Once upon a time, a diner walking into a fine American restaurant in New York or Chicago could reliably expect to find an armada of dishes — Clams Casino, Oysters Rockefeller, Steak Diane — flying under the banner of “Continental Cuisine.” Those days (early to mid-20th century) are mostly gone. We are now in the age of California Cuisine and farm-to-table is law. Throwing off heavy cloaks of bacon, butter, and breadcrumbs, huddled masses of modern shellfish yearn to breathe free. Yet one taste of yesterday’s decadence, cleaned up and repackaged, will have you questioning today’s fashionable restraint.
serves 3 as hors d’oeuvre:
1 dozen fresh, live, medium-sized oysters
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/4 cup finely diced large shallot
1 small fennel bulb with fronds reserved
1 1/4 cup coarse breadcrumbs
about 1/4 teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper to taste
pinch of hot red pepper flakes
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
about 2 tablespoons absinthe
about 2 cups rock salt for baking and serving
lemon wedges and fennel fronds for garnish
Heat a wide skillet over medium-high flame. Add a tablespoon of olive oil, then add the shallot with a pinch of salt. Sauté the shallot in the oil for a minute, until it begins to soften. Add the fennel to the skillet with a pinch of salt, sautéing until the fennel and shallot have lost their crunch, about 7 minutes. Add the breadcrumbs to the skillet, tossing to combine with the vegetables. Let the bread toast slightly in the skillet, then transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste, along with the red pepper flakes, chopped fennel fronds, and parsley. Close to serving time, sprinkle the absinthe over the mixture, tossing to combine. Taste the mixture for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, or red pepper if necessary; it should taste lively, herbaceous, and well-seasoned. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Scrub the oysters under cold water. Open the oysters, discarding the top shell, and loosen each oyster from its bottom shell. Keep as much of the oyster’s natural liquid in the shells as possible. Scatter the rock salt over a large baking sheet with a ½-inch lip—the rock salt helps distribute the heat, but also helps keep the oysters steady. Place the oysters atop the rock salt, allowing at least ½ inch of space around each oyster. Top each oyster with about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the crumb mixture. Drizzle a little olive oil over the oysters, place in the oven, and bake until the topmost crumbs are golden brown and the oysters are just heated through, about 7-8 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve immediately with small spoons.
2 ounces gin
1/4 ounce dry vermouth
1/4 ounce absinthe
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled coupe.