At Howard’s Thanksgiving feast, the turkey takes second stage to a simple meal made up of local, seasonal crowd-pleasers. For this working chef, the point is to gather and enjoy each others company—not to get bogged down in preparing the same old sides. That’s why an Eastern North Carolina Oyster Roast, complete with Brown Butter Hot Sauce, takes center stage.
ENC-Style Steamed Oyster Party
Although the Howards ate oysters only at the oyster bar, lots of people here host oyster roasts or steams at home. It’s a popular thing to do in the late fall, when handling hot oyster shells helps balance a chilly evening. I personally think it’s one of those brilliant parties that by its nature gives everyone something to do. Plus, you do it outside.
For something like this, buy oysters by the bushel from a trusted source. Unless you’re me and have a walk-in refrigerator, buy them late the afternoon you plan to serve them and do your best to keep them cold till they steam.
Note: There are 4 pecks and roughly 100 oysters in a bushel. A bushel of oysters will feed anywhere from 5-7 people depending on whether or not you’re serving other food.
In-shell washed oysters
A 6-10 gallon pot fitted with a basket and lid (optional)
Melted butter, kept warm in a fondue pot or chaffer, or Brown Butter Hot Sauce (recipe below)
Several pairs of rubber gloves, you want more than one person to do the shucking
Multiple oyster knives
A stack of dish towels
A sturdy trash can
To cook the oysters, you can steam them directly on a hot grill or inside a large steamer situation. To steam inside a steamer, we use a turkey fryer or seafood boil set up at my house. These pots are meant for cooking outside and come fitted with a basket, a handle and a lid. In a pinch, you could put a brick in the bottom of a large pot and rest a colander on top of that. I’ve even used a hot water bath canner. Once you select your cooking vessel, fill the bottom of the pot with water but don’t let the water reach the bottom of the basket. Cover the pot and bring the water up to a boil.
Lay your oysters in no more than a double layer in the bottom of the basket, and lower it into the bottom of the pot. Cover and steam for about 4 minutes for just warmed oysters whose shells are barely beginning to open. Hardcore oyster lovers prefer them at this stage. We call it rare, but there’s no right or wrong here. When rare, they’re still plump with liquor, but warm and comforting. If you have some guests who are unsure about oysters, steam them about 8 minutes. They’re less jiggly and more like chicken that way.
Drain the steamed oysters and dump them onto newspaper, or use metal tongs to remove them from the grill. The faint sea smell and poof of steam will draw people over. Shuck, garnish and eat. Serve with Brown Butter Hot Sauce (recipe below).
Vivian Howard’s Brown Butter Hot Sauce
Makes enough butter for 16 oysters
4 tablespoons butter
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Texas Pete
1/8 teaspoon salt
Make the butter: In a 6-inch saute pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Watch closely and swirl the butter around in the pan. Once it takes on a nutty aroma and the bottom of the pan is speckled with brown dots, pour the butter into a small clear glass bowl.
Transfer the butter to the refrigerator and let it chill for about 10 minutes. Take it out and stir, making sure you scoop up the browned bits that have sunk to the bottom. The idea is to evenly distribute the browned solids all throughout the butter, so continue to stir as it cools. The butter itself will become pale brown, similar to the color of bacon fat. Once it’s room temperature, stir in the zest, lemon juice, hot sauce and salt. Transfer the butter to a piece of plastic wrap and roll it up into a tight log. Freeze until you’re ready to use.
To serve, add a dollop of butter to each roasted oyster.