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Yeah, yeah, yeah, I already hear you firing up your email machines to tell me it’s OK to eat raw oysters in the spring and summer. What do you take me for? If you think I can go a hot month (more accurately, a week) without sitting on some restaurant patio with a few dozen oysters and an extremely cold beer in my hand, then you have severely misjudged my character.
I often gush a bit too much about how much I love a certain sandwich, casserole, candy, root vegetable or redhead. As sincere as the love I profess in these pages may be, it’s hard to say what a personal favorite would be. Beating the heat with a tray of oysters and a beer-flavored beer is at least close to the top of the list.
I’m very trusting of Wintzell’s Oyster House and the refrigeration techniques used to safely bring us raw oysters year round. They are doing the Lord’s work, as far as I’m concerned. And now we have so many oysters, from near and far to choose from, that we could have a different oyster every day of the week. That cranks my tractor, if you know what I mean.
Raw, I enjoy smaller- to medium-sized oysters. They taste better than their larger counterparts given the same terroir (merroir, actually), and I don’t feel the slightest bit cheated. I usually go no cracker, with a dash of hot sauce and a light squirt of lemon as my prep. If you see me dunking an oyster into a cup of cocktail and carrying it on a saltine, then you will know I’ve found a subpar batch. I will still eat the larger ones raw, don’t get me wrong, but I find them better in a recipe.
Rockefeller, Bienville and local “Carnival” are wonderful ways to enjoy a grilled, baked or broiled oyster, but perhaps the best are done with a little butter and Parmesan cheese. Those are delightful. But Katie and I had some ideas for stepping up that game and created a fix-it-yourself grilled oyster condiment bar. This will be at our next party.
Time is usually in short supply around here, so we don’t really get to spend a lot of it shucking oysters. A red-headed cat and three kids, ranging from baby to teenager, seem to require a bit of attention. To sit down with a sack and a knife would be glorious, but right now we are in a constant state of hurriedness. We buy oysters by the quart. This can make grilling a little less sexy, but you have options.
The first question you hear is whether or not it is safe to reuse shells. It’s a tough one. Some restaurants used to practice this, but apparently it has since been banned. At home, the laws don’t apply to you. At least not this law. People boil old shells, run them through the dishwasher, dry them and freeze them in between use. I’m not necessarily scared of doing this, but I’m not instructing you to do it, either. We’ve never done it.
A quick search on Amazon turned up plenty of false oyster shells for the purpose of “chargrilling,” that made up word that means nothing more than grilling. Stainless steel were around $25 per dozen, while ceramic versions fetched as much as $60-$75. We simply used ramekins.
Charcoal is certainly an option, but for control, I simply lit the gas. You’re looking for a good heat source that remains constant. I would imagine a ceramic grill would work well, but why go through all the trouble if you could just turn a knob and flick a piezo switch?
Get your grill hot and then back it down to a medium heat. I grease the ramekins with a little butter and cook them two to a cup. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes, just look at the oyster to see if it’s begun to open up, or for lack of a better description, become flaky. Don’t cook it any longer than that.
Our oyster bar was just a small-but-effective reflection of our imaginations. We had good butter and Parmesan, of course. I’d performed an event weeks prior and got the idea for diced jalapeños marinated in grapefruit juice. It cuts the heat considerably if you have a couple days to marinate them, but an overnight soak will do the trick.
I’m an onion fan. Red onions diced fine and pickled in kosher salt and white vinegar cut with a little pinot gris were excellent. The wine soothed the harshness of the vinegar. I’ll put these onions on just about anything, but they were my favorite condiment for oysters. I always save pickle juice and I love to put onions in the leftover brine, especially with Wickles brand. That’s the quick cheat.
For your oyster party, think of other toppings. Horseradish adds heat quicker than hot sauce. Capers are another popular accent. You must have fresh parsley, one of the oyster’s best friends, either as part of a recipe or as a garnish. A little crabmeat wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, nor would tasso hurt mine. Breadcrumbs are an oft-neglected topping that works well.
A step you could take ahead of time would be making flavored butters. Herbed butters are easy to make. Roasted red pepper butter isn’t too bad. Crab butter or alligator butter may take a little is worth the effort.
I’m interested in hearing what you might add to the oyster bar party list. Drop me a line. Or better yet, drop me an invitation. I’ll still be eating them raw, but you can bet I’ll find something to do with the big ones. I don’t care what month it is.
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