer of Buffalo Trace Distillery, I learned of deeper bonds.
“The first governor of Kentucky actually tried to sell the state of Kentucky to Spain,” Brown says. “He tried to conduct the deal in New Orleans. That didn’t happen, but the port of New Orleans became open to Kentucky.”
Under Spanish control, New Orleans as a major port was closed at that time to the rest of the country. When the port gave Kentucky the opportunity to ship downriver to New Orleans, it was a boon to a state that grew corn, the main ingredient of bourbon. “That’s how whiskey came to Kentucky,” Brown says.
There was a problem at first, shippers thought. The whiskey bottled in Kentucky was clear. When it got to New Orleans, it was dark. During the journey, it was eventually discovered, the whiskey aged, and the effect of the barrels from earlier storage turned the liquid the brownish color that is characteristic of bourbon.
“And that’s not the end of the story,” Brown continues.
Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr., called the father of the modern bourbon industry, was born in Columbus, Ky., in 1830. He was orphaned at an early age and sent to New Orleans to live with his great uncle Zachary Taylor who would become the 12th president of the U.S. He was educated at the Boyer’s French School in New Orleans before returning to Kentucky to live with another uncle. He financed many Kentucky distilleries and in 1870, purchased the O.F.C. (Old Fire Copper), which eventually, after multiple purchases and mergers, became Buffalo Trace Distillery. Today, the distillery produces many spirits including its flagship Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
Meanwhile in New Orleans, the French-inspired spirits were brewing in an apothecary on Royal Street, where Antoine Amedie Peychaud began making a secret family recipe. He added Peychaud bitters to brandy, using a double-ended eggcup as a measuring tool. It was a jigger known as a coquetier (ko-k-tay), from which the world “cocktay” or “cocktail” derived. Thus, the world’s first cocktail was born in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
In 1838, the Merchants Exchange Coffee House opened on Royal Street, later named the Sazerac Coffee House. It was there that the Sazerac cocktail became the first “branded” cocktail, using Sazerac rye whiskey instead of brandy.
Coffeehouses proliferated in the French Quarter until Prohibition took its toll on the sale of cocktails, but the return of Sazerac and Peychaud bitters was imminent in New Orleans with the addition of Herbsaint, a substitute for the illegal absinthe loved by the French and other Europeans. In 1948, the Goldring family of New Orleans purchased the Sazerac Company. Although the three New Orleans spirits are distilled at the company’s Buffalo Trace facility, 70 percent is still sold in New Orleans, where they were bottled for many years.
Sazerac rye whiskey was named “American Whiskey of the Year” by Malt Advocate magazine in 2005 as well as 2001, and Buffalo Trace received “Distiller of the Year” honors from Malt Advocate last year.
Herbsaint (erb-sant) was first made after Prohibition in the attic of the Uptown home of J. Marion Legendre. It’s a greenish-amber liqueur that, when mixed with ice or water, becomes an opaque gyrating beverage. It contains no poisonous wormwood, as did its predecessor, absinthe. It is commonly used in New Orleans’ own oysters Rockefeller, which is distinguished by the liqueur’s anise flavor. The romantic name, herbe sainte, or “royal herb” in French, was also chosen by chef Susan Spicer and chef Donald Link as the name for their restaurant on St. Charles Avenue.
Peychaud bitters has many uses, but is well known as an ingredient in the popular New Orleans drink, the Old-Fashioned. The following recipe for Sazerac cocktail – using not only Sazerac rye whiskey, but also Herbsaint and Peychaud bitters – comes from Buffalo Trace Distillery. You could say it is to New Orleans what the mint julep is to Kentucky.
Meanwhile, this recipe for oysters Rockefeller differs from the original in that it contains spinach. Huitres en coquille a la Rockefeller was first served at Antoine’s in 1899, by Jules Alciatore. A shortage of snails from Europe required a replacement and oysters were just the answer. It was named after John D. Rockefeller because of its “rich” texture. The original is a secret recipe containing a number of green vegetables other than spinach; however, most recipes have added spinach with great success.