Oyster dressing, or farci d’huîtres, served with turkey was already an established tradition in 19th century New Orleans.
“Nothing is more elegant or recherché than an Oyster Dressing,” reads the original “Picayune Creole Cookbook,” published in 1901. “Oyster stuffings are favorite Creole dressings for turkeys.”
Our family’s Thanksgiving tables yield oyster dressings with only the slightest variations, the Creole-French-Spanish, the Creole-Irish-Italian and the Creole-French-German version. They all look and taste the same to me, except one. That one included beef.
The addition of minced ground meat makes for a darker, denser dressing but somehow doesn’t change the taste as much as you might imagine.
The latter is reminiscent of my paternal great-grandmother’s or arrière grand-mère’s oyster dressing. The 100-plus years old preparation is similar to a variant found in “Cooking in Old Créole Days,” a tome of historic New Orleans recipes compiled by Célestine Eustis in 1903. The book contains an oyster stuffing for fowl made with finely minced calf sautéed in salt, pepper and onion juice.
However, the recipe below is the one I enjoy the most, though it doesn’t include beef. It was first prepared by my maternal family in the 1800s.
Recorded at the elbow of a whip-smart and eternally feisty 93-year-old cousin, she bossily instructed me in “the right way” to prepare the dressing for an “authentic Creole New Orleans Thanksgiving.” I’ve added only olive oil and slightly more bread to modernize the recipe.
Creole Oyster Dressing
2/3 stick butter
1 pint oysters (20-25 small oysters)
1 tbsp. virgin olive oil
1 cup celery, chopped
1 cup green bell pepper, chopped
1 ½ cups yellow onion, finely chopped
2 tbsps. parsley
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
1 tsp. low-salt Cajun seasoning
Reserved oyster liquid (request extra oyster liquid if possible; if unavailable, use chicken broth to moisten)
3-4 cups day old French bread, torn small
1 egg slightly beaten
1 bay leaf
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
1/8 tsp. dried basil or a tablespoon chopped fresh
1/4 tsp. finely ground dried sage
1/8 tsp. dried thyme or a tablespoon chopped fresh
Progresso or plain bread crumbs or plain (never panko)
1/4 cup melted butter
- Start by buttering 6-8 ramekins or a casserole dish. Put aside.
- Drain the oysters, reserve every precious drop of the oyster liquid. Cut oysters in half if large.
- Sauté the trinity (bell pepper, onions, and celery) in butter and olive oil over medium heat until soft.
- Next, add the parsley and sauté for another minute. Add minced garlic and a teaspoon of low-salt Cajun seasoning toward the end for a more modern New Orleans taste.
- Add all of the oyster liquid and stir on low heat for another 4 minutes. Add the oysters stirring gently with a wooden spoon until the oysters barely begin to curl. Watch carefully and do not thoroughly cook the oysters. They will continue to cook in the oven.
- Remove from stove, slowly add the torn bread and remaining seasonings (add fresh herbs last), and the egg.
- Fold dressing mixture into dish or dishes, then lightly sprinkle with seasoned breadcrumbs, and dot with the remaining butter.
- Bake for 20 minutes in a 350-degree oven.Bake in individual mini casseroles, or as arrière grand-mère would have preferred, les ramequins or ramekins. If you prefer cooking the recipe in a casserole dish, bake for an extra five to ten minutes. Serve hot.
If you choose not to cook, local family grocers such as Breaux Mart and Langenstein’s offer delicious and authentic Oyster Dressings that can be purchased in their catering departments or delis.
I recommend topping these with a good dusting of Progresso Italian bread crumbs (created by New Orleans French Market grocer and Italian immigrant, Giuseppe Uddo) under a thin drizzle of melted butter before baking.
Joyeux action de graces (Happy Thanksgiving).