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WHIDBEY RECIPES | Oysters are an easily savored taste of the sea breeze

Note: If you are among the many who cannot abide the thought of eating an oyster in any form, just pass up this column today.

John and I polished off a dozen fresh, raw oysters last night, the first we’d had for too long. As I slurped the last one out of its shell, I found myself wishing we had another dozen on hand. No such luck.

Yes, we eat them cooked occasionally, in oyster stew or in our favorite oyster casserole (recipe follows), but raw, on the half shell, is as close to tasting a mouthful of sea breeze as you can get. John likes a drop or two of Tabasco on his, I prefer a quick squeeze of fresh lemon. Sitting at my computer, typing this paragraph, has me quite literally salivating, ready for another dozen this moment.

People who grow oysters commercially today will tell you that there is nothing to the old tale that you should not eat oysters during any month without an “r,” because the oysters will be soft, milky and certainly not pleasant to eat raw. Oysters grown commercially are supposedly “farmed” and just fine to eat any time. Sorry, I do not believe it, and I’ve often thought about the many tourists who’ve come to the Pacific Northwest during the summer months and gamely tried their first- ever raw oyster, only to leave convinced they’d never eat another.

I don’t remember eating my first oyster; it’s possible an oyster could have been among my first solid foods. We lived on the beach and oysters were plentiful, so Dad simply walked out at low tide, picked up few dozen, and we’d all sit on the beach eating oysters as he opened them, tossing the shells back on the beach. I later learned that those empty shells provided the surfaces for oyster spat to cling to as it came floating past, thereby replenishing the bed.

When I was 16, a boyfriend whose father was an oyster farmer on Oakland Bay (his oyster farm is now part of Taylor Shellfish) used to bring my parents a pint of tiny Olympias each weekend when he came to pick me up for our Saturday night dance date. It was an outright bribe designed to get them to relent regarding my curfew time, and it worked. Little did I realize, then, the value of a pint of Olympia oysters, now almost impossible to find.

It wasn’t until I was over 21 and moved to the Chicago area (talk about a whole other story) that I understood just how precious oysters were in many other places in this country. When a date took me to Well of the Sea, a well-known and popular seafood restaurant in Chicago, and I delightedly ordered a dozen oysters on the half shell, I thought he was going to faint. He was pale and looked away as

I began to slurp them, daintily I hoped, from their shells. It dawned on me then that there were people who actually thought eating oysters was akin to cannibalism.

But now it’s October, a month with an “r,” and oysters are once again crisp, crunchy and delectable. Ask your seafood vendor where he gets his oysters and what day they come to him; that’s the day you should plan on your dozen. Or two.

RECIPES

Most of the oysters available to us now are Pacific oysters, or occasionally Kumamotos, both of which are good raw or cooked, but if you’re going to eat them from the half shell, be sure to ask for the smaller oysters. Trying to slurp a medium to large lunker from the shell and letting it slide over your tongue and down your throat will not be a happy experience. The larger oysters are fine for stew or casserole, or even breading and frying. If you don’t know how to shuck an oyster, ask your seafood vendor to demonstrate. It would take me too long here to tell you how to do it.

Here’s one of my longtime favorite oyster recipes, one I serve to people who say they don’t like oysters. It has won over many an oyster skeptic.

OYSTER CASSEROLE

1 dozen med. oysters, drained, reserve liquor

1½ cups Ritz cracker crumbs (I’ve tried other crackers; just not the same)

1 t. sherry

2 T. melted butter

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Pinch of cayenne (optional)

½ cup grated Swiss cheese (I’ve used Ermenthaler, Gruyere, etc.)

3 T. crisp bacon, crumbled

¼ cup heavy cream

In a bowl, sprinkle sherry over cracker crumbs; mix in melted butter. Very lightly spray or oil an 8x8 baking dish. Sprinkle bottom of dish with half the cracker crumbs.

Lay the oysters on the crumbs in the dish, keeping them close together and in one layer. Lightly season the oysters with a bit of salt (this is optional if you think your oysters are quite salty; some are) and freshly ground black pepper and pinch of cayenne, if using. Sprinkle the grated cheese and crumbled bacon over the oysters. Cover all with the remaining cracker crumbs.

Mix together ¼ cup of oyster liquor and ¼ cup cream. (I often use more oyster liquor, if I have enough, and less cream; you need ½ cup liquid and some of it must be cream for the casserole to set up.) Pour over the top of the casserole. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for ½ hour, or until bubbly, lightly browned and “set.” This will serve 4 to 6 depending upon size of serving; can easily be doubled or more, which we often do for our Christmas table, as this is a favorite holiday dish in our family, but don’t double the liquid or it will be too runny. Use about 3/4 cup cream/liquor mixture.

Traditionally, oyster stew is simply fresh oysters poached in milk and butter, with salt, pepper and perhaps a dash of hot sauce. This recipe is a bit more complex in flavor, delicious. I got the recipe from Xinh Dwelley, who has a restaurant (Xinh’s) in Shelton that serves the freshest, finest seafood I’ve had anywhere, and whose way with oysters is uncanny.

XINH’S OYSTER STEW

2 pints oysters

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 med. onion, diced (I often use shallot instead)

1 can evaporated milk (not the sweetened kind)

4 cups whole milk

2 t. salt

1 t. freshly ground black pepper

5 fresh basil leaves, chopped (or ½ t. dried basil)

½ cup butter

Shopped parsley, chopped green onion, for garnish

½ cup bacon bits (optional)

Blanch the oysters in simmering water for 2-3 min. or until edges just begin to curl. Drain and cut into bite-size pieces.

Melt butter in a pot; saute the onion, then add garlic and saute until both are tender, being careful not to burn the garlic. Add oysters, both milks, salt, pepper, basil and butter. Stir until warm but do not boil or it will curdle. Serve in warm bowl garnished with chopped parsley and/or green onions and bacon bits, if using. The bacon bits can also be stirred into the soup along with other ingredients, if desired. Serves 4-6 depending upon portion size. (I often serve this in small bowls or cups, before a main entree, in which case it serves more people.)

We can’t talk oysters without Oysters Rockefeller; this is a recipe I got many years ago from Erin Ruthensteiner, who used to own, with her husband, Honeymoon Bay Oysters.

ERIN’S OYSTERS ROCKEFELLER

24 shucked oysters (to serve 4-6)

½ lb. fresh spinach (or 5 oz. frozen, but use fresh whenever possible)

4 T. butter

¼ cup chopped parsley

1 chopped anchovy filet (optional)

½ t. Pernod (or dry vermouth or sherry)

½ t. Worcestershire sauce

¼ cup fresh bread crumbs

1/8 cup sour cream (or to taste)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Pinch of tarragon

Tabasco, to taste

Dash of nutmeg

1 clove garlic, minced (optional)

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Shuck and drain oysters, keeping the oyster in the deeper half of the shell and reserving the oyster liquor. Set oysters aside; strain liquor and set aside.

Blanch, drain well and chop the spinach. Melt butter in a saucepan; stir in the spinach, parsley, anchovy (if using). Gradually add Pernod, Worcestershire and bread crumbs. Transfer the mixture to a food processor or blender and puree, thinning with oyster liquor as necessary. Add sour cream and tarragon; season to taste with salt, pepper, dash of Tabasco and nutmeg. Mix thoroughly.

Arrange oysters in shells on a baking sheet. Distribute the spinach mixture over the oysters and top with Parmesan cheese. Bake in a preheated 475-degree oven for about 5 min., then turn oven to “broil” and broil oysters for about 1 min. more, or until cheese is sizzling and just golden.

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