Every Thanksgiving my whole family looked forward to my grandfather’s oyster dressing, almost more than any other side dish. Not just for turkey, my grandfather, Poppy, used to heap the spicy, briny goodness onto pork chops and smother it all down in gravy. Or scoop some into hollowed-out eggplant or mirliton squash before baking until golden and bubbling. Over the years, menus change as cities and landscapes vary, but I always make a cast-iron skillet’s worth of dressing in Poppy’s honor and make sure to have some left over for a quiet-kitchen-looser-pants, next-day turkey and dressing sandwich.
Poppy was a cook of great economy and never let food go to waste. For the dressing, he’d soak stale (read: sometimes tooth-breakingly hard) bread in milk or water before squeezing out any excess liquid and frying it all up with celery, onion, and spices. There are probably more streamlined ways to make this — using less stale bread, perhaps, and skipping the soaking process — but there’s something to be said for tradition, not to mention the extra moisture is an antidote to the much-scorned dry stuffing of many holiday meals. You can also make this with day-old cornbread. If you prefer to not shuck your own oysters, look for pints of pre-shucked and make sure to save the precious liquor. To make ahead, bake and cool completely and freeze in a freezer bag. Thaw overnight in the fridge; butter a baking dish before adding the dressing; dot with butter and bake at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes or until heated through.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
4 1/2 cups cubed white bread such as baguette (preferably day-old; 8 to 10 ounces)
1 1/2 cups milk or water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped white or yellow onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning or herbes de Provence
3/4 teaspoon fine salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 pints shucked oysters, plus the liquor of only 1 pint, pulsed 8 to 10 times in a food processor
Juice of 1 lemon
1 cup dry bread crumbs or crumbled stale cornbread
3 green onions, finely chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 10 pieces
Hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Crystal, for serving
1. Place cubed bread in a bowl, pour the milk over and let bread soak while you proceed with step 2. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Note: Cut onion, celery, and garlic into a few large chunks and pulse in a food processor until coarsely chopped; set aside and don’t clean out bowl of food processor; add oysters and liquor and pulse several times. Heat oil in a large skillet — a heavy-bottomed cast-iron skillet is best — over medium-high heat. Add onion, celery, garlic, Italian seasoning, salt, black pepper and cayenne; stir to combine, and cook for about 7 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.
3. Remove bread from liquid, squeezing out any excess liquid; discard the milk. Add wet bread to skillet and cook over medium-high heat, scraping bottom of pan if bread sticks, until bread is golden and most of the liquid absorbed, about 5 minutes. Add puréed oysters with the liquor; stir to combine. Add lemon juice, bread crumbs or cornbread, green onions, and parsley; stir and cook until oysters begin to curl but do not cook completely, just about 2 minutes. Turn off heat. The dressing will be moist, on the wetter side, but it will dry out a bit as it bakes. Taste and add more salt, pepper, or lemon juice as needed.
4. Bake directly in ovenproof skillet or spoon dressing into a lightly-buttered 9-inch square or 10-inch round baking dish that’s at least two inches deep. Sprinkle evenly with Parmigiano-Reggiano and dot with butter pieces. Bake uncovered for 30 to 40 minutes or until golden and bubbling on top. Serve with hot sauce.