Tuesday, January 22, 2008

oyster stew and cornmeal dumplings

This gloomy, drippy winter weather has got me in the doldrums. The cold outside has limited my once frequent grocery store trips, not to mention the dark skies at 5 in the afternoon have tricked me into being tired and ready for bed at 6! It was definitely time for a pick-me-up, a dish that would lift me out of my abysmal blues. So I switched on my Bebel Gilberto playlist, poured a glass of wine, and reacquainted myself with the warmth of my kitchen, and the delight in cooking a simple and soothing stew. It's frankly the best kind of therapy.

I combined some of my favorite flavors in this stew. I love them individually on their own, but together, they pack a mighty punch. Ultimately, each of them has a certain sweetness that's subtle and comforting. Oysters are briny, yes, but when they are at their peak freshness, they deliver a wonderfully divine sweetness. The tender leeks, soft cornmeal accented with a touch of brown sugar, and the creamy milk that serves as the base all combine to satisfy a starving sweet tooth.

The dumplings were inspired by a recipe from last month's Gourmet, which featured traditional Southern fare. They were soft but meaty, and even better the second day around, as all the flavors had a chance to soak in. No need for crusty bread or oyster crackers here, maybe just a good glass of white wine or a mug of chamomile tea. Fuzzy slippers and a plush robe are optional.

Oyster Stew with Cornmeal Dumplings

1 pint fresh shucked oysters
1 stalk leek, white and light green parts finely chopped
2 Tbsp butter
2 cups clam juice
2 cups half and half or milk
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
pinch of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper, to taste


1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tsp packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup milk

1. For the dumplings: In a bowl, stir together all the dry ingredients. Whisk in the butter and milk until a smooth batter forms that gently pulls away from the side of the bowl. Add more flour, if necessary. Let stand for 5-10 minutes. With wet hands, roll tablespoons of dough into balls and set aside.

2. For the stew: Drain the oysters from the liquor, and reserve both. Pat the oysters dry. In a deep saucepan, melt 1 Tbsp of butter over medium-high heat. Add the leeks and sweat 3-5 minutes, until tender and fragrant. Add the reserved oyster liquor, half and half, clam juice, and seasonings. Let it come to a boil, and turn the heat down to low. Simmer for 5 minutes.

3. Drop the prepared dumplings one by one into the simmering broth and cook on low for
about 10 minutes. Cover the pot during this time to prevent too much evaporation.

4. Meanwhile, in a skillet, gently fry the oysters in 1 Tbsp of butter or oil until the edges start to curl, about 2-3 minutes. Remove and spoon into the simmering stew. Cook everything for another 5 minutes. Serve warm.


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