This is not only one of the most unusual but also one of the oldest antebellum stew recipes in the South Carolina Lowcountry repertory. I first read about the dish in a book that related tales about the food served on the old rice plantations between Georgetown and Charleston, but the author never revealed the name of the plantation at which it was served. Was it Bellefield, Arcadia, Waverly, Litchfield, or another of the surviving estates that I’ve been visiting since I was a child? No matter, for none other than Louis Osteen, the chef at Louis’s on Pawleys Island, also knew about this dish and came up with a brilliant modern interpretation, which we discussed in detail. Louis includes pancetta in his recipe, but since I feel that cured Italian bacon detracts from the stew’s authenticity, I use what was surely used in the old plantation kitchen: namely, salt pork.
In a small, heavy skillet, dry-roast the benne seeds over moderate heat till they become dark, 8 to 9 minutes, stirring often and taking care not to burn them. Transfer the seeds to a cutting board, roughly crush half of them with a spoon and reserve separately from the whole seeds.
In a large, heavy saucepan, heat the peanut oil over moderate heat, add the salt pork, fry till lightly browned and crisp, and drain on paper towels. Add the onion and crushed benne seeds to the pan and stir till the onion browns slightly, about 3 minutes. Add the flour, stir, and cook 2 minutes longer. Add the oyster liquor, clam juice, and thyme and whisk 2 minutes. Add the cream and simmer 5 minutes. Add the oysters, whole benne seeds, lime juice, sesame oil, chervil, and salt and pepper and leave on the heat till the oysters just begin to curl, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Ladle the stew into soup bowls, sprinkle crisp salt pork over each portion, and serve piping hot.
© 2007 All rights reserved. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.