ASK ANY oyster-lover how oysters are best, and the answer is an almost universal "Still dripping from the sea!" Although oysters are now available year round -- frozen, fresh shucked and canned in brine, smoked and packed in oil, and in a variety of frozen and canned bisques, soups and stews, it is oyster-harvesting season that delights the real oyster-lover.
The fact is that our oyster season runs from autumn to early spring, encompassing those months with "r" in their name. It is during the other months that the oysters spawn. When oysters are spawning, they produce and bland flavor.
Oysters are frequently named for the area where they are harvested. For example, Britain's delicious Colchesters come from the Colchester area. Europe has two marketable species of oysters, the flat, or plate oyster, and the Portuguese. The plate oyster is flattish and the Portuguese has either a white or dirty-brown shell.
In the United States, we have three marketable varieties. On the West Coast, the native Olympia, which is small and essentially serves the West Coast Market, the giant Pacific, or Japanse oyster which was introduced from the Orient. Smaller sizes are edible, but palatability is not exceptional.
By far, the Eastern oyster, "Crassostrea virginica" is our most important marketable oyster. The natural habitat for the oyster is estuarine waters, where the salinity is somewhat diluted from open sea water and the temperature is more moderate. Since habitat affects the oyster, they may look different in different areas. The Eastern oyster ranges from New Brunswick to the Gulf of Mexico. Call it Cape Cod, Bluepoint, Chesapeake, Kent Island, Mobjack, Tangier, Chincoteague, Wellfleet or Bon Sejour, it is just the Eastern oyster flourishing in differentwaters. Every oyster-lover has a favorite, of course. Many swear by Long Island's Bluepoints, while others declare that the colder water and higher salinity make the Cape Cods tastier, and a legion of oyster-lovers swear by any oyster that comes from the Chesapeake area.
Before exploring recipes, it will pay to note a few fundamentals. When buying oysters in the shell, they should be tightly closed and undamaged. Never buy oysters with cracked or broken shells or ones with open shells. And when oysters are cooked in their shells, never eat any with shells that refuse to open. Throw them away. Often when oysters are bought straight from the oystermen at a dock, the oysters will be dirty or muddy. If the oysters are to be steamed in their shells, often a vigorous dripping of the basket of oysters in seawater will clean them sufficiently. A hosing with running water may be necessary if they are exceptionally muddy. Mud contributes nothing to an oyster's flavor.
For oysters to be served at the table on chilled plates, scrub them well under running water before opening. Freshly opened oysters should smell fresh, with that light, briny fragrance of the sea. When shucking them yourself, open them over a bowl, thus collecting and saving the oyster liquid to enhance cookery. When buying ready-shucked oysters at a market, be sure they are plump and glistening, and have that same fresh, briny fragrance. Oysters served on the half shell are best eaten as soon as possible after chlling; surely no longer than an hour after opening and refrigerating.
All that is necessary with oysters on the half shell is plenty of lemon wedges and perhaps a grind or two of pepper. Oysters can leave a slightly ashy aftertaste, and the lemon juice corrects that white enhancing the flavor. Some people prefer distilled white vinegar. Some insist on a sauce, often composed of tomato (catsup) base on dashes of ground horseradish and red pepper. Here again, everybody has a favorite. I heard of one oyster-lover who eats the first oyster on the half-shell with a hearty dash of sauce, and the remaining oyster plain . . . the first fiery bit of sauce providing enough seasoning for all the rest.
Now we come to the question of how to open an oyster. Anyone wrestling with the task for the first time knows it is not so easy and takes some practice. You need an oyster knife, or a stout, short-bladed knife. Never mind the braggarts who boast they can open an oyster with anything from a paper clip to a beer opener -- get a good knife. Fish stores and tackle shops often have them.) Since the Eastern oyster is heavy-shelled and rough, a glove for one hand isn't a bad idea. Hold the oyster in the palm of your hand, with the shallowest shell up. Insert the tip of the blade between the shells just back of the muscle. Cut through the muscle and lift off the shallow top shell. Loosen the oyster all around with the tip of the knife, leaving it free on the half shell. Everybody tackles the job his or her own way, but the essential is to cut the muscle.
One thing that eases the chore of opening oysters a bit, is to put the oysters in the freezer for 15 or 20 minutes. This relaxes the muscle. Another way to ease the chore is to put the oysters in a preheated 400-degree oven for 5 to 7 minutes, and then drop them in ice water. The short time in the oven is long enough to relax the muscle, not long enough for the heat to affect the oyster.
When oysters are to be cooked on the half-shell in the oven, they are arranged in baking pans on a layer of coarse salt deep enough to support them. The salt also keeps them warm while transporing from oven to serving dish or directly to the table. Oysters should never be over-cooked, as this toughens
They should be cooked just until the edges begin to curl. Oysters are graded by number in the United States, but most cooks encounter the common terminology: Selects and Standards. The Selects are larger, best for frying.Standard, or smaller oysters, are better for casseroles, stews and soups and other dishes. Sometimes the market will even have a size marked "Stewing oysters".
By the way, when taking oysters home from the market, remember that they are highly perishable and need refrigeration. A bushel of oysters can be kept overnight in a very cool place, such as a garage. If refrigerated in their shells, cover them. Oyster quality is best when they are used soon after bringing them home. We hear of knowledgeable watermen who can keep oysters in a cool place, and even feed them, but that is not for us. A woman I know swears it is easier to open oysters when the tide is rising, ostensibly a time when the oysters would be feeding. OYSTER QUICK TRICKS
When pan-broiling steak, drop a few oysters in steak essence in pan and cook until edges of oysters curl. Pour essence and oysters over steak.
Cape Fear Fried Oysters: Roll drained oysters in plain, ground cornmeal and fry in hot, shallow fat. Drain on paper towels. Easier than a batter, and absolutely delicious. BACKYARD OYSTER ROAST (5 Average Appetites)
1 bushel oysters, a roaring fire, a metal box to put the oysters in, or a sheet of metal to spread them on, wet burlap bags, baskets for empty shells.
And at each table: a sharp knife, fork and paper napkins or small terry towel for each person. Lemon wedges, ground horseradish, pepper, catsup, hot pepper sauce, etc. for diners to mix their own sauces. A small bowl at each place setting.
When the fire is good and hot, spread the oysters in their shells in the metal box or on the sheet of metal which you have placed directly over the fire. Cover the oysters with wet burlap bags, and let steam until the shells open and the juice dries a little. Serving the steamed oysters in aluminum dishpans helps to keep them warm. Put the dishpans full of oysters on the table, and people open their own oysters. SCALLOPED OYSTERS (4 Servings) 1 pint oysters 2 cups coarse crackers crumbs 1/2 cup melted butter or margarine 3/4 cup light cream 1/4 cup oyster liquor 1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce 1/2 teaspoon salt Pepper to taste
Drain oysters and reserve liguid. Combine crumbs and butter and spread one-third of mixture in bottom of a greased 5 x 7 baking pan. Cover with half the oysters, spinkle with pepper, add a layer of crumbs, and cover with remaining oysters. Combined cream, oyster liquor, Worcestershire sauce, and salt. Pour over oysters. Top with crumbs. Bake 40 minutes at 350 degrees. s WILMINGTON FRIED OYSTERS (4 Servings) 1 quart oysters 1/2 cup medium-fine cracker meal 1/2 cup dry bread crumbs 2 eggs, beaten Bacon fat sufficient to fry oysters
Drain oysters. Mix cracker and bread crumbs in a bowl. In another bowl, beat the 2 eggs well, with 1/3 cup water. Dip oysters, one by one, first in crumb mixture, then in egg mixture, then in crumb mixture again. Stack two or three as patties. Refrigerate at least one hour. Then fry in shallow hot bacon fat in skillet until brown. Good served with spoonbread and coleslaw. OYSTERS ROCKFELLER (Serves 6) 36 large oysters, shucked Rock Salt 1 1/2 cups (tightly packed) fresh spinach 3/4 cup (tightly packed) parsley leaves 3/4 cup chopped scallions, including green tops 6 shallots, chopped 3 tablespoons chopped fresh fennel leaves 1/2 pound unsalted butter 2 tablespoons anchovy paste Hot pepper sauce 1 cup bread crumbs (fresh) 1/2 cup Pernod Salt and black pepper
Drain oysters, saving and straining liquor. Scrub and dry deep halves of shells and arrange in pans filled with rock salt. Put an oyster in each shell. Put vegetables through a food grinder, or puree in a food processor. Melt butter over low heat and cook vegetables for five minutes. Stir in anchovy paste, serveral dashes of hot peppersauce, and bread crumbs. Cook, stirring, until well-mixed and thick. Add oyster liquor or more crumbs to adjust thickness. Add Pernod, seasonings to taste, perhaps another dash of hot pepper-sauce. (This dish should be hot). Spread sauce over oysters and bake 450 degrees about 5 minutes. Serve at once. OYSTERS BENEDICT (6 Servings) 6 thin slices boiled ham 1 pint oysters 3 English muffins or 6 slices bread Hollandaise Sauce 6 strips pimiento
Fry ham lightly in its own fat and remove from frying pan. Drain oysters and fry one minute in the ham fat. Split muffins and toast on cut sides. (If bread is used, toast on both sides). Arrange 1 slice of ham and 4 oysters on each muffin, cover with Hollandaise sauce and garnish with pimiento. OYSTER BROILER-BAKED ON THE HALF SHELL (6 to 8 Servings) Rock salt 4 dozen oysters on the half-shell 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce 2 tablespoons tomato catsup 2 tablespoons horseradish 2 tablespoons vinegar 4 tablespoons lemon juice 4 scallions, minced (tops and all) Bacon Bread crumbs Butter
Partially fill pie pans with rock salt. Arrange 6 or 8 oysters on top of each. Mix remaining seasonings and scallions in order given, and put 1 1/2 tablespoons on top of each oyster in the shell. Then lay a piece of bacon the length of the shell on top of each. Cover each with bread crumbs and 1/2 teaspoon butter. Broil 3 to 5 minutes. Serve pieplate on top of a regular plate (Salt keeps oysters hot).