Anatomy of a Classic: Oyster Madeleine
This crowd-pleasing casserole combines two Louisiana standards
John Currence is not the first chef to note that food is the greatest transporter of the human spirit. One taste, he points out, can shoot you back to that moment in life when everything seemed terrific or terrible.
Holiday tables are particularly powerful transporters. But what a weird ride it is. Every family’s Thanksgiving menu is heavy with food memories, but the actual dishes are often the culinary equivalent of the Island of Misfit Toys. Tradition demands a great-aunt’s creamed onions or that odd rice stuffing only your brother loves.
“To me, holiday food is particularly interesting because it’s this great collision of all the things about food I love,” Currence says. The chef, who grew up in Louisiana but who for twenty years has been cooking in Oxford, Mississippi, recalls a table with his mother’s mash-up of sweet potatoes and blue cheese, oysters, and a version of spinach Madeleine.
The original Madeleine recipe, first published in 1959 in the Baton Rouge Junior League’s famous River Road Recipes cookbook, is a Louisiana classic built with processed cheese and jalapeños. The casserole was particularly influential for the young chef, who thought spinach was awful until he tasted his grandmother Lucy Currence’s rendition, which she made with bacon. “I completely turned the corner on spinach,” he says. “I just planted my face square in the middle of the dish. It was the bacon in it I remember going gaga for.”
That memory drove a creation that combines the cheesy awesomeness of that first spinach Madeleine with the best of an oyster pan roast. And just because he likes oysters Rockefeller so much, Currence added fennel and the sharp notes of Parmesan cheese. Red pepper flakes give it some heat. But don’t pull back on the fat. Barely steaming the spinach with a knob of butter helps build the richness of the dish from the start. A roux made with bacon fat continues the job and adds the right touch of Currence-approved nostalgia.
“This is a Frankenstein of a dish,” he says. “But it becomes a great Thanksgiving throw-together. All you do is get a bucket of oysters and a bag of spinach and you’re off to the races.”
Oyster Madeleine Pan Roast
(Serves 6 to 8)
3 tbsp. butter
2 lbs. fresh spinach
3 tbsp. bacon fat
3 tbsp. flour
½ cup yellow onion, small diced
1½ tbsp. garlic, minced
¼ cup celery
3 tbsp. heavy cream
½ tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1½ tsp. red pepper flakes
½ tsp. crushed toasted fennel seed½ cup plus 3 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
2 dozen shucked medium oysters
½ cup breadcrumbs
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
Melt butter in a medium soup pot over low heat; add spinach, raise heat to medium, and stir, turning until just wilted. Remove from pan, turn into a colander, and press water out as much as possible, reserving spinach liquor. Allow spinach to cool, then chop roughly.
In a medium sauté pan over medium heat, melt bacon fat and whisk in flour. Continue whisking until roux just begins to turn golden and smell nutty. Add onion, garlic, and celery, and stir until vegetables soften. Stir in ¾ cup of the reserved spinach liquor, cream, lemon juice, thyme, red pepper flakes, and fennel seed, and continue stirring until mixture thickens.
Blend in ½ cup Parmesan cheese and stir in chopped spinach. Combine well. Season lightly to taste with salt and fresh cracked black pepper. Remove from heat and allow to cool briefly.
Stir in oysters gently and pour mix into a large pie tin rubbed with butter. Combine remaining Parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, and lemon zest; sprinkle over casserole and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or until breadcrumbs toast.
Meet the Chef: John Currence
Hometown: New Orleans, LA
Restaurants: City Grocery, Bouré, Snackbar, Big Bad Breakfast, and Lamar Lounge, Oxford, MS
What gets you fired from his kitchen: “Being a f---ing know-it-all.”
On having an infant: “We’re dedicated to a life of pureeing stuff in the Vita-Prep.”
Favorite piece of kitchen nostalgia: A crumbling “eighty-six” chalkboard used to list dishes the kitchen was out of. It was the last remaining piece of the first kitchen he opened and was recently eighty-sixed itself. “There was something about the look and the feel of it that carried me back to a time when things were simpler.”