Thursday, February 19, 2015

Brooke Dojny: Consider the Oyster

On the fence about oysters? It’s time to pick a side (and a sauce).

Oysters on the half shell. Photo © Scott Dorrance, from Dishing Up® Maine
Thomas Fuller famously wrote, “He was a very valiant man who first adventured on eating oysters.” True, it’s not easy for some to get over the looks of the raw object, but upon first slurp, most people are instantly in love with oysters. They taste like essence of ocean — but better. While modern refrigeration makes it safe to eat oysters at any time of year, they are at their firm and most flavorful best in the winter “R” months (September through April).

Oysters, which are almost entirely farm-raised, are named for the bay or other body of water in which they’re raised, and every cove or estuary imparts its own particular flavor, depending on the salinity and nutrients in the water. Oysters are raised all along the East coast (including Canada) and also in the Pacific Northwest.

An entire oyster-descriptive vocabulary has evolved, with terms like “clean,” “crisp,” “briny,” “creamy,” “coppery,” “buttery,” “flinty,” and “sweet” bandied about to delineate differences in flavor. Each farmer coddles and cares for his “crop,” moving the oysters about during their life cycle to produce the best results. “It’s like polishing the vintage,” says a spokesperson for the Maine Aquaculture Association. Sampling a platter of several different oysters side-by-side at a good raw bar — tasting their variations, noting their subtle differences — is one of life’s most thrilling gustatory pleasures.

How To Shuck Oysters
  • Wear gloves or pad your hand with a folded kitchen towel.
  • Some recommend freezing the oysters for about 15 minutes to relax them.
  • Hold the oyster with its hinge toward you, rounded side down.
  • Use a specially designed oyster knife with a strong blade, sometimes bent at the end. Insert the point into the hinge and twist the knife to pry open the shell. 
  • Use the point of a knife to scrape the meat attached to the top shell into the bottom shell. Take care to keep as much of the liquid as possible in the shell.
  • Cut the oyster from the bottom shell. 
  • Pick out any bits of shell that have fallen into the flesh.
  • Nestle the oysters in a bed of crushed ice or rock salt to keep them from tipping over and spilling their liquor. 

“Nude” Raw Oysters with Sauces

Buy oysters from a reputable fish market and ask to have them opened for you or do it yourself (see How to Shuck Oysters, above). Store unopened oysters at home in a tightly wrapped mesh bag in the coldest part of the refrigerator. If the shells need cleaning, scrub with a stiff brush at least an hour before shucking, because the cleaning process causes the oysters to tense up, thus making them harder to pry open. To appreciate its pristine primal flavor, eat your first oyster unadorned, and then add condiments as you like.

4 servings

About 36 fresh raw oysters
Horseradish, either freshly grated or from a fresh bottle of prepared horseradish
Lemon wedges
Mignonette Sauce (recipe below)
Tabasco sauce, or other liquid hot pepper sauce

Mignonette Sauce Sampler

Classic Mignonette: One tablespoon minced shallots stirred into ⅓ cup white wine or champagne vinegar, with cracked black pepper added to taste

Mango Mignonette: Add about 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh mango or papaya.

Cranberry Mignonette: Add 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cranberries and a pinch of sugar.

Herb Mignonette: Add 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro, parsley, or tarragon.

Jalapeรฑo Mignonette: Add about 2 teaspoons chopped jalapeรฑo or other fresh hot chile.

Ginger Mignonette: Add about 2 teaspoons minced or grated fresh gingerroot.

Recipe excerpted from Dishing Up® Maine © 2006 by Brooke Dojny. Photo © Scott Dorrance. All rights reserved.

Brooke Dojny is the author or co-author of more than a dozen cookbooks, including The New England Clam Shack CookbookDishing Up® Maine, and Lobster! (all Storey Publishing). She won the James Beard Award in 1997 for The AMA Family Cookbook, co-authored with Melanie Barnard. Brooke started her culinary career in the 1980s when she worked as a catering directress for Martha Stewart. From 1990 to 2004, Brooke co-authored (with Melanie Barnard) Bon Appetit’s monthly “Every-Night Cooking” column and has written for most of the other major culinary magazines. She lives on the coast of Maine, where she can be found hanging out at clam shacks and farmers’ markets. Her next book for Storey is Chowderland, to be published in 2015.

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