Makes 6 to 8 servings 3 dozen small, live oysters 2 cups water 4 tablespoons butter 4 shallots, peeled and sliced 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper...

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Makes 6 to 8 servings

3 dozen small, live oysters

2 cups water

4 tablespoons butter

4 shallots, peeled and sliced

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

About 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, or to taste

1/2 cup sherry or Madeira

3 cups heavy cream, divided

1/4 cup freshly chopped parsley leaves

1. Scrub the oysters and bring 2 cups of water to a full rolling boil in a 1-gallon Dutch oven or enameled kettle over high heat. Put the oysters in the kettle, cover the pan, reduce the heat to medium and let them steam until they open, about 8 minutes. Lift the oysters out of the kettle and save the water.

2. Remove the steamed oysters from their shells and put them in a blender. Strain the liquid in which the oysters were steamed into the blender and blend the oysters and their liquid to make a fairly smooth purée.

3. Put the butter in a heavy soup pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add the shallots. Sauté until the shallots are soft and transparent. Add the pepper, nutmeg and sherry and cook until the sherry has evaporated and the shallots have begun to sizzle in the pan once again. Add 2 ½ cups of the cream and bring this mixture to a full rolling boil; stir to prevent the cream from boiling over. Stir the oyster purée into the boiling cream mixture and reduce the heat to a simmer. The soup may be served at once, or chilled and reheated just before serving.

4. Whip the remaining 1/2 cup of cream. Garnish hot soup with dollops of whipped cream and chopped parsley and serve.

Note: It defies logic that a simple soup with just a handful of ingredients could be as complex as this one is. But the mysterious mineral-toned flavor and the creamy-meaty texture make for a compelling first course. On some winter evenings, this soup is supper in itself. The whipped-cream garnish looks best if a hot, wet spoon is used to scoop the cream into a neat oval to plant on top of each bowl.

From Greg Atkinson