From now through February and into March, Louisiana oysters are in their prime — fat and flavorful.
And Ronnie Sampey knows it.
Sampey, who was born and raised in Lockport, is pure Cajun. But his cooking has a sophistication and polish that is more what is found in many South Louisiana kitchens. For example, by his own admission, he uses oregano, thyme and rosemary in almost everything.
His first memories of cooking were at his grandparents’, Telius and Rene’ LeBlancs’ home. His mom Gladys was also an awesome cook, but his dad put him to work as a youngster on the family’s 440-acre sugarcane and cattle farm. When he was 25, he added a 70-acre crawfish pond to the farm in 1968.
“I got into crawfish by accident by flooding pastures in the fall to produce water grass (alligator weed) for the cattle. They would get a rusty ring on their faces from grazing in the water. The crawfish came naturally in the spring.
“You know what I produced out of that crawfish pond? A dentist (neighbor’s son Ryan Matherne) and an electronic engineer (son Darius).”
After Ronnie took over management of the farm, he share-cropped sugarcane from 1990 to 1998. Then he turned it all into a cattle operation which lasted until 2001, when he had a heart attack.
“Eating too many gratons,” he said with a grin. “Too much stress and too much work.”
He sold the farm 16 years ago, and now lives on Grand Isle.
“I love Grand Isle. Everything about Grand Isle is attractive to me — the seafood, the activities, the people. I’ve been going to Grand Isle since I was 4 years old.”
Oysters in a brown gravy
“I learned how to cook this dish from my Grandma Tel (Telias) LeBlanc” Ronnie said. “She was a Rodrigue before she got married. Grandma cooked it often, and I cooked it for them a couple of times when I was 10 or 12 years old.”
The roux in this recipe is made with olive oil, which will burn and become bitter if exposed to as much heat as vegetable oil. He recommends making the roux at a lower heat and taking your time. The roux can be made with vegetable oil, but Sampey maintains that it doesn’t taste as good as one made with olive oil.
Tip: With an olive oil roux, use lower heat and take your time. It will burn and be bitter if it’s cooked like a vegetable oil roux.
1/3 cup olive oil
3/4 cup flour
2 onions, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. dried rosemary
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
8 oz. sliced fresh baby portobello mushrooms
2 pt. oysters with liquor
8 oz. fettuccini, broken into thirds
Louisiana Hot Sauce
Salt to taste
PREPARATION: Serves four to six
Make a roux with the olive oil and flour on moderate heat, stirring constantly to keep it from burning. (The olive oil roux will be dryer and lighter than a typical roux.) When the roux is light brown it is done. Remove the pot from the heat and allow it to cool slightly. Add the onions and stir to coat them with the roux. Return to the fire, add the celery and continue to stir. Add 1 cup of water and stir to make a paste. Add another cup of water and mix well. The mixture should have a pudding-like consistency. Sprinkle in oregano, rosemary and thyme. Add three more cups of water and bring to a boil. Add the mushrooms and return to a boil. Lower the heat, cover and simmer about 15 minutes. Add the oysters and their liquor and cook over a very low heat. Pour in another cup of water. Add the fettuccini to the gravy, and stir to keep pasta from sticking. Season with hot sauce and salt to taste. Continue cooking until the pasta is done. (The finished dish will be soupy.)
We paired Ronnie’s dish with a recipe that we’ve had for so long we don’t remember its origin. But it’s a gem, and you will never again want to eat those canned smoked oysters imported from China or Korea — which taste like smoky pencil erasers.
These are moist and succulent with a great mouth-feel. This is a dish to cook on a true side-smoker or a Green Egg, not a barbecue pit or grill. Low temperatures and lots and lots of smoke are the keys to success. The process is a little lengthy so you need to allow four hours for preparation before the one-hour smoking process begins. Sometimes I will do the brining and rinsing the day before I smoke them. They store well overnight in the refrigerator.
Tip: Because smoking results in a great deal of shrinkage, the largest oysters obtainable are the best ones to use for smoking.
Tip: Be sure to rinse the oysters thoroughly when a rinse is called for, or they will be too salty.
INGREDIENTS: (Step 1)
36 large oysters
2 1/4 cups water
3/4 cup kosher salt
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup green onion tops and bottoms, chopped
1tbsp. ground oregano
INGREDIENTS: (Step 2)
3/4 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp. onion powder
1 1/2 tsp. ground oregano
PREPARATION: Serves six as an appetizer
(Step 1) Check oysters for shell and set aside. Mix all the remaining ingredients (above) and stir well to dissolve the salt and sugar. Add the oysters and set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes. Be sure that all the oysters are submerged in the marinade. Line a platter with several layers of paper towels, and then rinse the oysters, pat them dry and spread them on paper towels. Allow them to air dry for one hour. Change the towels if they become soaked by liquid from the oysters.
(Step 2) Combine the dry ingredients (left) in a bowl. Remove the oysters from the platter and re-line it with new paper towels. Dip both sides of the oysters in the dry mix and place them on the towels. Allow them to air dry at room temperature for one hour. Rinse the oysters again, pat them dry and return them to a platter lined with new paper towels to air dry for one more hour. At this stage the oysters should have a glossy appearance. Spread the oysters on a perforated grill plate or pan and place in a smoker at a temperature of 200 to 225 degrees. Place the oysters as far from the fire as possible. Cook for about 1 hour or until they have shrunken somewhat and appear dried, but not shriveled or hard. Remove the oysters from the smoker and put in a small bowl. Cover them with olive oil and store in the refrigerator. Serve at room temperature with crackers.