Uncle George and the (Pepper) Dragon

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!)

Oys­ter Stew

1 pint fresh oys­ters (Some stores will give you the oys­ters almost dry, make sure you get some of the liquor.)
34 cup butter
12 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!

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Published:December 7, 2016


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    Mike Nolan

      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,
      [See the full post at: Uncle George and the (Pepper) Dragon]

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        I had a similar malfunction with black pepper. I was using a pepper grinder--one where the top is held down while grinding. It fell off and whole black peppers went into the soup. I fished out what I could, but that soup was still overly peppery. I discarded that pepper grinder and bought one with the grinder on the bottom.

        • This reply was modified 7 years, 6 months ago by BakerAunt.

          Enjoyed your blog, Mike, because I can relate to kitchen mishaps. When I was growing up I heard a saying that approximately went, "Too many cooks spoil the stew." Your story made me think of that. Of course, in your case, the extra cooks may have saved the day, since you say the finalized Oyster Stew was, "more or less edible."

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