Chicken with smoked oyster stuffing

I was meant to be going to New Orleans early next month, but unfortunately that trip’s been postponed until next year (chiz chiz chiz). I’m meant to be writing about the place, and about its unique food culture; New Orleans is the least American of American cities, and has a cuisine unlike anything else you’ll find in the US. That cuisine is influenced by the fertile land and sea surrounding the city, and also by the mix of cultures and ethnicities that called the city home – African, French, Acadian (or Cajun) and Creole flavours coming together to create something you simply won’t find elsewhere.

To console myself over my postponed trip, I decided to invent a chicken stuffing along the lines of something you might see in Louisiana (if you squint a bit). This stuffing is gorgeous – it employs the so-called “holy trinity” of green bell peppers, celery and onion as a base, with garlicky, cheesy bread croutons which retain their crunch through the cooking, some typical Louisiana spicing, and a little tin of smoked oysters, chopped finely, to give the whole dish a warm, smoky background. You may think you don’t like smoked oysters – they look pretty unprepossessing, and they can taste a bit strong when used on toast or as canapés – but in this dish they just give the stuffing and the meat of the bird a wonderfully rich, umami smokiness. Surprisingly (totally) un-fishy. The recipe will make enough to stuff a 1.5kg bird and to prepare a separate tray of the stuffing to serve with the meal – you’ll want a separate tray, because it’s totally delicious.

To serve 4 (with some leftovers for sandwiches tomorrow, if you’re lucky), you’ll need:

1 plump chicken, weighing around 1.5kg (use a larger bird if you like – there will be enough stuffing, but you’ll need to adjust the cooking time)
½ loaf white bread (unsliced)
4 grated cloves garlic
20g grated parmesan
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium onions
1 green pepper
2 sticks celery
1 large knob butter
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, ground
1 teaspoon ground chipotle peppers (use cayenne pepper if you can’t find chipotles)
1 large handful (25g) parsley
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 small tin smoked oysters
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
Salt and pepper

Take the chicken out of the fridge a couple of hours before cooking to allow it to come to room temperature. Dry the skin well and snip any fat you find inside the cavity out of the bird – either discard it or render it down in a dry frying pan to make schmaltz to use for another recipe. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F) for the croutons.

Remove the crusts from the bread and chop the white part into cubes about 2cm on each side (a large-ish crouton is nice here, the outside turning crisp and the inside retaining a bit of squashiness). Arrange the croutons on a baking sheet – they should cover the bottom in one layer. If you find you have more space, chop a few more croutons out of the remains of the loaf. Grate the garlic into the olive oil, mix well and drizzle over the croutons. Toss them well in the oil so every side is covered with the garlicky mixture, then sprinkle over the parmesan and toss again. Bake in the hot oven for ten minutes until golden, but start checking after eight minutes – these are quite easy to burn. Turn the oven temperature up to 230°C (450° F) and set the finished croutons aside.

You can start on the other stuffing ingredients while the croutons are cooking. Chop the celery, onions and pepper finely and fry off in a generous knob of butter with the spices, keeping everything in the frying pan on the move, until the onions are turning golden, as in the picture. Remove the contents of the pan to a large mixing bowl, and add the chopped parsley, the juice and zest of the lemon, the drained and finely chopped oysters and the soy sauce. Fold the croutons into this mixture and taste it for seasoning – you may not find you need any salt, but a generous amount of pepper is good here. Stuff the chicken with the mixture, using toothpicks to hold the flaps of skin at the end of the chicken closed. There will be plenty of stuffing left over; put it in a small baking dish and keep to one side until the end of the chicken’s cooking time.

Rub the chicken with plenty of salt and roast it, covered with a piece of tin foil, for 1 hour and 20 minutes, removing the foil and adding the stuffing dish for the last 15 minutes. Prick the chicken at the fattest part of its thigh at the end of the cooking time to check it’s done – the juices should run clear. If they are pink, get the stuffing tray out of the oven and keep it in a warm place, and give the chicken another 10 minutes in the oven, repeating the prick test at the end of this time. Make gravy from the pan juices and a splash of stock and white wine if you fancy some lubrication, and scatter the chicken and stuffing with fresh herbs of your choice – I used some Cypriot basil and some parsley. The stuffing and chicken are fantastic with a tart salad, sautéed potatoes and lemon wedges.

How to shuck oysters

On the phone to my friend James yesterday, I mentioned that I was planning on visiting Waitrose to pick up some Christmas supplies. He suddenly became very excited and started making insistent noises about visiting the fish counter, where, he said, oysters are currently cheap and plentiful. It’s an ‘R’ month, the middle of the oyster season, and he was right; there were dozens spread out on ice for 39p each. I managed to score twelve of my favourite transexual bivalve for less than £5.

Transexual bivalve, you ask? It’s true; Tiresias, the chap in Ovid who spent seven years being a lady as a punishment for being mean to snakes, didn’t have it this easy. Oysters of the genus Crassostrea (like those we had last night; you can tell them apart from Ostrea oysters by their asymmetrical, elongated shape) decide to be male or female from season to season on a whim. (Ostrea oysters, which are scallop-shaped and symmetrical, are even more confused, changing gender at the drop of a shelly hat, often many times in one breeding season.)

As well as having a phenomenally exciting sex life, the oyster produces pearls (sadly, the oyster you eat is vanishingly unlikely to produce anything that’s not small, brown, gritty and liable to break your teeth), can live for up to fifty years, is said to be an aphrodisiac (I’m saying nothing) and often ends up attached to a rock in the most picturesque bits of sea in the world. When I was a little girl visiting family in Malaysia, my cousin Margaret and I used to wade out into the sea where there were rocks covered with oysters at low tide, and bash the shells open with a stone, scooping the quivering flesh into greedy mouths. We were horrible children.

Eating-oysters will not be particularly venerable; the flavour becomes less good after they’re about five years old, so those you buy at the fishmongers (which are almost certainly farmed; minuscule oyster spats are encouraged to attach themselves to tiles or other collecting devices as their permanent home, and are scraped off and lovingly cared for until supper time three years later by professional oyster herdsmen) will be mere oyster striplings.

So. You’ve bought your oysters. How should you go about opening them? You’ll need an oyster knife (or another short, wide-bladed knife with a point), a towel, and a bowl to catch any juices you spill. Hold the oyster in a towel in your left hand (right hand if you are left-handed) with the curved half of the shell in the palm of your hand. The flat shell on top is the oyster’s lid. Force the point of the knife in where you can (as close to the hinge as you can manage), and twist it ninety degrees to break the muscle and pop the lid off. Use the blade of the knife to remove the meat from the underside of the lid, and scrape it into the bowl full of meat created by the curved half of the shell. You can release the meat from the bottom of the shell with the knife too, or leave it for the person eating the oyster to do it with a fork.

You need that towel. You will see from the picture that Mr Weasel started the evening considering towel-use unmanly; he changed his mind pretty quickly once he’d stabbed himself for the second time in the palm of the hand. (Those concerned for him have nothing to worry about. He says he’s very happy to be able to point at scars and say casually, ‘That? I did it shucking oysters.’)

They’re nigh on perfect tipped straight into your mouth from the shell, raw and tasting of the sea, but they do benefit from some carefully chosen accompaniments. We used a squeeze of lemon, a squeeze of lime and a microscopic dab of wasabi. (When you buy wasabi, try to get hold of it in powdered form to make up yourself. If you do get a tube, do your best to find one whose ingredients list reads ‘horseradish’ or ‘wasabi’ and nothing else.) Some people use Tabasco sauce or minced shallots in wine vinegar; I find both these a bit too strong. They can hide the subtle, seashore flavour of the oyster.

I should have bought more than a dozen. We scarfed these in five minutes flat.