A Christmas tradition in my wife’s family is to serve oyster stew on Christmas Eve, with the men doing the cooking.
For years, this task fell to my wife’s Uncle George. One year he was humming along, the oysters had been butter poached, the milk was nearly hot enough, and he reached for the ground white pepper to lightly season it before declaring it ready to eat.
Disaster! The shaker top on the white pepper jar came off and he dumped most of the contents of the jar into the pot. George tried to scoop out as much of it as he could with his fingers, but the soup was hot and the pepper, which was hard to spot since it was white, dispersed quickly. (The main reason for using white pepper is that it doesn’t create little black flecks in the soup.)
The kitchen quickly filled up with men working desperately to rescue the soup, each with a different solution, of course.
First, we added more milk and turned up the heat to bring it up to temp. The warmer it got, the stronger the pepper flavor got. More milk + more heat = even more pepper flavor. A half an hour and two gallons of milk later, we had a big pot of soup that tasted more like pepper than oysters.
Experienced cooks should recognize the problem immediately. Pepper, especially white pepper, gets hotter as it warms up. So every time we raised the temperature of the oyster stew, the pepper got hotter.
So, what do you do to rescue the soup? It’s 7PM on Christmas Eve, all the stores are closed, so you can’t run out and buy more oysters.
The solution we eventually came up with was to add some thinly sliced and rinsed potatoes and cook them for a while in the hot soup, then take them out. Potatoes absorb spices, so this brought down the peppery flavor of the soup–at least enough that the soup was more or less edible, without making it taste like potato soup. About an hour after dinner was planned, we finally ate the oyster stew. (Most of the women and children. and one or two of the men, had already given up and had a bowl of the traditional Christmas Eve alternate soup for those who don’t eat oyster stew–a mild chili. See Football Chili for the recipe.)
It occurred to me a few years later, by which time I had taken over this annual Christmas Eve task, that a better approach might have been to strain out the oysters, rinse off any obvious pepper on them, add a small amount of the pepper-laden soup liquid (to restore some of the oyster liquor flavor) and add fresh milk and some butter. Eliminating most of the pepper should have worked at least as well as adding 2 gallons of milk did.
Here’s my variation of the family Oyster Stew recipe. (I use freshly ground black pepper, though. Use white pepper if you prefer, but make sure the shaker top is on firmly!)
1 pint fresh oysters (Some stores will give you the oysters almost dry, make sure you get some of the liquor.)
3⁄4 cup butter
1⁄2 to 1 gallon milk
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Check the oysters for shell fragments. (I do this with my fingers.) I’ve also gotten oysters that had sand in them. Rinse as needed.
Melt the butter over a low heat. Add the oysters and half of the liquor. Stir gently as the oysters poach in the warm butter. They’re done when the ridges (mantles) are fully separated and the oysters are soft enough to cut with a spoon. Add the rest of the oyster liquor, but make sure the dregs don’t have any shell fragments or sand in it. I usually throw out the last tablespoon or so, just in case.
Add the milk in stages, turning up the heat slightly, but don’t let it boil. Start adding salt and pepper after about half of the milk has been added. Remember, the pepper WILL get stronger as it heats up, just ask Uncle George!
Happy Holidays from My Nebraska Kitchen!