Like a hurled gauntlet, a plate of freshly shucked oysters lay on the table of a neighborhood bar in the Rue Cler market in Paris. A friend -- more experienced in such matters -- goaded me into gulping one of the glistening creatures raw.
After dousing it with oceans of lemon juice, I raised the shell to my lips, closed my eyes and, trembling, swallowed the meat of the mollusk so hastily that I scarcely had time to taste my first oyster.
The appreciation of the sea water succulence and iodine tang is an acquired taste and came with subsequent consumption.
Oysters are traditional holiday fare in France, as they should be here. After all, America's waters are blessed with a bounty of oysters: briny Cotuits from Cape Cod, succulent Chincoteagues from the Chesapeake Bay, fleshy Apalachicolas from Florida and tiny Olympias from the Pacific Northwest. Some of the nation's tastiest oysters are raised in the Damariscotta River in Maine: deep-shelled Pemaquid Point oysters and flat-shelled, briny, tangy Belon oysters, which originally came from France.
Although oysters are available year-round in the United States, they taste best when fished from the icy waters of winter. Contrary to popular belief, oysters are not dangerous to eat during the summer months, but because they are breeding then, they taste fatty or milky.
The most popular way to enjoy oysters is on the half shell with a squeeze of lemon juice or a dab of cocktail sauce or prepared horseradish. The French serve oysters with sauce mignonette (vinegar flavored with shallots, wine and cracked peppercorns). A tart white wine, like Muscadet, makes a perfect accompaniment, as does a Dickensian quaff, a pint of ale. If you are going to enjoy oysters this way at home, you're going to have to learn to shuck them.
Oysters are also delectable poached, broiled, baked and fried, for which cases most fish stores sell shucked oysters by the pint. Oysters are also delicious grilled (lay the half shells right on the grill). As with all shellfish, keep the cooking time brief.
Oysters ship and store surprisingly well. (The ancient Romans enjoyed oysters all the way from the British Isles, shipped across Europe in ice-filled carts.) When buying oysters, look for specimens with tightly closed shells. (The one exception is the Belon, whose shells gap naturally.) Once home, scrub the shells under cold running water and store in the coldest section of the refrigerator or on ice. Do not keep oysters in a sealed plastic bag, or they will suffocate.
The preferred implement for shucking oysters is a short, stiff-bladed knife made especially for the job. If you are right-handed, grasp the oyster firmly in your left hand, the "hinge" or narrow part of the shell facing out. (It doesn't hurt to protect your hand with a garden glove or pot holder.) Hold the knife at the hinge and wriggle the tip of the blade under the top shell. Give the knife a firm twist and shells will pop open.
Next, slip the blade under the top shell to cut the adductor muscle. Discard the top shell. Slide the knife under the oyster to loosen it from the bottom shell and the shellfish is ready to eat.
SPICY MIGNONETTE SAUCE (Makes 1 cup)
3 shallots (3 to 4 tablespoons minced)
1 to 2 pickled jalapenåo chilies
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
1/2 cup red or white wine vinegar
1/2 cup dry white wine
Finely chop shallots and jalapenåo, and coarsely crush peppercorns in a mortar and pestle or wrap them in a dish towel and crush with a hammer, rolling pin or heavy skillet. Combine all ingredients. Serve sauce in ramekins to be spooned over fresh oysters on the half shell.
Per tablespoon: 8 calories, .1 gm protein, 1 gm carbohydrates, 0 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 mg sodium.
FRIED OYSTERS WITH CAJUN SPICES (6 servings as an appetizer, 2 servings as an entree)
24 large oysters
1 cup milk
FOR THE SPICED FLOUR:
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup fine cornmeal
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon file' gumbo
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
2 cups oil for frying
Lemon wedges for garnish
Shuck oysters over a strainer, reserving the liquor. (If using already shucked oysters, pick through them for shells.) Combine eggs, milk and reserved oyster liquor in a large bowl and beat until smooth. Combine ingredients for the spiced flour and mix well.
Heat the oil to 350 degrees in an electric frying pan or wok. Dip oysters in milk mixture, then in spiced flour, then in milk again, then in flour. Shake oysters to remove excess flour. Fry them for 1 to 2 minutes, or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve at once with lemon wedges on the side.
Per appetizer serving: 272 calories, 6 gm protein, 12 gm carbohydrates, 23 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 108 mg cholesterol, 68 mg sodium.
OYSTER CHOWDER (6 servings)
1 pint fresh shucked oysters with liquor
5 ounces ( 1/2 package) fresh spinach
4 strips lean bacon, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons butter
3 shallots (3 to 4 tablespoons minced)
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 tablespoons flour
4 cups bottled clam juice or fish stock
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
Strain oysters and reserve liquor. Stem and wash spinach and cut into 1/2-inch strips.
Lightly brown bacon in a large saucepan. Transfer to paper towels to drain and discard fat. Add butter, shallots and celery to pan and cook over medium heat for 3 minutes, or until vegetables are soft but not brown.
Stir in flour and cook for 1 minute. Stir in clam broth and reserved oyster liquor and bring the chowder to a boil. Add potatoes and simmer for 6 to 8 minutes, or until tender. Add cream, salt and pepper to taste. (Chowder can be prepared up to 24 hours ahead to this stage.)
Just before serving, add oysters and simmer for 1 to 2 minutes, or until just cooked. Stir in spinach: Residual heat should be sufficient to cook it, but if not, simmer chowder for 15 to 20 seconds more. Stir in bacon and correct seasonings. Sprinkle with chives and serve at once.
Per serving: 419 calories, 11 gm protein, 35 gm carbohydrates, 27 gm fat, 15 gm saturated fat, 124 mg cholesterol, 930 mg sodium.
Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.