Sunday, November 2, 2008

The O Word

No. I’m not going to voice my preference in the presidential race. As much as I am tempted to do so, this is a blog about food and I’m talking about oysters. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, few are indifferent about them. It’s that time of year that they become my personal obsession. There is an old maxim that you should only eat oysters during the “R” months—September through April. Probably the prohibition relates to the spawning season and the increased risk of bacteria during the summer months that poisons bivalves. Regardless, for me fall and winter is still the season to enjoy oysters.

There are basically five edible varieties. Belons originally came from Europe but are now farmed in North America. They are probably the most prized and expensive off all the varieties. Eastern oysters include Blue Points, Wellfleets and Malpaques and can be found all down the Eastern seaboard and in the Gulf of Mexico. There are many species native to the Pacific and they tend to be sweeter—and in my opinion—less complex in flavor than their Atlantic cousins. Kumamoto oysters originally came from Japan but are now commonly found up and down the West coast. They are very small and subtle in flavor. Olympic oysters are indigenous to the Pacific Northwest. Small but very prized, they’re rarely available in other parts of the country.

Oysters are both harvested in the wild and farmed but you will rarely see the difference noted on a menu. The quality of an oyster should never be judged by its size since it can vary enormously from species to species. However, size does matter when you’re purchasing shucked oysters, most commonly used for stews (smaller oysters) and frying (larger oysters). Shucked oysters are commonly labeled—from smallest to largest— “standards”, “selects” and “extra selects”. Whether in the shell or shucked, oysters have a relatively long shelf life—about two weeks refrigerated. They should never be frozen as this will have a disastrous affect on their texture.

I have some definite prejudices about oysters. My favorites are Belons and Wellfleets. I’m generally not a fan of Pacific oysters, Quilcines being my least favorite. I prefer oysters served on the half shell or fried. Raw oysters are most commonly served in this country with cocktail sauce, a combination of ketchup or chili sauce with horseradish. My preference is fresh lemon and a good hot sauce like Tabasco. My favorite, though, is Panola (available at Brennan’s) which doesn’t pack as much heat as Tabasco but has wonderful flavor. In France (and increasingly here as well), raw oysters are served with mignonette, a simple sauce of quality vinegar, shallots, salt and pepper. The traditional accompaniment for fried oysters is cocktail or tartar sauce. My favorite is New Orleans-style Remoulade Sauce.

Certainly the most famous preparation is Oyster Rockefeller, invented at Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans in 1899. The inspiration for this dish was necessity. At the time there was a shortage of imported French snails, a popular menu item. Antoine’s proprietor Jules Alciatore reckoned that if escargot could be sauced and baked in their shells, so could the abundant local oysters. Jules named his creation Rockefeller in deference to the dish’s richness. Spinach is commonly listed as one of the essential ingredients of Oysters Rockefeller, however Antoine’s original recipe—a closely guarded secret to this day—contains no spinach.

Best of Madison for Oysters:

Liliana’s Restaurant in Fitchburg has a separate oyster menu, featuring a half-dozen or more varieties of freshly shucked oysters that change with availability.

Capitol Chophouse serves different varieties of raw oysters, shucked to order, as well as Oysters Rockefeller.

The Blue Marlin prepares both oysters on the half shell and Oysters Rockefeller.

Sardine’s oysters on the half shell come with a traditional French mignonette.

Fried Oysters

3 eggs
2 tablespoons cream
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon Creole seasoning
Fish-Fri (corn flour)
1 pint shucked oysters ("selects" or frying size)

Peanut oil for frying

Lemon wedges
Remoulade Sauce

In a small deep bowl beat together the eggs and cream to combine. Set aside. Combine the flour and Creole seasoning in a large plastic bag. Set aside. Put the Fish Fri in a large plastic bag. Set aside.

Drain the oysters. One at a time, shake the oysters in seasoned flour. Then dip in the egg wash, using a slotted spoon to make sure the entire surface of the oyster is covered. Draining off any excess egg, shake in the Fish Fri and transfer to a wax paper-lined baking sheet or platter.

Preheat oven to 200 degrees.
Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 425 degrees (or the maximum temperature).

Add half the oysters to the fryer and immediately reduce the temperature to 375 degrees. Fry the oysters for 3 to 4 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer the fried oysters to a paper towel lined baking sheet and keep warm in the preheated 200-degree oven while frying the rest of the oysters.

Salt the oysters to taste and immediately serve with lemon wedges and Remoulade Sauce.

Serves 4 as an appetizer or 2 as a main course.

Remoulade Sauce

¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¾ cup light olive oil or other vegetable oil
½ cup chopped yellow onion
½ cup chopped green onions
¼ cup chopped celery
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
3 tablespoons Creole mustard
3 tablespoons prepared yellow mustard
3 tablespoons ketchup
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process for 30 seconds. Use immediately or store in a covered container in the refrigerator (will keep for several days).

Makes about 3 cups.

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