I first “discovered” oysters in a real way while I was in college. Oh sure, I’d known about oysters and probably even had them cooked in a few things but they weren’t really part of my culinary awareness. Which actually seems a little odd to me since childhood trips to the Oregon coast were full of clams, mussels and Dungeness crab. Somehow oysters never made the cut.
I remember my first real experience with oysters as if it were yesterday. I was at one of those casual college barbecues. Friends and friends-of-friends wandered in and out contributing food to the party. There was a keg sitting in a garbage can full of ice providing chilled refreshment for the group, and we sat on the grass or stood in conversation about deep topics and minor trivialities, as college students do. Suddenly energy pulsed through the relaxed afternoon. Some guy had arrived carrying a bushel bag of oysters over his shoulder. Such an unexpected surprise and a generous contribution for cash-strapped college students.
The barbeque was fired up, the oysters placed on the grill and as they popped open someone grabbed the briny treats and distributed them. I remember wondering what they would taste like and hoping I wouldn’t hate them. I had nothing to fear. With a splash of spicy cocktail sauce the smoky, grilled oysters were a delicious discovery.
From that point, however, it took me several years to develop my love of oysters on the half-shell. I’m particularly sensitive to textures and raw oysters are a little slippery, I must admit. Chewing the larger ones did not appeal to me at all. So I started slowly. For years oyster sliders or shots fueled my drive to learn to love raw oysters. I mean you can cover nearly anything with cocktail sauce or, even better, cocktail sauce and a little vodka and I’ll eat it. But between the sliders and shots I kept trying the real deal – oysters on the half-shell. At some point, probably when I stopped thinking and started experiencing, I fell in love with the fresh, salty, mineral bite of raw oysters.
So much so, in fact, that I couldn’t bear to “waste” them by eating them cooked, although I occasionally shared baked or broiled oyster appetizers of one sort or another with friends.
Fast forward to this weekend – or actually to February 2011 and then to this weekend. Last year Hood Canal Seafood offered a Groupon for pick-your-own oysters at their farm. Never having been on an oyster farm I decided it was about time and scooped up a Groupon. This last weekend a friend and I finally used it.
What a fun experience. This farm is very small, so there wasn’t much to see, but even a little time hanging out on a saltwater shore, in brisk, fresh air is always a treat. As the tide went out exposing the oysters beds we waded out to pick from those outside the pens. The cost of pick-your-own oysters is really reasonable even without an incentive. At least if you don’t count the cost of the ferry fare (if you take the ferry) or the gas to get you there! But even better than the low-cost is the amazing freshness of oysters right out of the water. This really surprised me. I buy my in-town oysters from places that I know have handled them well and take pride in presenting delicious, fresh oysters. I have no complaints at all about the quality of anything I’ve ever purchased. I guess, though, that even well-handled oysters lose a little something during transport and storage before being sold. Which makes sense – why should oysters be different from anything else?
Sunday, after we had gathered our quota of oysters at Hood Canal Seafood, we found a place to pull over and have a little picnic consisting mainly of fresh-shucked oysters and champagne. So delicious!! I would do the trip again, just for that moment of shucking those fresh-from-the-water, flinty bi-valves and slurping them right down.
However, even after slurping a few at the picnic and eating a few more at home, there were still many oysters remaining. So, I decided to try something new – Oysters Rockefeller.
Oysters Rockefeller has a long history, having been developed in 1899 in New Orleans. Supposedly the original recipe went to the grave with the inventor, Jules Alciatore of the famous Antoine’s. Many have tried to replicate it so many versions of the recipe exist. Apparently the orignal does not contain spinach but I chose one that did. And I loved it. In fact, I made a second batch of Oysters Rockefeller the next day, I loved them so much.
So now I’ve come full circle. First, only eating grilled oysters; moving on to (mostly) only oysters on the half-shell; and now back to a tasty version of a baked oyster. I think this means I may have achieved balance – while oysters on the half-shell will primarily be my oyster of choice, I foresee a new era of experimenting with baked, broiled and grilled recipes.
The harderst part of this recipe is shucking the oysters, which isn’t that hard once you get the hang of it. Here’s a video that shows you how to do it. I also find that wearing a clean gardening glove – the kind with the latex palm – can help, too.
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/3 cup bread crumbs, Panko preferred
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 2 cups roughly chopped fresh baby spinach
- 1/4 cup Pernod or any anise-flavored liqueur
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Dash red pepper sauce
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
- 1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
- 1 dozen oysters, on the half shell
- Rock salt
- Lemon wedges and parsley, for garnish
- Mignonette (recipe below)
- Hot sauce, if desired
Fill a shallow baking dish with rock salt. As you shuck each oyster, place it in the pan using the rock salt to level the shell and keep the oyster nectar from spilling out.
Preheat the oven to 450° F .
Melt butter in a skillet. Saute the garlic for 2 minutes to infuse the butter. Place the bread crumbs in a mixing bowl and add half the garlic butter, set aside. To the remaining garlic butter in the skillet, add shallots and spinach, cook for 3 minutes until the spinach wilts.
Deglaze the pan with Pernod or the liqueur you’re using. Season with salt and pepper, add a dash of red pepper sauce. Allow the mixture to cook down for a few minutes.
Finish off the bread crumbs by mixing in olive oil, Parmesan and parsley, season with salt and pepper. Spoon 1 heaping teaspoon of the spinach mixture on each oyster followed by a spoonful of the bread crumb mixture.
Bake for 10 to 15 minutes until golden.
Serve with hot sauce, lemon wedges and mignonette.
This is one of my favorite mignonettes. I created it some time ago to make sure the vinegar didn’t overpower the lemon, as with many recipes. It’s great with oysters on the half-shell, too. You can use plain lemon instead of Meyer lemon or even something like Mandarin orange. It’s also good frozen and then raked with a fork into crumbled ice that you can place right on your oyster.
Meyer Lemon Mignonette
- 3 Tbsp freshly-squeezed Meyer lemon juice
- 2 Tbsp champagne or white wine vinegar
- 1 Tbsp finely chopped shallot
- 1 tsp fresh thyme
- Pinch of sugar
- Pinch of salt and pepper
Mix all ingredients until sugar is dissolved and serve.