MY GRANDPA JOHN COOK passed away this fall. I’ll remember him for so many things, chiefly his love of food. Now, I’m not saying he had great taste or an exceptional palate (once we did a blind taste test of chocolate bars, and he was unmoved in his decision that Hershey’s was the best), but he had unmatched enthusiasm for food and the way people bonded over it.
He loved seafood of all kinds — from smoked salmon to imitation crab — but he loved oysters most of all. The only dish I remember him making was his annual Christmas oyster stew. After our grandpa was diagnosed with macular degeneration, which pretty much took cooking off the table, my brother Tyler called him for the recipe, saying he wanted to make Grandpa John his oyster stew as a present for Christmas.
The recipe was a jar of oysters, sauteed in butter and covered with whole milk and a little black pepper, simmered until done. That’s it. No onion or garlic. No celery or carrot. Not even a potato! We still laugh about it, this famous “stew” with four ingredients, built up in our minds as this amazingly complicated dish that would be bursting with flavor.
Tyler says he whipped up a “fancy” version, but Grandpa John preferred his simple one.
Victor Steinbrueck, owner of the seafood-focused Local Tide in Fremont, laughs when I tell him the story of Grandpa John’s oyster stew. He tells me his own story of learning that his dad’s pork-chop recipe, which he loved as a kid, was just pork chops with a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup poured over the top and baked. “It’s the nostalgia factor,” he says about what makes it important.
Local Tide is known for its straightforward menu showcasing Pacific Northwest seafood dishes with layers of thoughtful flavors: slow-poached salmon teriyaki served with red rice and a cabbage slaw with sesame vinaigrette, chilled Penn Cove mussels marinated in a ginger scallion sauce, a hand-cracked Dungeness crab roll spiked with Steinbrueck’s housemade mayo.
Steinbrueck is the namesake and grandson of the late Victor Steinbrueck, an architect known for leading the charge to save Pike Place Market 50 years ago. Sadly, the elder Steinbrueck passed away before his grandson was born, but the younger Steinbrueck has found a tie to his grandfather through the Market.
“When I was born, my family bought a shop at Pike Place Market. That was their first business, and that’s what helped them raise the family,” he says.
As a kid, he went to day care at the Market, and his first pop-ups were at the Atrium Kitchen. The Market always has felt like home to Steinbrueck; it’s what led him to seafood in the first place, and now he says having his restaurant is a “dream come true,” one that would’ve looked different without the Market.
Despite loving oysters in all forms, Steinbrueck has never eaten oyster stew, but he gets its appeal and my grandpa’s love of it.
“I can get behind oyster stew. What’s not to like?” he says.
This year for Christmas, in honor of Grandpa John, I might whip together oysters with milk and cracked black pepper, but I also asked Steinbrueck to create something that felt a little more flavorful.
“What I love most about the idea of it is that it seems like such a nostalgic dish: one that, if you had it growing up, you probably have a soft spot for it and, on the opposite end, if you never had it before, you’d probably think a bit longer on whether it makes sense or not,” he says.
His version adds the oysters at the last moment, plopping them into a fish sauce and sake-tinged broth with garlic, celery, bacon, potatoes and a stick of butter. Served with a good baguette and garnished with fresh parsley, this truly is a stew worthy of the holidays.
4 ounces good quality thick-cut bacon (diced)
3 stalks celery (diced)
1 medium yellow onion (diced)
5 cloves garlic (minced)
3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes (diced)
1 cup dry sake or white wine
1 pint whole milk
1 pint heavy cream
1.5 quarts fish stock
1 (32-ounce) jar medium Pacific Oysters (reserve liquid from jar)
2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 stick butter
4 ounces flour
Flat-leaf parsley (chopped)
Thick-cut sourdough (toasted)
1. Put bacon in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, and let it begin to render.
2. Once the bacon begins to render its fat and turn brown and smell amazing, begin adding diced celery and onions. Let them sweat, and season with salt and black pepper to taste.
3. Add in minced garlic and potatoes, and let cook for a few minutes, furthering the beautiful smell of things.
4. Pour in the sake or white wine, and reduce by half.
5. Pour in whole milk, heavy cream, fish stock, liquid from the oysters, soy sauce or tamari and fish sauce. Let this come to a simmer. Meanwhile …
6. In a separate pot or small pan, melt the stick of butter over medium-low heat.
7. Once butter is melted, begin incorporating the flour into the melted butter to make a roux. Once well-incorporated, continue stirring until the roux begins to take on a subtly darker hue.
8. Now that the stew is simmering and the roux is made, using a whisk, begin slowly adding the roux into the stew, careful to whisk in the roux so that no clumps form. The stew will begin to thicken.
9. Taste, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
10. At this point, add in the oysters, and cook very quickly on a low simmer. Oysters should become plump, and the edges should curl. Remove from heat, and serve. Garnish with chopped parsley, lemon and toasted sourdough.
— from Victor Steinbrueck, Local Tide