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Sea Island Oyster Gravy

Magic happens on an island surrounded by oysters.
difficulty:
yield:

6 first course portions or 4 main course portions

time:

About 40 minutes, not including the time it takes to make the fish stock; shuck the oysters; and prepare the toast, rice, grits, or biscuits for serving

introduction

We won’t quibble with anyone outside our region over Southern ownership of gravy culture. But we will go to the mat defending the high art and undervalued virtues of seafood gravy. Stop and think about it: When was the last time you heard anyone talk about seafood gravy? When did you last hear someone utter the phrase “gravy culture”? Could we all at least agree that gravy is traditionally a pan sauce made from meat drippings mixed with flour for thickening and doused with milk, buttermilk, tomato, or fill-in-the-blank? That a gravy can be a sauce, but a sauce cannot be a gravy? Okay, good.

Seafood gravy flowed exclusively from the Sea Islands of Carolina and Georgia. (By the way, the absence of compass directions regarding Carolina offers a big clue to the era that defined pan gravies in our region.) There, gravy techniques occasionally wandered along the road less traveled. We’ve already established that gravy begins with meat juices deglazed from a pan. Yet the only things pan-cooked in this recipe are shallots, and the deglazing liquid is white wine. Furthermore, the flour is added not in the beginning but at the end, in the form of beurre manié (otherwise known as flour and butter mashed together with a fork). If you catch a trace of accent here, credit the Huguenots who brought French techniques to Charleston cookery. We’ve entered the realm where gravy becomes sauce.

You might expect oyster gravy to be about oysters. But this recipe is really about secret ingredients within a lost cannon of Sea Island slave food culture: one from the big house larder, the other from hidden gardens. From the big house, the aforementioned beurre manié—made with local butter and white lammas wheat flour grown on the Sea Islands—to thicken this gravy and create a silk and satin finish to match the voluptuousness of fresh shucked oysters.

The second ingredient that distinguishes this remarkable gravy is bennecake. Wrenched from the earliest hidden slave gardens, benne seeds—specifically, their oil—became an important market ingredient for plantation gentry by the first quarter of the 19th century. Ultimately, bennecake meal, ground from the solid dregs remaining after benne seeds are pressed for oil, was so plentiful it became an element in slave food culture. In this dish, we’ve revived bennecake’s legendary presence in Sea Island cookery, deploying it as a seasoning. Its fresh, sweet, green leaf, and nutty nuances support and enhance the sensory impressions that say “oyster.” We use the finished gravy to poach the oysters—another anomaly, to be sure, but one with beautiful results. Redolent with shallots, white wine, fish stock, and the compelling mystery of bennecake, this gravy swirling around lush oysters, is equally irresistible on toast, grits, rice, or biscuits.

Cooking Remarks

If you live on or near one of the coasts, we recommend speaking with your fishmonger to source freshly gathered, local, select single oysters in season. Usually named for their local provenance, these oysters do not grow in clusters and have distinct place-based flavors and salinity. If you live well inland, consider overnight delivery or work with a local seafood specialist you trust. Well-kept fresh select single oysters are luxuriously plump with no off aromas, shrinkage, dryness, or discoloration on the edges when shucked. 

equipment mise en place

For this recipe, you will need a small saucepan, a small bowl, a fork, two heavy-bottomed medium saucepans, a medium fine-mesh strainer, a whisk, and a slotted spoon.

    • 24
      fresh single-select oysters, freshly shucked and drained
    • tablespoons unsalted European style butter, room temperature
    • 3
    • cup minced shallots
    • ½
      cup dry, mineral-y white wine, such as French Chablis
    • ¼
    • 3
      strips lemon zest from 1 lemon, plus juice as needed
    • 1
      Turkish bay leaf
    • ½
      teaspoon red pepper flakes
    • Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
    • 2
      tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives, plus more for garnish 
    • Skillet toast, rice middlins, corn grits, or biscuits, for serving
  1.  

    In a small saucepan, simmer the fish stock over medium-high heat until reduced to 2 cups. Remove from the heat, cover, and set aside.

  2.  

    In a small bowl, use the back of a fork to mash 2 tablespoons of the butter and the cake flour to a smooth paste known as a beurre manié. Set aside. 

  3.  

    Heat the remaining 1½ tablespoons butter in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan over medium-low heat until melted. Add the shallots and sauté, stirring frequently, until they are soft and sweet, about 5 minutes. Pour in the wine and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the fish stock, the bennecake flour, lemon zest, bay leaf, and red pepper flakes and bring back to a simmer. Turn down the heat to maintain a very gentle simmer and cook for about 5 minutes to allow the flavors to meld.

  4.  

    Set a medium fine-mesh strainer over a second heavy-bottomed medium saucepan and strain the stock mixture into the pan; discard the solids in the strainer. Bring the stock to a simmer over medium heat. Whisking constantly, add about three-fourths of the beurre manié in tablespoonfuls to the stock, return to a simmer, and cook for about 1 minute; the gravy should be silky and heavily coat a spoon. If it is not thick enough, whisk in some or all of the remaining beurre manié and return to a simmer. Using a slotted spoon, add the shucked oysters to the gravy and poach gently until the oysters’ edges begin to curl, about 2 minutes. Taste and season with salt and black pepper; if desired, add a bit of lemon juice. Stir in the chives, spoon the gravy over skillet toast, rice middlins, corn grits, or biscuits, and garnish with more chives. Serve immediately.