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Friday, July 19

Gapers Block

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Occasionally I get a food craving that forces me to go out to eat and admit that I just can't make something at home. Fresh, raw, served in-the-shell oysters is my current fascination.

There's no cooking involved, so it should be simple enough to buy some oysters, get a knife, pry a little, and satisfy my craving. But I have an admission to make. I'm an uncoordinated and klutzy, klutzy woman. Imagining applying lots of pressure to a knife intended to open stubborn sea life that I hold in my hand brings up visions of emergency room visits and imaginary voices saying, "I don't know if she'll ever knit again."

I'm unfortunately not exaggerating about my fear. I've gone to a local fishmonger several times and looked at the varieties of shells, looked at the handy metal-lined rubber glove and oyster knife -- and then I've walked into the connecting restaurant and order there instead.

You may be braver than I, and I congratulate you and would love a dinner invitation. If you're curious and ready to try-this-at-home, I'll give you some links which show you how to open oysters safely, and I'll provide links to where you can purchase the necessary (and I do mean required) gear. But I'll also provide some recipes for cooking oysters that come pre-shucked in little plastic containers. They're quite yummy if gotten fresh and there is a lot you can do with them -- and there's no risk of removing your thumb when you open the plastic container.

If you like your explanations in bullet-pointed steps, can tell you how to open oysters. If you prefer videos, Taunton Press has one that makes it look easy. If I hadn't seen an employee at a restaurant put a knife through a towel and into the palm of his hand, I may be willing to follow these tips. The chef only uses a towel to open the oysters, but I wouldn't be able to watch you follow his lead. This knife is the one I'd get if I had the courage to do this myself. I'd also buy it with this oyster glove. If you had this glove, or a similar one, I might be willing to watch while you prepared a tasty treat.

There are many varieties of oysters, which all taste different. Talk with the fishmonger to find out which ones are best. Some will be mineraly, some sweet, some briny. There are huge differences in size and texture. I like them all, but you're allowed to be choosy.

If you're getting raw oysters to open yourself, here's a few tips:
• Only buy oysters with shells that are completely closed or that close when you tap on them. If the shells are open and don't close then the oyster has died.
• Try to buy oysters that are clean and bright and smell more like ocean water than dead fish.
• If the shell is broken, discard it.
• If the meat seems dry when you open it, discard it.
• The color of the meat varies depending on the diet. However if it is pink and smells unpleasant or funky, it probably means yeast is present and you won't want to eat it.
• It's best to buy oysters during a month whose name contains the letter "R", This means between September and April. The months in the middle of that period are when you'll find the best quality. Oysters spawn when the water is warm. While they're still edible during the summer, their flesh will be weak and their flavor pale.
• If you're buying pre-shucked oysters, make sure they're stored on ice in tightly-sealed containers and that the water (called "liquor") in the container is clear.

Once you get your oysters home you're going to want to keep them at 32°-35° Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, this means your freezer is too cold and your refrigerator is too warm. So take the paper package that they come in, wrap it in a towel and put it in a bowl with ice on top and put it in the top and rear of your refrigerator. This will hopefully keep them cool enough until you're ready to serve.

About those pre-shucked oysters: Just because someone else risked a trip to the emergency room doesn't mean they're bad. In fact, a container of oysters will keep in the refrigerator for a week if their temperature is maintained. Or you could freeze them (as close to 0° F as possible) and keep them for about a month before they'll go bad. However, you'll want to cook frozen oysters, because freezing changes their texture.

Aside from Oysters Rockefeller, what can you make with these mollusks? Many, many delicious things. Since you're splurging on oysters, which are never cheap in this area and you probably wouldn't want them if they were, you just might be needing something to drink with them that doesn't come with a twist-off cap (Guinness excepted). Sauvignon Blanc goes well with oysters raw or cooked. Look for one that's described as crisp and not too sweet. I've had a Pinot Grigio from Santa Margherita that went well with a large number of dishes. Sake also makes a surprising but wonderful match. You'll want to get one that is meant to be served chilled, which means it's a better quality sake than one that is to be served warm. The citrusy, crisp notes will balance well with the salty, briny, mineral flavors present in the oysters themselves. It will also help to soothe and calm the palate after a dose of horseradish and cocktail sauce.

On with the recipes:

Oyster, Leeks, and Tofu Over Rice
3 medium leeks
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine or sake
1/2 red bell pepper
2 cups of oyster mushrooms, chopped
1 quart fresh oysters with liquor
1 package baked tofu, chopped into bite-size cubes
1 teaspoon tamari, diluted with 1/2 teaspoon water
4 cups of cooked white rice
Grated hard cheese, such as Parmesan, Dry Jack or Romano, optional

Clean and slice the leeks. (Read this past article for more info on how to clean leeks.) Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan or skillet over medium heat and add the leeks once the oil is hot. Sauté for about 10 minutes and add a splash of wine if the leeks begin to stick to the pan. Clean and chop the pepper and mushrooms and add to the pan. Once the pepper and mushrooms have softened, or after about 5 minutes, add the oysters and tofu. Add the rest of the wine and the oyster liquor and cook for a 3-5 minutes uncovered so some of the liquid will cook off. Add the tamari and water mixture and cook for 2-4 minutes more. Ladle over rice and sprinkle with hard cheese. Serves four.

A Moment on the Lips Oyster Bisque
1 quart shucked oysters in their liquor
Salt and black pepper
4 stalks celery, cut in medium-sized pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cups milk
2 cups heavy cream
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Freshly grated nutmeg
Curry powder
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Cayenne pepper
Chopped fresh parsley leaves

Pick through the oysters for bits of shell. Simmer the oysters and their liquor in a covered pot over low heat with a little salt and black pepper for about 6 minutes, stirring a few times.

Place a colander over a heat-safe bowl and pour the oysters into the colander. Drain off as much of the stock as possible and fish out any oyster bits from the stock.

Cook the celery and onion over medium heat in the pot with a half-cup of water until they're tender. Drain the broth into the oyster stock -- you should end up with about 2 cups of liquid. Add the milk and cream and stir until mixed. Back in the pot, heat the butter and whisk in the flour. Stir constantly over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes to make a roux. The mixture should take on the color of light coffee. Pour the stock and cream mixture into the roux and stir briskly until it is thickened and smooth. Add a pinch of nutmeg, a pinch of curry powder, the lemon juice, Worcestershire and cayenne. Taste the broth and add more of what seems to be missing.

Mash the oysters with the celery and onions and add to the stock. Keep warm over low heat until time to serve. Pour bisque into individual bowls and swirl in some heavy cream to create a pattern. Sprinkle with a little parsley and paprika. If you really want to impress your friends, serve with a small glass of sherry. Makes 4-6 servings.

Broiled Oysters on the Half Shell with Garlic Butter
18 oysters (If you have these shucked for you, ask to keep half of the shells)
6 tablespoons of butter melted in a small fry pan
1 1/2 tablespoons of minced shallots or scallions
1 large clove of garlic, minced very fine
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from half of a lemon)
Salt and pepper
2/3 cup of finely ground bread crumbs (or look for Panko in the grocery store)
3 tablespoons of minced fresh parsley

Take strips of aluminum foil and crumple them to make a roll about the thickness of your thumb Lay them on a broiling pan or jelly roll pan about the width of an oyster shell. Place the oyster shells in rows nestled between the rolls of foil. Adjust the foil as necessary to cup the shells and keep them level.

Melt the butter in the small fry pan and stir in the shallots and the garlic. Sauté for one minute. Stir in the lemon juice, a large pinch of salt and several grinds of pepper. Place one oyster in each shell and then sprinkle with a mixture of the bread crumbs and parsley, being sure to cover them completely -- the bread crumbs will keep the oysters from drying out or burning. Drizzle a teaspoon or so of the butter mixture over each shell. (This can be prepared and covered with plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator for several hours.) Just before serving, place the pan on the top rack and set the broiler to high. Leave the door open slightly and watch every 15-30 seconds. Once the bread crumbs are lightly brown, remove from the oven and serve immediately. Six oysters would be a first course, three would be a small appetizer.

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