Benne Oyster Stew
Big Jones, Chicago
"Sesame seeds are usually called benne in the Lowcountry. The West African word for sesame is bene, and because of their long history first in slave gardens and the Big House kitchen, the name stuck. The ancestral benne are much lower in oil than modern sesame seeds, and has a fantastic nutty aroma with lovely bitter undertones, making them a wonderful foil for briny oysters. You can use regular sesame seeds, but in lieu of true Anson Mills Sea Island benne, look for raw, unhulled sesame seeds in a natural foods store.
While at first glance this is a complex recipe, it’s easy to make at home; and once you get good at it, you’ll want to make it a staple. That said, read the instructions carefully, and reread them again. The steps are simple but, for optimal layering of flavors, are best followed closely and in order." –Paul Fehribach
Adapted from The Big Jones Cookbook (University of Chicago Press, 2015)
4 to 6 servings
- 1/4 cup benne seeds
- 2 tablespoons bacon fat, lard, or clarified unsalted butter
- 4 ounces slab bacon, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 2 cups yellow onion, finely diced
- 3 cloves fresh garlic, crushed and minced
- 1/2 cup green bell pepper, finely diced
- 1/2 cup celery, finely diced
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1/4 cup Carolina Gold Rice Flour
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 cup dry Madeira
- 1/4 cup brandy
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2 tablespoons Louisiana-style hot sauce, such as Tabasco
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, or more to taste
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 dozen shucked oysters, with liquor reserved and set aside
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the benne seeds on a dry sheet pan and toast them in the oven until they are just slightly browned and aromatic, about 10 minutes . Set aside.
In a 1-gallon, heavy-bottomed, non-reactive stock pot, add the reserved bacon fat (or alternative) and the diced slab bacon. Render the bacon fat over low heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Gradually increase the heat as the bacon renders, eventually frying it until it’s crisp and well-browned in its own fat. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and reserve it with the benne seeds.
Keeping the rendered fat in the pot, increase the heat to high and add the onions. Cook for about 8 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the onions lightly caramelize to an amber hue. Add the garlic, green bell peppers, and celery, and continue cooking until the vegetables are translucent. Remove the pot from heat.
Combine the milk and the rice flour in a 1-quart mixing bowl, whisking out any lumps, then stir the mixture into the pot and return it to medium-high heat. Gradually bring the mixture to a boil, whisking often (scorching is a risk). As the mixture boils, it will thicken slightly. Reduce the heat, if necessary, to maintain a low boil.
Add the bay leaves, thyme, nutmeg, Madeira, brandy, and reserved benne seeds and bacon, and return the mixture to a low boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often, then add the lemon juice, hot sauce, salt, and pepper. Add the reserved oyster liquor and return the mixture to a boil, then add the cream and return to a boil yet again. Whisk well. Taste for seasoning and add more salt if so desired.
Add the oysters and the chilled butter, stirring well to melt the butter. Remove the bay leaves, and serve at once. If you prefer your oysters well-done, return the mixture to a boil for 1 minute before serving.