“If you don’t love life you can’t enjoy an oyster; there is a shock of freshness to it and intimations of the ages of man, some piercing intuition of the sea and all its weeds and breezes. They shiver you for a split second.” Eleanor Clark, The Oysters of Locmariequer.
“I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead. Not sick. Not wounded. Dead.” Woody Allen
For which team do you play? For Eleanor’s, where an oyster slurped from it’s half shell invokes rhapsody and history? Or, for Woody’s, where a raw oyster equals disgust?
Presumably, Woody would consider eating a dead (cooked) oyster, whether stewed, fried, grilled, baked, smoked, or gratinée. So, sadly, there is a third team – those who do not eat oysters at all. Unless you rate sympathy either by a shellfish allergy or a religious objection, I must tell you that you will be met with scorn from both gastronomes and literature:
“You needn’t tell me that a man who doesn’t love oysters and asparagus and good wines has got a soul, or a stomach either. He’s simply got the instinct for being unhappy.” Saki
And, you need not read any further.
I, myself, came to oysters rather late in life. As a descendent of seafood-wary, land-locked people whose forays into fish consumption ran the limited gamut of fried fish to canned tuna, oysters-on-the-half-shell were an exotic notion to me. After ten years in Baltimore of picking crabs, devouring steamed shrimp and mussels every Friday night at Cross Street Market, and then discovering sushi, too, I finally tasted my first raw oyster. At a dear friend’s house, I dared swallow the amorphous lump of flesh quivering in its clear, shiny liquid and craggy, stone-like shell. My hosts had two preferred methods for consumption: a squeeze of lemon, then, with your head back you “shoot” it, or on a saltine with a dash of tabasco. By the end of the evening, a pile of discarded shells in front of me, I had joined Eleanor’s team.
Then I discovered mignonette! As much as I enjoy the lemon and tabasco deliveries, I find that this French sauce of shallots and vinegar is not only fun to say, but truly makes an oyster SING. Drink a chilly, dry sparkling wine along with and you’ve got a symphony. Traditionally, mignonette is made with red vinegar, but I prefer unseasoned rice wine vinegar or champagne vinegar (a better match for the bubbly I’m sure to be drinking). I like to add fresh tarragon, too (or basil in a pinch). It’s a nod to the use of Pernod in Oysters Rockefeller, and because, I think, the faintly anise herb brings out the sea. One day soon I will try topping a raw oyster with minced preserved lemon. In the meantime, here’s my recipe for mignonette.
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons champagne vinegar or unseasoned rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons of the wine you are drinking with the oysters
2 large shallots, minced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh tarragon
½ teaspoon fluer de sel
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper.
Stir all ingredients together and let rest for about 20 minutes to allow the shallots to soften.This recipe makes about ¾ cup, which will accommodate about 4 dozen oysters.
Considering that these bivalve molluscs are low calorie, low fat, and an excellent source of zinc, iron, calcium, selenium, phosphorous and Vitamins A and B12, you’ve got a very light, healthful endeavor here. In her 1941 ode to family Ostreidae, Consider the Oyster, MFK Fisher, our “poet of appetites”, makes the following claims:
“They prevent goiter. They build up your teeth. They keep your children’s legs straight, and when Junior reaches puberty they make his skin clear and beautiful as a soap-opera announcer’s dream. They add years to your life….And…They contain more phosphorous than any other food!”
Phosphorous, she says, has long been regarded as brain food. Accordingly, “Cicero ate oysters to nourish his eloquence”. Larousse Gastronomique notes that though “the oyster has been known to man from the earliest of times…..there is no mention of it in the Bible”. A curious omission, given the oyster’s reputation as an aphrodisiac – a reputation perhaps supported by it’s concentration of zinc. Zinc is essential for the proper action of testosterone and is a key nutrient in sperm production.
Then there’s the whole “R” thing. Historically, the advice was to enjoy oysters only during those months ending in “R” – September, October and so on. While this counsel originated in the days before refrigeration and has since been decreed nonsense by both the government and the medical community, there is reason to generally follow it. Oysters require a water temperature of about 70 degrees to breed. In May through August when coastal waters are warmer, taking a healthy female before she’s had a chance to birth her millions of eggs is a blow to the oyster crop, a result not to be sniffed at given the efforts to rebuild marine life in our Chesapeake Bay region.
“The oyster has been dubbed a keystone species, essential to the bay’s health due to its ability to filter pollutants, silt, and life-choking algae from the water. Before the great harvests of the 1880s, oysters could filter the entire bay at summer water temperatures in less than six days, according to Roger Newell, professor of Marine Science at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. These days, it would take more than 700 days.” (Charles Cohen, Betting on the Half Shell, 02/01/11 Urbanite Magazine)
Environmental concerns aside, warmer waters deliver less flavorful oysters, while colder waters give us oysters in their prime – lazy and succulent fellows with breeding behind them need only sleep and wait for food to float past. MFK Fisher surmises that New Orleans is home to Oysters Rockefeller as well as other tasty, but cooked oyster preparations to accommodate the milder, flaccid local oysters that only know the Gulf’s tepid waters.
If you are in Woody’s camp – willing to eat an oyster only if it is dead, a fried oyster nearly rivals one on the half shell. What isn’t delicious fried?, you say. Not many things, I agree, but in the case of the oyster, consider this: a crispy coat encloses a plump pillow that spurts it’s briny life’s liquor with your bite. With lemon, fried parsley or rémoulade on the side, those other fried sea-things seem insipid in comparison.
I’m also very fond of garnishing a Cream of Fennel Soup with fried oysters, again, pairing an anisette flavor with my favorite bivalve. This recipe has won over at least one anti-oyster diner.
Cream of Fennel Soup with Fried Oysters (6 servings)
3 medium fennel bulbs
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
½ teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed in a mortar and pestle
2 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
oyster liquor from 1 quart of shucked oysters
2 tablespoons anise-flavored liqueur
½ cup heavy cream
salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste
1 quart container of shucked oysters (liquor reserved for soup)
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons milk
2 cups panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs)
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle
grated zest of one lemon
peanut or safflower oil for frying
salt and pepper to taste
Special equipment: deep-fry thermometer (available at most supermarkets)
Make the soup:
Trim fennel, discarding stalks but reserving fronds. Coarsely chop the bulbs. (You should have about 3½ cups.)
Warm oil over a medium heat. Add onion, chopped fennel and fronds (reserve some of the fronds for garnish), and crushed fennel seeds. Sauté until softened.
Add the chicken stock, oyster liquor and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, then simmer gently for about 30 minutes.
Stir in the anisette liqueur and cream. Puree with an immersion blender. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Prepare the oysters:
Put flour into a shallow dish. Beat together egg and milk in a bowl. Mix panko with fennel seeds and zest.
Dredge the oyster in the flour, then dip in the egg mixture, and coat in the panko. Repeat with each oyster, placing them as breaded on a cookie sheet.
In a heavy deep skillet or dutch oven, heat about 3 inches of oil until it registers 375 degrees on a deep-fry thermometer. Fry oysters 4-6 at a time, until golden brown (approximately 2 minutes). Drain as fried on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and pepper while hot.
Ladle soup into shallow bowls. Pile 3-4 fried oysters in the center of the soup so that they are visible. Sprinkle with the reserved fennel fronds.
As you look to the dawn of 2012, I urge you to consider the oyster.
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
“I do not weep at the world I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” Zora Neale Hurston
1. When you’re selecting one of the many varieties available make sure the oysters are alive, wet, and have a mild, sweet smell. Do not select specimens that are dry or have a strong smell, or if their shells refuse to close even when tapped with your finger.
2. To shuck an oyster, scrub it first with a stiff brush under cold running water. Hold the oyster flat on a folded towel upon a table or countertop with your left (or right) hand atop it so the thin end points towards you. With your right hand, force your oyster knife between the shells at the thin end. Avoid plunging the blade directly into the oyster and move the knife sharply left and right to cut the muscle that’s attached to the shell. Remove the shell with a twisting motion, and cut the other end of the same muscle that’s attached to the opposite shell. Wearing a heavy canvas or chain mail glove is highly recommended! For a video demonstration, go here:
3. You can purchase fresh oysters in the shell from the following, (with varieties available this week, price is per dozen unless otherwise noted:
Conrad’s Crabs: Blue Points ($10.99), Black Points ($12.99) and Locals ($5.99)
Nick’s Inner Harbor Seafood: Chincoteagues, Delaware Bays, Blue Points, $5.99
Wegmans: Chincoteagues, Blue Points, $1.29 per oyster
Whole Foods: Wellfleets, Choptank Sweets, Chesapeakes, $.99 per oyster
4. Oyster Varieties Guide
5. Ordering Oysters online:
Rappahanock River Oysters
6. Where to eat oysters on the half shell:
Nick’s Oyster Bar
The Dogwood Restaurant
7. In addition to sparkling wine, cold beer, Sauvignon Blanc, icy cold vodka, tequila and Bloody Marys are excellent with oysters on the half shell.
Happy New Year!