Today I am not in Seattle, I’m in New York. Tomorrow I’ll be assisting Kathy Gunst, a cookbook author and chef that I’ve tested recipes for in the past (and a good friend), at a James Beard House dinner put on by Kathy and a whole bunch of other well-known Maine chefs.
I have to admit, I’m a little nervous. What the hell am I doing here? The James Beard House hosts dinners basically every night of the week, with various competent and often famous chefs headlining. Diners (in our case, a sold-out house of 80) pay outrageous sums of money to attend, and all the money goes to the James Beard Foundation, which underwrites scholarships and funding programs for culinary school students. The chefs work for free.
So here I am, in New York, partly responsible for three hors d’oeuvres for 80 people, plus a few extra, to be safe. So 90 people. I’ve cooked for 90 people before, no problem. And there are two of us, plus the other chefs, who will mostly likely be happy to help. And we’re only doing hors d’oeuvres. And only one has to be hot. So what’s the big deal? Somehow just being here, even with a few years’ experience as a personal chef and plenty of time in front of a stove, is shining a huge spotlight on the fact that I’ve never worked in a restaurant kitchen. What if Sam Hayward laughs at how much I cry when I cut shallots? It’s really embarrassing. What if Mark and Clark peek over my shoulder and see how painfully long it’s going to take me to shuck 100 oysters?
I’ll let you know how it goes. For today (and the next two days), a little glimpse at what we’ll be serving in mass quantity:
I first tried making saffron oyster stew using chopped raw oysters, but found that with chopped oysters, the stew really required a spoon, which is something we’d like to avoid for the Beard dinner, considering guests will presumably already have a drink in one hand. So tomorrow’s stew will be served like a hot oyster shooter, with one tenderly-cooked bivalve swimming in a little pond of saffron cream.
Recipe for Saffron Oyster Stew
Recipe 80 of 365
Based on Kathy Gunst’s recipe for Classic Oyster Stew from Stonewall Kitchen Favorites, this rich, buttercup-yellow version looks precious served in tiny espresso cups. Mine has a higher liquid-to-oyster ratio than the original; the goal is to put one oyster in each cup and top it off with the hot saffron-infused cream, so that it can be consumed without a spoon, like a hot oyster shooter.
TIME: 1 hour, plus time to open oysters
MAKES: 90 servings (in espresso cups)
22 1/2 cups (generous 5 1/2 quarts) whole milk
15 cups (4 quarts minus 1 cup) heavy cream
6 big pinches saffron threads (about 2 grams), crushed in a mortar and pestle
1 pound unsalted butter
60 shallots, very finely chopped
4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
100 oysters, shucked, plus all their liquid, separated and strained through a fine-mesh strainer
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Combine the milk, cream, and crushed saffron in a giant soup pot (or two), and slowly bring just to a bare simmer, stirring frequently. Set aside for up to 30 minutes, or transfer to smaller containers and refrigerate overnight.
Set 2 tablespoons of the butter aside. Melt a quarter of the remaining butter in each of two large, high-sided skillets over medium-low heat. When the butter begins to sizzle, add a quarter of the shallots to each pan, and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes, or until the shallots are soft but have not yet begun to brown. Add a teaspoon of the Worcestershire sauce and a quarter of the liquid from the oysters to each pan, bring to a simmer, and cook 2 more minutes, stirring. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the shallot mixture to the pot(s) with the saffron cream, and repeat with the remaining butter, shallots, Worcestershire sauce, and oyster liquid.
When ready to serve, reheat the saffron cream to just below a simmer, and season again to taste, if needed. Working with about ten oysters, a teaspoon of the remaining butter, and ten espresso cups at a time, sauté the oysters in a skillet quickly over medium heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper, place oysters in espresso cups, and pour hot saffron cream over the oysters. Serve piping hot.
OR: You can also poach the oysters a few at a time directly in the saffron cream, and fish them out as you ladle up the stew.