Oh, Oyster!


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Don't ask me why but oysters always seem to get pushed into the back corners of my mind when it comes to ideas for appetizers or when I crave seafood. It's not as if I don't love them and that they don't rank high up on my eating scale. Perhaps it's because it can be a tiny bit difficult to find high quality fresh oysters (keyword: fresh), and let's face it, splitting open those shells with speed and finesse does take practice.

Sometimes I wonder how much of a strange kid I was, graciously accepting of anything my dad urged me to try. I remember eating pickled pig's feet with him at the dinner table, devouring hunks of blue cheese on salads and eating raw oysters with tabasco when I was 5 years old. My father knew where flavor was at, and damn it he was going to pass it on! Thanks, Dad!

Thirty years later I still love that briny, ocean-y flavor in whatever form. Fried, baked or smoked, oysters never fail to bring a smile to my face, and when consumed raw it's one of the few foods that just stops me dead in my tracks, temporarily silencing me for a few seconds (no easy feat!), eyes closed, head tilted back, savoring every last bit of complex flavor contained in that shell.

Sometimes salty, sometimes fruity, sometimes creamy, always delicious. It's as if you're tasting the ocean.

Here in the US most of the fresh oysters consumed can be broken down into three basic classifications: Atlantic, Pacific and Olympia. Atlantic oysters tend to be larger with much more defined salinity. Pacific oysters originated in Japan and are much more refined in flavor; some describe them as creamy with mineral notes. And Olympia oysters, from the Pacific coast, are smaller with a much more distinguishable flavor and aftertaste. Within these categories are numerous varieties (Kumamoto, Malaspina, Caraquet, Pugwash, etc.) and all are equally tasty. There a size for every taste, but generally the smaller and younger the oyster the more subtle and delicious.

Ok, now the safety issue. Well, make that safety issues. First, you may have heard that oysters should only be consumed in the months that end in an "R". October, September, you get the picture. No one seems to know exactly where this came from and there are theories, but consider it a tale. I'm eating oysters in June, pure and simple. Now, the second issue should be addressed with honest concern Like all things fun, pleasurable or tasty, eating raw oysters involves some risk. That risk is called Vibrio vulnificus and it's very real. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there were a recorded 282 cases of serious illness between 1989 and 2000 that involved the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria. About half of those cases involved death. This nasty bacteria is found in warm coastal waters and is not a result of pollution and does not affect the color, taste or smell of the oyster. If you're a relatively healthy individual you can bounce back from a case of Vibrio vulnificus, but if you're at risk it's best to skip raw oysters entirely. Or you can cook them completely; heat destroys the bacteria.

Ok, back to raw oysters... are you still with me?

One of my favorite sandwiches is an oyster po'boy, with all its fried goodness on a light bun with tangy dressing. However, when it comes to eating high quality oysters at home, well, I leave them naked. I want to taste as much of their subtle flavor as possible, enhancing them with only the smallest amount of tabasco or mignonette sauce. Of course, if you're going to smoke or fry oysters or devour Oysters Rockefeller you want to start with a good quality oyster, but to dress them up and have the little guys compete with other flavors is just cruel if you ask me.

The freshest way to enjoy oysters involves shucking them yourselves. Anything canned or in a glass jar just doesn't cut it when it comes to freshness. Choose oysters that are tightly closed, discarding any that have opened. Let your nose be your guide. Do they smell fresh? Get a bad oyster and you'll immediately know it's not right. Not an enjoyable experience.




To shuck an oyster you'll need a sharp knife with a good handle, preferably an oyster knife. You'll also want a small kitchen towel to hold the oyster. I'd love to tell you about the time "someone" I know didn't use a towel and ended up with dozen of small cuts on both his bloody hands, but that would just reveal my oyster naivaté. Can't do that! Wrap the oyster in a towel and insert the knife on the bottom of the oyster. You'll need quite a bit of power here, the oyster's muscular grasp on its home is quite impressive. Once the tip is inside the shell gently move it around the entire oyster, loosening the shell. Keep the shell steady and level as you do not want to spill the liquid inside–this is flavor, folks! Once completely opened gently remove the oyster from the shell by cutting through its attachment. It's a fine dance of balancing, cutting, prying and opening, but after a few oysters you'll get the hang of it. And if mess up, eat the oyster! No one has to know.



Enjoy the oysters immediately by serving on a bed of ice. Keeping them as cold as possible is important, too. And enjoy them however you like–with a bit of horseradish, a simple mignonette, a dash of tabasco, cocktail sauce or just a simple squeeze of lemon.

Matt's Super Basic Mignonette Sauce
This French sauce is so easy to create and is ready immediately. You can add a dash of salt but keep in mind that oysters can be very salty. I like to keep it simple.

INGREDIENTS
2/3 cup vinegar (red, white, champagne, sherry, tarragon, use any kind you like)
3 tablespoons minced shallot
1 tablespoon freshly cracked black or white pepper
dash of salt to taste

METHOD
Combine all ingredients and chill. Spoon over oysters on the half shell and enjoy.



Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, a scientist or nutritionist. Please proceed with caution and if you have any questions about shellfish, oysters, clams and seafood and their safety please consult your doctor.


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  • I'm Matt Armendariz
  • From Los Angeles, California
  • A man with a passion for good food and a wonderful life with a dash of irreverence. Read at your own risk. Advertising director by day, wino by night. All photos on this site by Matt Armendariz.
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