Oysters and champagne! Vision of Paris, of romantic dinners. But for Thanksgiving? Well, why not? Our national day of force feeding could use a little glamour and the traditional Turkey Day menu could use a little modification. Why eat less during most of the year and then try to compensate in a single meal?
Not only would such a course provide an elegant beginning to the meal and offer an opportunity for toasts to family and friends, it would liberate the oyster from what is - to me at least - and unworthy fate: being tossed into a quicksand of dressing and then buried in a cavity of the turkey and baked for hours.
I like turkey. I like dressing. I like oysters. But not together. If an oyster need be cooked at all, let it be brief. If an oyster need seasoning, let it be a sharp and cast in a supporting role to the oyster's texture and character. The diverse, strong seasonings of turkey stuffing make the oyster a flavour eunuch. Long baking leeches moisture and leaves it a blob of gray blotting paper. Poor oyster.
As for dry champagne (meaning "brut," because in the world of sparkling wines, "dry" usually is somewhat sweet), it often suffers the ignominious fate of being presented at the end of a meal when no one will appreciate its crisp delicacy. It is forced to fight an always-losing battle against that sumo wrester of taste sensations, the sugar-rich dessert. Sweet wines, still or sparkling, can perform well in this role, but few people these days utilize them.
Thus, this modest proposal that a fine dry sparkling wine, from the United States, France, Italy or even Russia be the first beverage on your Thansgiving menu this year. (If sparkling wine tickles your nose, substitute a Muscadet from France or a dry Chenin Blanc from California. If sparkling wine usually gives you a headache, don't worry. After the meal to come your head won't even remember with what it all began.) The wine could be served with oysters in any of the following preparations:
OYSTERS ON THE HALF - SHELL (allow 3, 4 or 6 per person)
If you have never opened oysters, this isn't the time to begin. They are on sale at fish markets, including the Maine Avenue Whaft, and some stores, such as Cannon's in Georgetown, will shuck them if called in advance. The oysters should be served well chilled, on a bed of cracked ice if practical. Lemon quarters and a grind of pepper from a mill will satisfy purists. Those who want a livelier flavour can use cocktail suace, which James Beard has dubbed "the red menace," or one of these sauces, all intended to satisfy four to six persons.
Shallot sauce: Chop 4 shallots or scallions rather fine; place in a heavy saucepan with 1/4 cup wine vinegar, 10 to 12 freshly cracked peppercorns. Boil until vinegar reduces by half. Add 1 cup dry white wine and simmer for 5 minutes. Strain and serve at room temperature.
Chinese dipping sauce: Mince 2 slices fresh ginger and 2 small garlic cloves. Place in a bowl with 1/2 teaspoonsugar, then stir in 1/3 cup vinegar, 1/2 cup imported soy sauce and 1 to 2 teaspoons sesame oil. Make this sauce only 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
For those who prefer their oysters cooked, the following recipes may be considered.
MINCED OYSTERS (6 servings) 4 dozen oysters 1 tablespoon butter Finely chopped parseley, chives and thyme to taste 1/4 pound sliced mushrooms (fresh or canned) 1 tablespoon flour 3 egg yolks 2 cups light cream 6 large croutons, buttered
Scald oysters in their own juice. Drain, reserving some of the juice, and mince oysters, but not too fine. Put the butter in a saucepan; when melted, add herbs and mushrooms. Mix the flour smooth in some strained oyster juice, and add to the herbs. Mix thoroughly, then add the minced oysters and stew gently until the suace is absorbed and the mince forms a thick batter. Be careful not to scorch. Remove from heat and add the egg yolks mixed with cream. Return the pan to the heat for about 1 minute, then serve on croutons, with garnish of lemon and Parsley.
From "Fish," by A.J. McClane OYSTERS FRIED ON SKEWERS
Remove the oysters from their shells, stiffen them by heating for 2 minutes in their juice together with the juice of 1 lemon. Drain on a cloth and roll in beaten egg, then in fine bread crumbs; place 6 oysters on each skewer, leaving a little space between them. Plunge into very hot oil for 2 minutes. Serve with fried parsley and a lemon quarter per skewer.
-From "Paul Bocuse's French Cooking" by Paul Bocuse
OYSTERS IN WINE
Heat the oysters in their shells. Open them, take them out and collect their liquid in a pot. Put the oysters ina frying pan with butter, a sprig of parsley, mint, marjoram, pounded peppercorns and cinnamon. As soon as they are lightly fried add their liquor and a glass of Malmsey (sweet Madeira) or other generous wine. Serve them on toast.
-From "Venus in the Kitchen," edited by Norman Douglas.