Saturday, June 1, 2019

Chef Bolek's Chesapeake Oyster Stew

Several months ago, I got to attend the Oysterfest, which is the annual oyster-centric festival held every fall in St. Michaels, Maryland. One of the key events of every Oysterfest is the oyster stew competition.  Last year, there were six competitors vying for the best oyster stew. I got to be one of the hundreds or thousands of judges. 

After having sampled six different oyster chowders, each with its own style and character, I decided that I would create my own Chesapeake Oyster Stew.  In my Oysterfest post, I wrote about the fundamental characteristics of an oyster stew.  The point was that there are two general styles of oyster stew.  The first is a cream colored soup, with a thinner consistency, both of which are features due to the use of half-and-half.  The other style is more like a chowder, with a whiter color and a much thicker consistency, both of which are due to the use of heavy cream.  Regardless of whether you use half-and-half or heavy cream, the oyster stew should have minced vegetables (celery, shallots, etc.), potatoes, and oysters.  As for the key ingredient, the oysters can be chopped or whole (a consideration that often depends upon the size of the oysters).

For my Chef Bolek's Chesapeake Oyster Stew, I wanted to go in my own direction.  This direction has three primary components.  First, the liquid. I decided to use whole milk, which would give a consistency that would be neither too light or too heavy. It would be just right.  Second, an element of smoke. Many oyster stews have a smoky element to their flavor, which is from the bacon used in the first step. One of the stews that I tried at the Oysterfest had a very smoky character to it, and, that was one of my favorite stews.  However, for my Oyster Stew, I don't want the smoke element to be too overpowering.  I would have to be very careful with respect to my choice of bacon.  I decided on a thick-cut, apple wood smoked bacon.  Apple wood has a milder smoke flavor than other woods, such as mesquite. The apple wood bacon provided a subtle smokey flavor to the stew.  Third, I decided to use whole oysters.  I strongly believe that the whole oysters provides a better presentation, with the oval bivalves "swimming" in the broth, enticing the eyes of the person about to dive into the stew. 

For my first ever oyster stew, I have to say that this was a great success.  This is definitely going to be on my short list of recipes to make, with the only limitation being the cost of the oysters (good ones, especially the local ones, can be a bit pricey, but it definitely worth the extra cost).  A stew like this is a good way to introduce oysters to someone who has never had them before or who is unsure of trying them. 

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves several

1 pint oysters, liqueur strained and reserved
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup onions, diced
1 cup potatoes, diced
2 tablespoons fresh thyme
1/2  cup of milk
1/2 cup of water
2 ounces smoked bacon
1 teaspoon white pepper
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Sea salt, to taste

1.  Fry the bacon.  Heat a pan on high heat.  Add the bacon and fry until the bacon is cooked.  Remove the bacon, dice or break into small pieces, and set aside.  Drain the pan of all bacon fat and set aside.  Return 1 tablespoon of bacon fat back to the pan.

2.  Prepare the onions and potatoes.  Add another tablespoon of bacon fat in the pan and heat on medium to high heat.  Add the onions and potatoes and saute until soft.

3.  Cook the oysters.  Add the oysters and cook gently until the edges start to curl. Remove the oysters and set aside.  Strain the oyster liqueur.

4.  Prepare the stew.  Add the oyster liqueur to a pot, along with the milk and cream.  Bring the heat of the liquid to almost a simmer.  Do not boil.  Add the onions and potatoes and heat them.  Add the oysters and white pepper.  Stir gently.  Continue to cook the stew for about five minutes, or until the oysters begin to bcome firm along the edges.  Remove the pot from the heat and serve immediately.