Five pearls of oyster wisdom

By on February 21, 2012

Consider the oyster, our Atlantic or Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica.

Consider the brave soul who ate the first one.

And consider how the oyster makes it to our table.

A little oyster is born. First he is a larva, called a trochophore. A few hundred thousand of his mother’s eggs were expelled and fertilized by the roving sperm of an unknown donor. For two weeks or so, the little larva is a free spirit, swimming and roaming where the tides take him, swilling plankton and algae.

After two to four weeks, the larva is ready to settle down. He secretes a limey deposit through his left foot and attaches himself to a suitable surface. Snug in his new home, the little oyster, now known as a spat for the next year, doesn’t have to hunt for food. He waits for food to be brought to him. Next tide, next serving.

Oysters are protandric, meaning they start out life as one sex and change sex at some point during their life. For the first year of an oyster’s life, they spawn as males by releasing sperm into the water. After two or three years of growth and the development of energy reserves, the oysters spawn as females by releasing eggs. Spawning begins in the spring when water temperatures exceed 70 degrees.

Oyster lovers are warned against eating these bivalves during months without an “R” in the name. One theory holds that this warning arose in pre-refrigeration days as oysters would spoil quickly without refrigeration and could not be shipped during the warmer months. The truth of the matter has to do with oyster biology: Between May and August, oysters are spawning and they’re not prime for eating. Spawning takes a lot of energy out of the oyster and the consumption of all that energy results in a flaccid, tired oyster.

If our little oyster can avoid his enemies and be left to his own devices, he will stay attached to his surface, motionless, unless removed by external force. He will breathe using both gills and mantle, which is lined with many thin-walled blood vessels which extract oxygen from the water and expel carbon dioxide.

His three-chambered heart pumps colorless blood throughout his body. A pair of kidneys purifies the blood of any waste products. Our oyster will reach maturity in a year. And if he avoids his enemy, the starfish, who might find our oyster and brutishly wrap his lethal arms around him, prying our oyster open, then thrusting his stomach into our oyster and digesting him, our oyster just might make it.

If our oyster remains impervious to his other predators, all will be well. He will grow and be of harvestable size in three years, and perhaps, if he’s lucky, live out his average life span of six years.

But then man comes in, finds our bivalve mollusk, somehow figures out how to open it, and then slips the delicate, chilly gray body down his waiting, warm red throat.

Raw oyster
Simply the best way to eat an oyster.
Lemon slices
Melted butter
Cocktail Sauce
5 TB ketchup
3 TB horseradish (I like it to assault my sinuses.)
Juice of 1 lemon
2 TB Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce

You may want to adjust these ingredients to your own tastes.

Add all ingredients to bowl. Do NOT mix this into a homogeneous mixture. I want you to swirl the ingredients. Just cut them in with a circular motion. My idea behind this works: With each bite, you get different concentrations of each ingredient. And that’s a good thing. Same flavors. Different intensities. Trust Rosie on this.

I love grilled oysters. The grill both enhances and elevates the humble oyster. My favorite grilled oyster preparation uses melted butter and a Parmesan/Paprika topping that takes the oyster to a new dimension.

Grilled Oysters With Parmesan/Paprika Topping

3 dozen oysters
¾ stick butter, melted
6 TB grated Parmesan cheese
Use a good quality cheese. I currently like Il Villagio from the Teeter.
3 TB Hot Hungarian Paprika
1 TB sugar

Combine parmesan, paprika, and sugar.
Place oysters on grill. Ideally, you should have two sets of hands: one set to spoon the melted butter over the oysters and a second set to go behind and sprinkle the Parmesan mixture. Close grill cover. Let cook for about a minute – until juices are bubbly. Savor with gusto, slurping every last bit of the goody juices.

For a quick oyster soup, I recommend this recipe, courtesy of Mr. Hawthorne. It took him less than 30 minutes from start to service.

Mr. Hawthorne’s Oyster Soup
3 TB butter
1 onion, chopped
1 potato, diced
2/3 – 1 qt. chicken broth
1 cup heavy cream
2 dozen raw oysters and their liquor
Freshly ground salt and pepper, to taste

Melt butter over medium heat in pot. Add chopped onion and diced potato and sauté for a minute or two. Add in enough chicken broth to cover. Cook until potatoes are just tender, using a masher during the cook time to help thicken the soup. Just mash as much as the potatoes will allow. When potatoes have cooked, add in heavy cream and heat. Taste test and season with freshly ground salt and pepper to taste. Add in oysters and liquor and heat through. Serve with oyster crackers.

Rosie’s Oyster Chowder
6 strips bacon, chopped
2 TB butter
1 potato, diced
1 onion, chopped
1 stalk of celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
Enough chicken broth to cover veggies
1 cup heavy cream
Nutmeg, grated (optional)
Splash sherry
2 dozen raw oysters and their liquor
Sliced scallions
Freshly ground salt and pepper to taste
Texas Pete (optional)

Fry up bacon pieces until brown, remove from pan, reserve.
Add 2 TB butter to grease, over medium heat, and add potatoes, onions, celery, and carrot to pot. Cook, stirring occasionally for 2 minutes, then add enough chicken broth to cover vegetables. Cook over low heat until potatoes are tender. Pour in cream and heat through. Taste test and adjust for freshly ground salt and pepper and perhaps a fresh grating of nutmeg, if you’re so inclined. Taste test again and, if you’re of the proclivity, splash in a soupçon of sherry. Waft some of the steam your way and breathe in another taste. Add in the oysters and liquor and just heat through. Serve with bacon and freshly chopped parsley and sliced scallions. And I like a little Texas Pete in there.

The legendary appetizer, Oysters Rockefeller, is a subject of much discussion, speculation, and duplication.

Jules Alciatore, founder of the original Antoine’s in New Orleans, the oldest family-run restaurant in the United States, is said to have created Oysters Rockefeller, based on a recipe for Snails Bourguignon, and so-named for the richness of the sauce. The sauce was adapted to oysters since they were more readily available and a lot cheaper than snails.

The recipe for Oysters Rockefeller remains a closely guarded secret although Alciatore and some of his successors have disclosed a few of the 18 ingredients.

Rosie’s Oysters Hawthorne
3 dozen oysters, shucked
6 strips bacon, fried and finely chopped
8 ounces fresh spinach, steamed and finely chopped
2 TB butter
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
½ red onion finely chopped
2 TB heavy cream
Freshly grated nutmeg
2 scallions, sliced
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Parmesan Cream Sauce (recipe follows)
Panko bread crumbs and crumbled Ritz crackers, for topping
Grated Parmesan Cheese, for topping

Parmesan Cream Sauce
1 TB butter
1 TB flour
1 cup heavy cream
Freshly ground salt and pepper, to taste
Splash of sherry
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Melt butter over medium heat. Add flour. Whisk and cook for about 2 minutes to get the raw taste of the flour out. Slowly whisk in cream. Whisk and heat until thickened. Season to taste.
Add a splash of sherry. Remove from heat and add in Parmesan.

This is a terrific sauce that can be used in all sorts of applications. It’s lovely over seared rockfish or mahi mahi.

Shuck oysters and set in large baking pans. Fry bacon strips, drain, crumble, and set aside. Steam spinach, let cool, and squeeze as much excess water out as you can. Chop finely. Melt butter over medium heat and add onion and celery. Cook, stirring, about 2 minutes, until onion is translucent. Add in spinach, bacon, and 2 TBs heavy cream to bind all together. Give it a few grates of fresh nutmeg. Taste test. Add freshly grated salt and pepper if needed. Place spinach mixture on each oyster and pour Parmesan Cream Sauce over top. Sprinkle with minced herbs, Panko and crumbled Ritz, and extra Parmesan. Place under the broiler until toppings are golden brown. And whenever you have oysters under the broiler, please be attentive. Do not move away from the oven glass.

As for the 18 ingredients used in the original recipe, several have been disclosed by the Alciatore family: minced shallots, celery, tarragon, chervil, Tabasco, and Herbsaint, which is an anise-flavored liqueur. In acknowledgment of the anise flavoring, I also included a bit of fennel frond on my oysters to give them a slight anise flavor.

Most importantly, remember that you cannot undercook an oyster. You want merely to heat your oysters through in any oyster dish. Overcooking dries the oyster out, toughening it and diminishing the flavor. You want your oysters plump and juicy.

Enjoy the oysters now. We only have two more months!

Please visit with Rosie at her blog: Kitchens Are Monkey Business.

Comments are closed.