Louis’s Brown Oyster Stew with Benne Seeds

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From The Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking by Joseph E. Dabney

For this traditional Lowcountry stew, I am indebted to the prize-winning Chef Louis Osteen of Charleston, Pawleys Island, and Captiva Island, Florida fame (and now at Lake Rabun Hotel northeast of Atlanta). He says this is one of his most popular winter soups.

“It’s a very old recipe, coming from an antebellum rice plantation in South Carolina’s Georgetown County,” Louis says. “And of course, the benne plant, more commonly known as sesame seed, was brought into the Lowcountry from Africa and was thought to be a lucky plant.”

The number of oysters in the stew, Louis says, can vary due to size and the cook’s taste. They may be big singles or little ones from clusters, in which case add as many more as you like.

Ingredients
4 tablespoons benne seeds
2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 tablespoons finely diced Benton’s Bacon (about 1 ounce)
2 tablespoons very finely minced yellow onion
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
24 oysters, shucked, with liquor strained and reserved
1 1/4 cups fish stock or bottled clam juice
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chervil or Italian parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Instructions
1. Place the benne seeds in a small, heavy-bottomed sauté pan over medium heat and dry roast them by cooking them for about 9 minutes or until they become dark and fragrant. Remove from the stove. Roughly crush half the benne seeds with a spoon and reserve.

2. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat. Sauté the bacon for about 5 minutes, or until crisp and lightly browned. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain. Leave the oil and any fat from the bacon in the saucepan.

3. Add the onion and crushed benne seeds to the saucepan and sauté them for about 3 minutes, stirring frequently to ensure that they brown but don’t burn. When the onions are lightly browned, add the flour, stir well to combine, and cook for 2 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the cream in a separate pan to just below a simmer.

4. Add the reserved oyster liquor, fish stock, and thyme leaves and simmer for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk until the mixture simmers happily and without lumps. Add the warm cream and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the oysters, the remaining 2 tablespoons of benne seeds, the lemon juice, sesame oil, and chervil or parsley. Leave the oyster stew on the heat until the oysters just begin to curl. Quickly remove the saucepan from the heat and add a pinch of salt and a grind of black pepper, or to taste.

5. To serve, divide the stew into four warmed soup bowls. Garnish with the reserved chopped bacon and serve immediately. Accompany with oyster crackers or buttered toast fingers. At the table, the stew would be hot and steamy and the oysters plump and juicy.

Makes 4 servings.

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