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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Feasting on Oysters

Rogov's Ramblings
Feasting on Oysters

Every year, from fall to mid-winter, I am inundated with phone calls, letters, faxes and email communications from readers. Some want to know why I write so lovingly about oysters. Others want me to list the places in the world I consider best for feasting on them. The time has obviously come for me to write my definitive paean of praise for these not-at-all humble creatures of the sea.

First of all, I adore oysters because I find something simultaneously sexual and sensual about eating them. Second of all, considering the logic of what novelist, playwright Alexander Dumas had to say, there is something pathetic about oysters and eating them is the only way to pay them tribute. Dumas reminded us that the oyster, which is incapable of moving, has no head, no organs of sight, taste, hearing or smell. "Worst of all", Dumas remarked, "because it is hermaphroditic, it does not even know the pleasure of being in company with a member of the opposite sex". In short, the oyster's only exercise is sleep and its only pleasure eating the algae and other minuscule creatures that are foolish enough to swim into its "mouth".

Few people concern themselves with the monotonous lifestyle of the oyster, but a great many people do not hesitate to spend an enormous amount of time and money in their search to find the most succulent of these treats. Roman general Lucullus is said to have spent enormous sums to have live oysters brought to him from the coast of Brittany and Brindisi and, on at least one occasion, Japanese emperor Hirohito sent a fleet of five navy ships to the Philippine Islands, there to purchase oysters for the royal household. As to going to excess, the Duke of Luynes, who was so fat that he had a semi-circle cut out of the edge of his dining table to fit his huge stomach, considered himself an ascetic because he never ate more than thirty-six oysters at a time and Ernest Hemingway boasted that he could consume 50 oysters and then go on to a five course dinner.

Even nutritionists have little to complain about, for the oyster, which is extraordinarily rich in protein, also contains Vitamins A, B, B-2, B-2 and C, as well as healthful amounts of phosphorous, iron, copper and manganese. The oyster is said to be the only food known that does not cause indigestion and, to add to their charm, many people are firmly (but incorrectly) convinced that oysters have aphrodisiac powers.

Although oysters are in season eight months in the northern hemisphere every year, they are the gastronomic and social rage in September and October. Right now, from Paris to San Francisco and from Boston to Osaka, as well as in Tel Aviv and the Gulf Emirates, devotees are pouring into their favorite oyster bars and seafood restaurants, there to part with a good part of their salaries to enjoy these delicate treats.

As to my personal prejudices, although oysters can be poached, grilled, fried or cooked in a dozen other ways, purists (including this writer) the world over insist that oysters are at their best when eaten raw. They also know that oysters must be opened just before they are served and that they must be served very cold. There is no better way to serve a freshly opened oyster than by laying it on a bed of crushed ice and serving it with fresh lemon or a light sauce of lemon juice, shallot vinegar and coarsely ground pepper. In most places, such oysters will also be served with a small bowl of finely chopped onion and a plate of lightly buttered dark or white bread.

As to what wine is appropriate, I remain convinced that the most perfect marriage ever made on earth is that between raw oysters and grand cru Chablis. I confess, however, that at times I am perfectly willing to settle for a good Champagne, Pouilly Fuisse or Muscadet. In times of emergency, I am willing to drink California, Pays d'Oc or Australian Chardonnay with my oysters.

If You Insist on Cooking Oysters

Despite my perhaps exaggerated sense of purism, there is a place in the heart of gastronomes for oysters that have been cooked and, if the absolute truth need be told, each of the following dishes have given me enormous pleasure over the years.

Creamed Oyster Canapes - A recipe from Cuba

1/2 liter oysters and their liquid
16 bread rounds (about 5 cm. in diameter), toasted and buttered
about 1/2 cup chicken stock
2 Tbsp. each butter, flour, dry sherry and chopped parsley
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. paprika or cayenne pepper

To the oyster liquor add enough chicken stock to make 1 cup.

In a saucepan melt 2 Tbsp. of the butter and add the flour, stirring until blended. Stir in slowly, over a low flame, the oyster liquor and stock mixture and to this add the salt and paprika. When the sauce is smooth and hot (but not boiling) add the oysters. Heat just to the boiling point but do not allow to boil. When the oysters are heated through remove from the flame and season with the dry sherry, mixing well. Spoon at once onto the toasted bread rounds, sprinkle over with parsley and serve immediately.

(Serves 6 - 8).

Oysters Rockefeller - A classic American recipe

500 gr. spinach, with stems removed
1 clove garlic, halved
6 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. onion, very finely chopped
1 Tbsp. flour
1/4 cup sweet cream
salt and pepper to taste
24 large oysters, in their shells
1 tsp. each sugar and onion juice
1 Tbsp. parsley, very finely chopped
hot paprika or cayenne pepper as needed
225 gr. bacon, minced
1/2 cup dried bread crumbs

Wash the spinach well under cold running water and the immerse it in 2 cups of rapidly boiling water. Reduce the flame, cover and simmer until the spinach is tender (about 15 minutes). Drain and discard the water. With a sharp knife cut the spinach until it is nearly pureed.

In a skillet which has been rubbed with the garlic clove, melt 2 Tbsp. of the butter and in this saute the onion until golden. Stir in and blend well the flour and then add, slowly stirring constantly, the cream. Continue stirring until the sauce is smooth and heated through. Add the spinach and cook 3 - 4 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Open the oysters and remove them from their shells. Distribute the spinach mixture on the shells On the spinach lay the oysters and on them add, in this order, a pat of butter, a drop of onion juice, a pinch of parsley, a few grains of cayenne pepper and the minced bacon. Sprinkle over with the bread crumbs and on each shell place a generous dot of butter. Bake in a very hot oven for 10 minutes and then transfer to a hot broiler to brown. Serve immediately.

(Serves 4 - 6).

Deep Fried Oysters

3 eggs
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/2 tsp .each salt and pepper
24 large oysters, removed from their shells
deep oil for frying
lemon wedges for serving

In a small mixing bowl beat together the eggs with 4 Tbsp. water.

On a small plate combine the bread crumbs, salt and pepper.

With plastic toothpicks skewer the oysters through the muscle portion and dip each first in the egg and then in the bread crumbs. Repeat and dip again first in the egg and then in the bread crumbs, coating well. Remove from the toothpick and let the oysters stand on a rack for 1 -2 hours.

Fry the oysters in deep oil that has been heated to 190 degrees Celsius for 4 - 5 minutes. Serve hot with the lemon wedges.

(Serves 4).

Spiced Oysters - A recipe from Costa Rica

3 cloves garlic
36 large oysters, removed from their shells
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 1/2 Tbsp. salt
4 medium onions
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup vinegar
1 tsp. each allspice and pepper
1 Jalapeno or other hot chili pepper, canned or jarred, chopped coarsely
1 tsp. liquid from the Jalapeno peppers

In a small saucepan bring to the boil about 1/2 cup of water and into this plunge the garlic cloves. Let boil for about 5 minutes. Drain and chop the garlic coarsely.

Place the oysters in a saucepan, add 1 cup of water, the lemon juice and 1 Tbsp. of the salt and simmer just until the oysters become plump (about 5 minutes). Set aside to cool for 30 minutes.

Bring to the boil a large amount of water. When a rolling boil is attained, remove from the flame, add the remaining salt and plunge in the onions. Let soak for 5 minutes, drain and slice the onions. Dry on paper toweling. In a heavy skillet heat the oil and in this saute the onions just until translucent. Pour the onions and oil over the cooled oysters, add the remaining ingredients, cover and let stand, refrigerated for 24 hours. Serve well chilled.

(Serves 6).

Baked Oysters - A recipe from Massachusetts

24 oysters, on their shells, with the liquids reserved
5 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. flour
about 1/2 cup sweet cream
1/2 tsp.salt
pinch or two of cayenne pepper
2 cups oysters, removed from their shells and in their liquids
3 - 4 Tbsp. dry sherry
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 cup cooked shrimp, chopped
1/2 cup dried bread crumbs

Drain and dry the 24 opened oysters, reserving the liquid. In a saucepan melt 2 Tbsp. of the butter and to this add the flour, stirring constantly until well blended. Combine the oyster liquid with enough sweet cream to make 1 cup and slowly stir this into the saucepan. Add the salt and paprika and, over a low flame, stir regularly and continue to cook until the sauce is smooth and hot. Add the oysters that have been removed from their shells and the shrimp and heat the mixture just to boiling point. Remove from the flame and season with the sherry and lemon juice. Add the chopped shrimp and mix well.

Prepare the oysters on the half shell and over these divide the mixture. Sprinkle over the bread crumbs and cover with generous dots of the remaining butter. Bake in a very hot oven until the crusts are golden. Serve hot

(Serves 4 - 6).

Oyster Pancakes - A Japanese recipe

1/2 liter oysters, removed from their shells, in their liquor
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup spring onions, chopped finely
1 Tbsp. parsley, chopped
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 pepper
1/2 cup each flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder corn or peanut oil as required
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. Japanese hot pepper sauce or Tabasco

Strain the oysters and chop them coarsely, reserving the liquor. Combine the oysters, eggs, green onions, parsley, salt and pepper. Sift the flour and baking powder together and stir this into the oyster mixture. Add enough of the oyster liquor to thin the mixture out (about 1/2 cup).

Heat a pancake griddle, oil it lightly with corn oil or peanut oil and make 7 cm. pancakes by dropping the batter from a tablespoon. When one side has turned golden turn the pancakes (allow about 1 minute for each side). Set aside to keep warm.

Combine the vinegar, hot pepper sauce and soy sauce and serve as a dip with the pancakes.

(Serves 4).

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