Velma Marie’s Oyster Soup tastes of salt pork, briny oysters and sweet tomatoes
Melissa M. Martin wrote the cookbook “Mosquito Supper Club” to document Chauvin, Louisiana, the Cajun village where she grew up. Chauvin has been devastated by rising seas and coastal land loss. Hurricane Ida caused more damage, further imperiling Martin’s hometown.
The International Association of Culinary Professionals recently named “Mosquito Supper Club” as both the American cookbook of the year and the overall cookbook of the year.
About the recipe
My mom gave me my grandmother’s Magnalite soup pot when I was going through a rough time; seeing it daily helped ground me in my life’s work, procuring ingredients and cooking. It is the pot my grandmother cooked her oyster soup in, a memento of a life lived. The battered pot reminds me of her patience and kindness, her wit and fierceness, and her ability to marry ingredients. Her grandfather, father, and husband were oyster fishermen. This is a soup to feed a large family and hungry workers. It is a fishermen’s soup and, for me, a prayer.
My grandmother’s oyster soup tastes of salt pork and briny oysters, of sweet tomatoes and alliums. Like the mussel and fish stews of France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, it marries tomatoes and seafood in a broth. It resembles a tomato-forward bouillabaisse and smells like the oyster beds of Louisiana. The salt pork comes from our Acadian salt-curing roots; it mellows the acidity of the tomatoes and mingles perfectly with the salt from the sea.
To make this soup, I ask farmers at the Crescent City Farmers Market to save me their “seconds” — those ripe red tomatoes that are bruised or too soft. They’re perfect for soup and sauces, and you can often buy them at a discount. Core them and put them in the pot otherwise whole to break down. Call it superstition, but I think letting whole tomatoes break down slowly enhances the flavor. The soup’s taste is also dependent on the oysters’ salty, briny liquor, so you really want to procure as much as you can to make this soup. The best way to do this is to shuck your own oysters and reserve all the drops of liquor from the shells or ask a seafood purveyor to save you the precious liquid. If you can’t shuck your own, then forge ahead with fish or chicken stock. It’s important to hold off on salting the soup until the very end, as the pork and oysters pack loads of salt.
Note: To get your hands on oyster liquor (also known as oyster water), look for a supplier of raw oysters, an oyster factory, or an oyster bar. Make friends with the supplier or shucker and ask if they will save some oyster liquor for you. If you can’t get your hands on the liquor, a tip from Captain Johnny, my oyster purveyor, is to take 6 shucked oysters and blend them with 1 quart (1 L) water, adding 1 teaspoon kosher salt, then strain the liquid and use it in place of the oyster liquor. Taste your oyster liquor: If it’s not salty, add a teaspoon of salt to bring the brininess up (if that doesn’t do it, add up to 2 teaspoons more).
Excerpted from Mosquito Supper Club by Melissa Martin (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2019.
Serves: 8 to 12
Total time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
1 tablespoon canola oil
½ pound (225 g) salt pork, homemade (recipe follows) or store-bought, diced
4 pounds (1.8 kg) yellow onions, finely diced
4 large ripe tomatoes (2 pounds/910 g), cored
1 cup (135 g) finely chopped garlic
½ teaspoon cracked black pepper, plus more as needed
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus more as needed
12½ cups (3 L) oyster liquor (see note), or fish stock or chicken stock
2 pounds (910 g) shucked salty oysters, drained
Kosher salt, if needed
½ pound (225 g) small or medium pasta shells, cooked as directed on the package
¼ cup (13 g) finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
¼ cup (20 g) finely diced green onions, for garnish
Warm a large heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium-high heat for 2 minutes, then add the oil and heat for 30 seconds Add the salt pork and cook, turning as needed to brown it on all sides, about 12 minutes.
Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about 20 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, garlic, black pepper, and cayenne and stir well. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and let everything smother together, stirring every 15 minutes, until the tomatoes are completely broken down and fall apart easily when you press on them with a spoon, about 45 minutes. (The timing may be a little shorter or longer depending on the size of your tomatoes.)
Add the oyster liquor and raise the heat to medium. Bring the soup to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes, letting all the flavors marry; the soup will be salty from the oyster water and salt pork and sweet from the tomatoes and onions. Be careful to not boil down the soup too much.
Just before serving, add the oysters to the soup and raise the heat to medium. Bring the soup to a brisk simmer and cook for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat. Taste the soup: Does it need salt, pepper, or heat? The cayenne is essential to the taste. Not too much, but a tiny bit of sweet cayenne heat makes it perfect. Add the cooked pasta shells and stir to combine.
Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the parsley and green onions. Reheat the leftovers and enjoy them with crusty country bread.
You can easily salt-cure pork in the refrigerator. Start by asking your local butcher to get you a piece of clean, humanely raised pork belly. You can salt a whole slab of belly, cut it into pieces, and freeze them to use throughout the year, or just start with a couple of pounds. You can also use pork shoulder and some of the other cuts of the pig that usually require a longer cook time; they’ll hold up to the salting process and, later, to long cook times.
You’ll need a casserole dish that fits the pork and is deep enough that you can completely cover the pork with salt.
Makes 3 pounds (1.35 kg)
3 pounds (1.35 kg) skin-on pork belly or pork shoulder
1½ cups (370 g) sea salt or kosher salt
1 bay leaf
Wash and dry the pork and cut it into pieces that will fit into your casserole dish. Working over the dish, rub the pork liberally on all sides with salt. You want to really press the salt into the pork. Place the pieces in the casserole dish and cover with the remaining salt; add the bay leaf. Wrap the casserole dish with plastic wrap, label it, and date it. Refrigerate the pork for two days.
Unwrap the pork and pour off any liquid. Use the salt on the bottom of the dish to give the pork another good rub. Rewrap the dish and refrigerate for an additonal two days.
The salt pork should now be ready. You can use it immediately, or cut it into 8-ounce (225 g) chunks, wrap them in plastic wrap or butcher paper and put them in a ziplock freezer bag, and freeze for up to one year. Be sure to label each piece with “salt pork” and the date.