Oyster stuffing isn't just for seafood lovers




Stuffing is one of those time-honored Thanksgiving dishes that most cooks hesitate to mess with.

Where it’s perfectly acceptable to be fussy about the bread — Southerners apparently prefer cornbread while we Northerners opt for stale, crusty cubes of French or Italian  —  any creativity is best limited to just a few categories such as adding fruit to the mix (apples and raisins are my favorites), using diced fennel instead of celery, or swapping thyme and parsley for sage and rosemary. If you really want to get crazy, you might throw in a handful of toasted nuts or crumbled sausage.

But generally, people like it the way Mom or Grandma always made it. 

If you really want to stick with tradition, you might consider adding a pound of freshly shucked oysters to the bread mix. And no, it won’t make the favorite holiday side dish taste overwhelmingly fishy.

Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, oysters were ubiquitous in American waters, making them a cheap and plentiful source of protein for hungry colonists. So into stuffing they went, says Dennis Marron, chef of just-opened Merchant Oyster Co. in Lawrenceville and or, The Whale in the new Distrikt Hotel, Downtown. They’re also an excellent source of zinc, iron and calcium.

“The tradition really started because of the abundance and inexpensiveness of oysters,” says Mr. Marron, who grew up in New Jersey and features northeastern coastal seafood at both his restaurants. 

As bread stuffing gained in popularity in the 20th century (Kraft sells about 60 million boxes of Stove Top stuffing mix every year), oyster stuffing became something of a regional dish, or at least one that required some sort of family tradition.

On the East Coast, you might think the dish would appeal most to New Englanders. You’d be wrong.

Wholey’s Fish Market typically sells around 350 pounds of oysters each Thanksgiving, seafood manager John McNally says. “And people buy even more at Christmas.” 

While oysters won’t make your stuffing taste fishy, they will give the dish a mild seafood flavor. So if your family and friends are not fans of ocean fare, you probably don’t want to spring it on them. 

Each of the many varieties you’ll find at Wholey’s and other fish stores offer subtle flavor differences. Wellfleet oysters from Cape Code and Fat Baby oysters from New York’s Long Island tend to be brinier than Blue Points from Connecticut and James River oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. So taste before you buy to assess the bi-valve’s saltiness. One good place to start is at Wholey’s annual Oyster Festival, which is this weekend. Along with cooking demonstrations, it will feature a raw bar with several varieties of oysters for $1.50 each.

Named for where they’re grown, oysters also can greatly range in size, from 3 to 6 inches (in the shell). If you choose medium (quarter-sized) oysters, they can be folded into the stuffing as is. Larger ones should be diced and the liquid saved can be used for moistening the bread along with chicken stock. Mr. Marron likes to steam his oysters open with a little white wine and aromatics to be shucked on site. Some cooks like to add bacon or sausage to their oyster stuffing, or make it more flavorful with the addition of egg.

If you’re not that adventurous or don’t have the time, it’s perfectly acceptable to buy them already shucked from your fishmonger. 

But always cook oyster stuffing outside your Thanksgiving turkey, in a buttered casserole. Not only is it safer, but it makes for a tastier, moister bird.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. 

Oyster Stuffing

PG tested

It’s not absolutely necessary, but drying the bread for stuffing in the oven allows it to absorb more flavorful moisture. Oysters are messy to chop, so you may want to instead snip them to pieces with a pair of kitchen shears. 

12 cups dry white bread cubes 

1/2 cup unsalted butter, plus more for greasing pan

1 pound sweet Italian sausage, removed from casing, or 1 pound bacon, fried and diced

2 medium onions, finely chopped (about 2 cups)

1½ cups chopped celery

3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, or 1 tablespoon dried

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage or 2 teaspoons dried

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2¼ cups chicken broth

2/3 cup chopped fresh parsley

About 40 fresh-shucked standard size oysters, drained and chopped

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Spread bread evenly over 2 rimmed baking sheets. Bake until bread is completely dried, about 50 minutes total, rotating sheets and stirring cubes several times during baking. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Increase oven temperature to 350 degrees.

In large Dutch oven, over medium-high heat, melt butter. Add sausage and mash with stiff whisk to break up into fine pieces (largest pieces should be no bigger than ¼ inch). Cook, stirring frequently, until only a few bits of pink remain, about 8 minutes. 

Add onions, celery, thyme, sage, garlic, salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat, and add chicken stock to desired moistness.

Transfer cooled bread to large bowl,  then stir in parsley. Add sausage mixture and oysters, and fold gently until evenly mixed. Season lightly with salt and pepper, if needed.

Transfer stuffing to a buttered 9-by-13-inch rectangular baking dish (or 10-by-14-inch oval dish) and bake until browned on top and an instant read-thermometer reads 150 degrees when inserted into center of dish, about 45 minutes. Remove from oven, let cool for 5 minute. Sprinkle with additional parsley, if desired, and serve.

Serves 8 to 10.

— Adapted from Wholey’s Fish Market, Strip District





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