This appetizer classic was first created to simply fill in for the snails that were highly heralded in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the late 1800s, at a time when a snail shortage was plaguing the restaurants. Jules Alciatore, son of Antoine’s founder, Antoine Alciatore, developed an alternative recipe in 1889, using snails, to fill in the gap. He named the dish Oysters Rockefeller for the rich green sauce that reminded him of the millionaire J.D. Rockefeller.
Interestingly, the dish caught on so fast that the actual recipe became and remains a highly-guarded family secret. That said, a 1986 laboratory analysis revealed that the sauce’s mystery ingredients included parsley, celery, scallions or chives, olive oil, and capers.
To keep the rich green color, most restaurants use spinach, rather than parsley. And debate runs hot as to whether or not to add Pernod or top the dish with panko. Make it the way you like it and name it what you want. At Antoine’s in New Orleans, where they have counted every order since they first served it in 1889, more than 3½ million orders of Oysters Rockefeller have been served.
If you’d like, celebrate the history of the dish with my rendition. I like a little added cheesiness… and definitely bacon, neither of which are in the original recipe. Or simply order any version of baked oysters at your favorite restaurant.
2 dozen rinsed, live oysters, shucked; top shells discarded; oysters loosened with paring knife
6 T butter
¼ – 1/3 c finely minced shallots or onion
2 packed cups baby spinach leaves, de-stemmed
2 T Pernod or white wine
1 T lemon juice
1½ c heavy or whipping cream
½ c each: finely grated Romano & Fontina cheeses
½ tsp black pepper
Dash of hot sauce (such as Mike’s Red Hot or tabasco), optional
¼ c shredded Monterey Jack cheese
¼ c panko breadcrumbs, tossed with 1 T melted butter
¼ c cooked, diced bacon
Place opened oysters on pan in refrigerator. Melt butter in large skillet over med heat; sauté onion for 1 min. Then add spinach and Pernod; stir for 1-2 minutes to start spinach wilting. Stir in lemon juice, cream, Romano & Fontina cheese, pepper, and hot sauce, if using. Bring mixture to a boil; reduce heat; let cook till liquid has reduced by half. Cool the spinach mixture completely in the refrigerator. To cook, divide spinach mixture atop each oyster. Sprinkle with Jack cheese, breadcrumbs, and bacon, if using. Bake or grill at 450°F for 6-8 min (small-medium oysters) or 8-12 (large oysters). Serve hot with fresh lemon wedges.
KISS Tips: Oysters should be cooked hot and fast. They are done with the centers are puffy and the edges start to curl. Oyster shells are notoriously uneven. Nesting them in beds of rock salt (ice cream salt) in your pan or individual baking dishes prevents sauce from being wasted.