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Oysters Rockefeller can help ease transition to new tradition

Wed., Dec. 29, 2010

It’s often said eating a raw oyster is like kissing a mermaid, but I prefer to think of the experience as catching a perfect wave on a boogie board.

It’s a cold, slightly salty rush; a small thrill that makes you want to go back for more.

I wasn’t always an oyster lover. When I was a kid, spending summers visiting family on Orcas Island, my siblings double-dog dared me to eat an oyster they pried off the craggy rocks by the shore. Let’s just say I took the dare, but it put me off bivalves for years.

They’re slimy! They’re alive! Who wants to slurp something slippery and wet?

That’s always been the direction oyster haters head and I was one of them until I had an oyster epiphany.

What finally turned it around for me was getting to know the story of the oyster men and women, the people who care so deeply about growing or harvesting pristine shellfish.

While watching a short documentary about the famous Apalachicola oysters from the Florida panhandle at a Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Miss., my hard-line indifference began to soften.

And when those oysters were later served, I must have eaten a couple of dozen on the half shell, shucked by the proud oysterman from the film.

A friend who’d bellied up to the oyster bar with me showed me the best way to tackle those large creatures. Instead of slurping them directly from the shell, she placed each oyster on a saltine, and shook some Tabasco on top.

Suddenly, there’s heat and a bit of crunch. It was a delicious revelation.

When I returned to the Northwest a few years later, I sat down to slurp oysters with seafood guru Jon Rowley and he was downright horrified when I asked for saltines and hot sauce. He firmly believes nothing should get in between the oyster and your gaping maw. Except for a swallow of a bright, crisp white wine.

It didn’t take me long to throw away the cracker crutch and embrace the purist approach.

I then began studying the oyster with a convert’s zeal. I learned that most oysters grown in the Puget Sound are Pacifics, a Japanese variety first introduced in the early 1900s.

Oysters are often named for the geographic area in which they’re raised. For instance, some of my favorites, the Hama Hama oysters, are grown on the delta of the Hamma Hamma River on the Olympic Peninsula.

Not to be confused with the native Olympia oysters, nor the Virginicas, which are an East Coast variety grown with great success in Puget Sound.

Besides the long list of names and varieties, there’s also a number of ways those oysters are raised, from bags on the beach to aggressively tumbling them. That latter method – developed by the British Columbia grower of the Kusshi – encourages the oyster to stay small, but develop a deep cup.

The Kusshi might be the most exquisite oyster I’ve ever tasted. Especially during the winter months, it’s got a crisp quality that practically snaps.

If you’re still squeamish about diving into a plate of oysters on the half shell, I suggest starting in a warm, savory place. Like Oysters Rockefeller.

This classic appetizer was one of a half a dozen different oyster dishes I cooked up last New Year’s Eve. Borrowing heavily from “Tom Fitzmorris’s New Orleans Food” book, I made Oysters Bienville, an old-fashioned oyster stew and the original Rockefeller, which was first served at the historic Antoine’s in the French Quarter.

I also made spicy oyster shooters and barbecued oysters, laying them on foil directly on glowing charcoal. When the shells popped open, I doused them in a white wine butter seasoned with shallots and garlic.

New Year’s Eve was oyster heaven and the beginning of a new tradition in our home.

Just a few weeks into 2010, I got the chance to test the limits of my oyster-eating capability during a late-night, low-tide event called The Walrus and The Carpenter picnic.

Named for a Lewis Carroll poem about an oyster-loving walrus, this DIY feast put on by Taylor Shellfish near Shelton, Wash., encouraged participants to wear headlamps and bring an oyster knife. What fun!

For those still sitting on the fence, consider this pearl of wisdom from Bill Whitbeck, the genial seafood salesman known as Oyster Bill: He said he has served hundreds of doubters their first oyster and about 95 percent become fans.

“That first oyster will change your life,” he said.

It didn’t quite work that way for me, but I sure am glad I gave oysters another second shot.

Oysters Rockefeller, My Way

1 dozen oysters, shucked on the half shell and arranged in an oven-ready casserole dish or on top of kosher salt on a cookie sheet

1 1/2 cups frozen chopped spinach (in a bag, not the box)

3 tablespoons butter

1/2 shallot, minced

1/4 cup fennel bulb, finely chopped

1 tablespoon flour

2 tablespoons Pernod (or if you don’t like the flavor of anise, dry white wine)

6 tablespoons plain breadcrumbs

Salt and pepper, to taste

Prepare oysters. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Defrost frozen spinach in a skillet over medium heat for about 3 minutes. You want the moisture in the spinach to mostly evaporate, so if you prefer to nuke it in the microwave, be sure and squeeze it dry.

Move the spinach to one side of the skillet and add the butter, shallots and fennel. Sauté for a few minutes, then add the flour and stir, still keeping the spinach separate. You’re making a roux in the same pan, minimizing the mess.

Add the Pernod or white wine and when the roux begins to thicken, fold the mixture into the spinach. Add the breadcrumbs and gently fold. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat.

Mound a heaping tablespoon of the seasoned spinach on top of each oyster and bake for 10 minutes. When the breadcrumbs begin to brown, the dish is done. Be careful not to overcook.

Yield: 12 oysters

Oysters Bienville

From “Tom Fitzmorris’s New Orleans Food” (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2006).

4 dozen oysters, shucked

1 stick ( 1/2 cup) butter, divided

1 pound small shrimp (I used Oregon salad shrimp)

1 rib celery, coarsely chopped

1 large red bell pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped

1/2 pound small white mushrooms, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup dry sherry

4 strips bacon, fried crisp and crumbled

2 green onions, finely chopped

1/2 cup flour

2/3 cup milk, hot

2 egg yolks

2/3 cup mozzarella cheese, finely shredded

1 cup breadcrumbs

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon salt-free Creole seasoning (look for Tony Chachere’s)

1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Drain the oysters, reserving the liquor. Put the oyster liquor into a 1-cup measuring cup and add enough water to make 1 cup of liquid.

Heat 1 teaspoon of butter in a medium skillet until it bubbles. Sauté the shrimp briefly, remove and set aside.

Add 2 tablespoons of butter and heat until it bubbles. Add the celery, bell pepper and mushrooms and sauté until tender. Add the sherry and bring to a boil for a minute.

Add the bacon, green onions and shrimp. Cook for another minute and add the reserved oyster liquor. Bring to a boil and cook for about 2 more minutes. The sauce should be wet, but not sloshy. Remove from heat.

Heat the remaining butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly to make a blond roux. When you see the first hints of browning, remove from the heat and whisk in the milk to form a béchamel sauce.

Add the egg yolks to the béchamel, stirring quickly so the eggs don’t have a chance to set. Add the mozzarella slowly to the béchamel until the cheese melts. Add the sauce to the shrimp mixture and stir.

Mix the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, Creole seasoning and salt together in a bowl. Stir two-thirds of that mixture into the sauced shrimp. Set the remaining breadcrumb mixture aside.

Cover the bottom of a shallow baking dish with oysters, leaving a little space between them. Top with sauce. Sprinkle remaining breadcrumb mixture on top.

Bake until the sauce is bubbling and the top is browned, between 15 and 20 minutes.

Yield: 8 to 12 servings

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