Of all the oysters you've eaten in your fortunate life, the vast majority were raw, served in the shell with some combination of vinegar and shallots, Tabasco, lemon, and horseradish. There's a good reason for this: Oysters are too delicious in their natural state to risk trading in their briny complexity for something rough and rubbery. To learn how to cook them right, we sought the counsel of April Bloomfield of the John Dory Oyster Bar in New York, a chef who has elevated shellfish (and other dishes) to new levels of richness and originality. "The first rule of oysters," she tells me, "is don't fuck them up. They're these delicate, tender little things inside of a shell. You want to treat them with respect." For Bloomfield, respect includes the shuck. "You want to open them properly, so you're not stabbing the meat of the oyster, because then it's going to release all that creamy juice." Then, she instructs, don't overpower them with excessive heat. "It's almost better that you kind of just drop them into something hot and let that natural heat cook them." That something Bloomfield drops them into is a creamy, herbaceous bath – a slightly tangy take on the classic pan roast.
Her Oysters Rockefeller employs the same minimal approach. The oysters are topped with garlic, lemon, butter, and finely chopped spinach, then sprinkled with bread crumbs that toast up in a fleeting moment under the broiler. "The whole point of oysters is that they're delicious by themselves, so you don't want to mask them with too many flavors. You want to taste that briny, oceanic flavor. You always want to taste the oyster, whatever you do."
• 10 cups spinach, packed
• 1 1/2 tsp unsalted butter
• 2 tbsp finely diced shallots
• 3/4 tsp garlic, minced
• 3/4 tsp all-purpose flour
• 1/2 cup heavy cream
• Kosher salt
• Zest of 1/2 lemon
• 1 tbsp parmesan, grated (plus extra for assembly)
• 1 tbsp red pepper flakes
• 2 tsp lemon juice
• 12 oysters (preferably any large briny East Coast oyster)
• Fresh bread crumbs
For the lemon butter:
• 2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
• Zest of 3 lemons
• Juice of 1 1/2 lemons
Blanch the spinach in a pot of well-salted boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain and lay it on a tray to cool in the refrigerator. Once cool, press out all the water using a towel, then chop the spinach finely, to yield about 1/2 cup.
In a small saucepan, melt the butter on low and sweat the shallots and garlic until tender. Do not brown. Add the flour and cook until golden brown. Don't allow this to become any darker than the color of peanut butter. Add the cream and 1/4 tsp salt, and cook over low heat for 20 minutes. The cream base should be thick. Pull it off the heat and add the zest of 1/2 lemon. Chill in the refrigerator.
In a bowl, gently mix the spinach and chilled cream base together. Add the parmesan, red pepper flakes, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 tsp lemon juice, and more salt, if necessary.
To make the lemon butter, combine the soft butter, remaining lemon zest, and lemon juice in a food processor or bowl. Whip until it comes together and chill in the refrigerator.
Place approximately 3/4 tsp of spinach base on top of a shucked oyster, spreading it evenly over the oyster. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and then a few small nobs of the lemon butter. Finish with a sprinkle of parmesan. Cook gently, about 6 inches from the broiler, slowly moving toward the heat, until oysters are caramelized and there is a bit of bubbling around the meat, 5 to 10 minutes.
Oyster Pan Roast
• 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
• 4 medium shallots, finely diced
• 1 clove garlic, minced
• 1 cup dry vermouth, or a dry white wine
• 4 cups high-quality fish stock
• 4 cups heavy cream
• 24 oysters, shucked, with their liquid
• Kosher salt
• Juice of 1 lemon
• Peasant bread, sliced and toasted
Place a heavy pot over medium heat and add olive oil. When it shimmers, add shallots and cook gently until soft, 5 to 10 minutes. Add garlic and continue to cook for 5 minutes, until garlic is soft as well. Add vermouth and reduce slightly. Add fish stock and reduce by a third, at least 30 minutes.
Add cream and reduce until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Stir frequently so that onions do not stick to bottom of pot. Add oysters and their liquid and cook until meat curls slightly at edges, about 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and lemon juice. Ladle into warmed bowls and serve with buttered toast. (Serves 4.)