Few restaurants make oysters Bienville anymore, but that doesn’t make it bad. This classic baked-on-the-shell dish, named for the founder of New Orleans, is seriously delicious. However, there’s no gold standard for the dish. Nobody is sure who invented it, in fact. Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, and Commander’s all make claims, and Pascal’s Manale and Delmonico are also famous for their versions.
I’m persuaded that the ingredient list must contain bacon, shrimp, mushrooms, bell peppers, sherry, a butter-based light roux, Parmesan cheese and some lighter cheese, and bread crumbs. Other ingredients lurk in the background. You can bake oysters Bienville classically on the shells, but I find they’re just as good made in a small casserole or gratin dish. I serve them that way at Thanksgiving instead of oyster dressing.
When cooking, oysters release a good deal of water, and that can rip the sauce apart. The solution is to use more bread crumbs than looks or feels right. And to have the sauce fully cooked and hot before it goes into the oven, so that the dish can be cooked mostly by heat from above.
- 1 lb. small shrimp (50 count), peeled, rinsed, and chopped coarsely
- 1 stick butter
- 1 rib celery, chopped coarsely
- 1 large, ripe red bell pepper, seeds and membrane removed, chopped coarsely
- 8 oz. small white mushrooms, chopped coarsely
- 1/4 cup dry sherry
- 4 strips lean bacon, fried crisp, crumbled
- 2 green onions, sliced finely
- 1 cup of oyster water (or as much as you can get, plus enough water to make a cup)
- 1/2 cup flour
- 2/3 cup warm milk
- 2 egg yolks
- 2/3 cup finely shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1 cup bread crumbs
- 1 tsp. salt-free Creole seasoning
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 4 dozen large oysters, well drained
1. Heat 1 tsp. of the butter in a skillet until it bubbles. Sauté the chopped shrimp until it turns pink. Remove and set aside.
2. Add 2 Tbs. butter to the pan and heat until it bubbles. Add the celery, bell pepper, and mushrooms. Sauté until they get tender. Add the sherry and bring to a boil for about one minute.
3. Add the shrimp, bacon, and green onions. Cook for another minute, then add the oyster water. Bring it to a boil and cook for about two minutes. The sauce should be wet but not sloshy. Remove from heat.
4. Heat the remaining butter over medium-low heat in a saucepan. Stir in the flour to make a blond roux. When you see the first hints of browning, remove from the heat and whisk in the hot milk to form a béchamel. (It will have the texture of mashed potatoes.)
5. Add the egg yolks to the béchamel, stirring quickly to combine it before the eggs have a chance to set. Whisk the mozzarella slowly into the béchamel.
6. Add the béchamel to the pan with the shrimp mixture. Stir to into combine completely.
7. Combine the Creole seasoning, salt, bread crumbs, and cheeses. Blend two-thirds of this mixture into the sauce.
8. Cover the bottom of a shallow baking dish with oysters, leaving just a little space between them. Top with the Bienville sauce. Sprinkle the top with the remaining bread crumb mixture. Bake in a preheated 450-degree oven for about 15-20 minutes (depending on the size of the baking dish). The dish is done when it’s bubbling and the top is browned.
Serves eight to twelve.