Sunday, January 13, 2002

Serve it this week: Oysters

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        History: Although satirist Jonathan Swift wrote in the 18th century, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” the bivalve has been consumed without inhibition for thousands of years. Greeks first began cultivating oysters in the fourth century. Europeans long considered them a delicacy, and 19th-century Americans gobbled the then plentiful mollusk dozens at a time. Cincinnati was once famous for its busy oyster “parlors” supplied by East coast and Chesapeake Bay sources. Over-harvesting, disease and water pollution reduced the bountiful oyster supply by the beginning of the 20th century.

        FYI: Refrigeration and fast, efficient shipping make fresh oysters available year-round, debunking the myth of not eating them during months not spelled with an “r.” But oysters are at their best in the fall and winter (the “r” months) because they spawn in the summer, when they become soft and fatty.

        Buy: Select fresh oysters from stores with good turnover. Reject those that do not have tightly closed shells or those that don't shut when lightly tapped. Generally, the smaller the oyster, the more tender it will be. Fresh, shucked oysters should be plump, uniform in size, have good color, smell fresh and be packaged in clear — not cloumdy — oyster liquor.

        Store: Live (in shell) oysters should be covered with a damp cloth and refrigerated (larger shell side down) for up to three days. Don't store in plastic bags. Refrigerate shucked oysters for up to two days, or look at the “sell-by” date on the package.

        Cook: Batter-fry, grill, saute or roast shucked oysters, or stir them into soups, stews and bread dressings. Oysters are done when the edges begin to curl. Scrub live oyster shells thoroughly before cooking or serving. Roast, grill, steam or bake oysters in their shell. Or, serve them raw on the half-shell.

        Safety's sake: Because of risks from cholera, hepatitis and other disease-causing bacteria and viruses, health experts advise those with compromised immune systems, including young children, pregnant women and the elderly, against eating raw oysters. The safest oysters to eat raw are those pulled from cold waters during the cold months.

        Good for you: Oysters are high in calcium, niacin and iron, low in fat and saturated fat.

        Professional treatment: Mitchell's Fish Market at Newport on the Levee usually has a selection of raw oysters. Get a sampler platter and discern the difference between bivalves from the West Coast, East Coast, Prince Edward Island, British Columbia, etc.

        J's Fresh Seafood in Hyde Park serves a Rockefeller variation: baked oysters on the half-shell with goat cheese and spinach.

        At Washington Platform's annual Oyster Festival in April, oysters are served in at least a dozen preparations. During the year, oysters are on the menu raw, in shooters (in a shot glass with pepper-flavored vodka and cocktail sauce) in stew, fried as a dinner or in a po-boy, and as “sternwheelers,” broiled with shrimp, bacon and cream sauce.

        Oysters just went on the menu at Boca in Northside: raw, marinated in yuzu (a Japanese citrus juice) and served with blood orange segments and shaved fennel.

        Dining writer Polly Campbell contributed to this report.

Oyster Stew

        3 tablespoons unsalted butter
        1 large shallot, minced
        1 rib celery, minced
        2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
        1/2 cup dry white wine or champagne
        2 cups heavy cream, warmed
        1 tablespoon dry sherry
        1 teaspoon lemon juice
        1 teaspoon each, minced: fresh parsley, chives and chervil
        Pinch cayenne
        Salt, to taste
        25 raw oysters, shucked, with 1 cup reserved oyster liquor

        Heat butter in large saucepan over medium-low heat until foaming. Add minced shallot and cook, stirring, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add celery and cook until slightly softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in flour and cook, stirring constantly, until bubbly, about 20 seconds. Stir in wine and simmer until thickened and bubbly, about 20 seconds.
        Stir in cream and return to simmer. Simmer to blend flavors and cook flour about 5 minutes. Add sherry, lemon juice, herbs, cayenne, salt, oysters and liquor. Return to simmer briefly. (Oyster edges will ruffle and curl when cooked.) Adjust seasonings and serve. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
        — The Best Recipe: Soups & Stews (Boston Common Press; $29.95)


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