Thursday, March 20, 2008

Try it You'll Like It - Atlantic Oysters

It has been said that it was a brave man who ate the first oyster. Well, whether it was a man or not, early settlers to the New World found banks of oysters that were so big they were a navigation hazard. In fact, all Atlantic oysters have the scientific name Crassostrea virginica to reflect where the delicious mollusks were first identified by biologists. The English were introduced to the oyster by the local Powhatan tribes. Oystering has been a part of Hampton Roads’ heritage ever since. I also have a personal history with oysters, since, as a student at Christopher Newport University (it was a College, then), I served an unpaid internship at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) working on articles for their newsletter, including a detailed feature piece on oyster restoration efforts. I learned more about oysters and their reproduction than any non-marine biologist should ever know!

While early Virginians could just pick oysters up by hand off the oyster banks, now we rely on methods like tonging and dredging. Oysters have been and are such a valuable natural resource that “oyster wars” between Maryland and Virginia oystermen erupted that took nearly 100 years to resolve.

For those of us who like oysters, there is real concern that over harvesting, environmental factors, and disease have depleted this once rich culinary resource. Efforts at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to develop disease resistant oysters, and groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and loads of volunteer oyster farmers are working to restore the Chesapeake’s oyster population, a move that both helps the Bay (oysters filter water by consuming algae at a rate of 1.3 gallons per hour!), and benefits our dinner table. In addition, there are many commercial oyster farms now that provide oysters of uniform size, quality, and appearance and help restore both the oyster population and the Chesapeake Bay.

Oysters are graded by size, with counts being the largest (~20/pint) and very small the smallest at 63/pint. Oysters you find in your local market or seafood store are most likely standard (38-63/pint) or select (26-38/pint). Taste tests between farm-raised oysters and “wild” oysters show little or no taste difference. I have used both in cooking, and they are both delicious, with farm-raised being a bit more uniform and easier to handle · When buying oysters in the shell, choose those that are tightly closed or, if open a bit, close tightly when tapped. To store your whole oysters in the fridge, lay them in a single layer and cover with a damp towel. Use within a day or two, discarding any that fail to close with pressure.

You may have heard that you should only serve oysters in a month that contains an “r”, from September to April. This saying originally came about before refrigeration, because during warmer months transporting oysters risked spoilage. However, Chesapeake oysters are actually best during those months because they eat heartily during the warm, late summer months making their total biomass (the delicious part) peak in September to November.

Shucking an oyster can be a tricky business. You need a good oyster knife (I find the shorter broader knife to be better), and you should cover the hand holding the oyster with either a protective glove made for shucking or a heavy weight towel to prevent nasty cuts from the shell or a slip of the knife. NEVER USE A REGULAR KNIFE TO SHUCK AN OYSTER! Don’t know how? There are good step by step instructions at the Daily Press, my own local paper(we have a lot of oyster lovers here in Hampton Roads).

So are you still not sure about eating oysters? Then give this recipe a try. Several years ago, I was a guest of a friend at the James River Country Club in Newport News and ordered a delicious dish called Oysters Bingo. It made such an impression that I worked to try to recreate something similar. The result is a uniquely light oyster recipe that has converted many non-oyster lovers! This is a dish that can be served as an appetizer, main course, or luncheon dish and it is very impressive on the plate.

“Knock-Off” Oysters Bingo (serves 4)

4 cups baby spinach or baby greens
24 shucked oysters with their liquor or ½ pint if you are buying them already shucked (I would use the smaller standards or selects)
5 shallots peeled and chopped fine
2 tablespoons butter (use the real thing here)
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
½ tsp sea salt (or to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 baguette cut in slices and toasted till crisp outside, still tender inside (I used a whole grain baguette that was terrific)

Melt butter in medium sauté pan. Add chopped shallots and cook over medium low heat until transparent. Add vinegar, and then add oysters with their liquor. Stir gently until oysters are just cooked (the fringes of the oyster will look like ruffles). Do not overcook(the biggest sin when it comes to any seafood or shellfish). Add salt and pepper to taste.

To Assemble: On a salad plate, place a handful of greens, then place 2-3 toast slices on top of greens. Ladle oyster-shallot mixture with liquid over the bread and greens and serve immediately.

If I've gotten you hooked or you are already an oyster lover, check out cooking sites like Southern Living, check out sites like Rappahanock River Oysters, a Tappahannock, VA producer, who offers recipes from how to slurp a raw oyster, roasting oysters and a rich and creamy oyster stew or the Virginia Seafood website, with lots more information and recipes. There is also a recent NPR piece on the “white gold” that is the Chesapeake oyster also provides some great information, and fabulous recipes!

No way you are ever eating oysters but want to do your part for the Bay? Sign up to be an oyster farmer at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. I guarantee you that all of us oyster lovers will definitely thank you!


Cynthia said...

I've never had Oysters... we don't get such fare here but I would like to try it someday.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

I think I would have starved if I were a New World settler. I'm way too fussy. Plus, how could I live without pizza? ;)
My husband would love this recipe, Deborah. Thanks for sharing.

JMom said...

Great post! I love oysters. I like them best raw and pristine. Yumm!

I'm going to check out some of those links you posted.

Deborah Dowd said...

Cynthia- Grab it when you get the chance- oysters are really delicious!

Susan- I am sure we all would have starved- it was a totally different world! Make this for your husband, it is really excellent!

Jmom- Raw oysters are good, but then there is no recipe there! Thanks for your kind words!

Deborah Dowd said...

Cynthia- Grab it when you get the chance- oysters are really delicious!

Susan- I am sure we all would have starved- it was a totally different world! Make this for your husband, it is really excellent!

Jmom- Raw oysters are good, but then there is no recipe there! Thanks for your kind words!

Oysterman said...

Good article. Cool blog. I liked the "knock-off" Oysters Bingo recipe.


Deborah Dowd said...

Oysterman- Thanks so much- if you love oysters, you will really enjoy this recipe! I hope you will be back.

Karen said...

Oh, if only I were anywhere near where the oysters are! Mississippi River oysters are probably not a healthy choice.
I love them simply grilled on the half shell.

jesse said...

YUM. Oysters have got to be one of my favourite things to eat. Raw, fried in a Chinese-style omelette, or topped with melted cheese, I'd take it any way the chef chooses to serve it! Thanks for the recipe, I'll be trying it out some time soon. =D

jasmine said...

What a great post about oysters. I must admit that I've only (knowingly) had them deep fried and them.


Julie said...

That looks fabulous, I love oysters.