In the turn of the century, wild oysters crowded the beaches. Oyster salons sprung up as a way for immigrants to make some easy money. Poultry was expensive relative to the abundant oysters, so bivalves were used to stretch the fill of the birds. Nowadays, the tables have turned. Oysters now add a luxurious element to the standard turkey.
Why do oysters go so well with bird? Poultry is the ultimate umami flavor. The tryptophan-laced animal has a richness that is normally complemented by earthy side dishes (potatoes) and contrasted with sweet (think cranberry sauce or yams with tiny marshmallows). In summary, we have sweet and umami; so naturally, we will need some salt in order to balance our palate. Enter our friend, the oyster, and now we can start the party.
The basic ingredients to an oyster stuffing (or dressing) include cubed, dried-out bread, oysters, parsley, bacon, and the liquor from the oysters. Most recipes will have you reserve the liquor for not only moisture, but for salt as well. Depending on what oysters you choose, this can be an essential ingredient. The salinity and mineral flavor of the liquor adds incredible depth to this dish, especially when your bread of choice is a sweet and dense cornbread. Add in some hearty herbs, like parsley and sage, and we are in business.
When cooking the stuffing, DO NOT COOK IT INSIDE THE BIRD!
There is nothing worse than an over-cooked oyster, except maybe a mushy, hot, steaming mess of one. Part of the charm of drying out the bread, rehydrating it, then baking it creates a texture like French toast – soft on the inside with a delicate crunch around the edges. Studded with meaty oysters, this is the perfect texture, but it cannot be achieved if cooked inside the cavity of your bird.
So let’s examine which oysters to use. Even though the tradition is rooted in the East Coast, an East Coast oyster may not be the right choice for the perfect stuffing. West Coast oysters, such as the Willapa Bay oyster, tend to maintain its form when cooked, which helps it stand up to the bread and vegetables used. These oysters do not shrink the way an Atlantic oyster might, and the delicate texture of the oyster will still stand out in each bite.
1 large loaf of cornbread, cut into 1 in cubes (about 10 cups)
½ lb thick-cut bacon, cut into lardons (thick match sticks)
6 shallots, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
4 ribs celery, thinly sliced
1/4 cup sherry
3 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted, plus more for greasing the pan
1 lb Willapa Bay shucked oysters, drained, plus 1 cup of reserved liquid
1 cup chicken stock
1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 tbsp. chopped thyme leaves
2 tbsp. chopped sage leaves
Zest of one lemon
1 egg, beaten
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Spread the cubed cornbread on a baking sheet and dry out in the oven at 250º F for 45 minutes to an hour, making sure that the bread is dry and not browned. (This can be done a day ahead, as long as the bread is stored in an airtight container once its cooled.)
In a skillet, render the bacon over a medium-low heat. Once the bacon has released some of its fat, add in the shallot and garlic and celery to soften. Once the vegetables are soft and the bacon is crisp (about 10 minutes), deglaze the pan with the sherry and stir in the butter. Set aside before the butter separates.
In a bowl, combine the cooled cornbread, bacon mixture, oysters, herbs and lemon zest. Slowly fold in the chicken stock and the oyster liquid, making sure that the cornbread is moist, not wet. (It is ok to have liquid left over.) Fold in the egg and a generous pinch of salt and pepper.
Evenly spread the mixture in a greased pan and bake at 375 ºF for 25-30 minutes, or until the mixture is dry to the touch and browned around the edges. Let it stand for about 10 minutes before serving.