May has many good things about it; May Day, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, to note only the major events of the month, along with, hopefully, improving weather. But, there’s another reason to celebrate May, to be happy when it finally arrives, and it has to do with the tide.
Low tides, to be more specific. During May, we once again have low, low tides (known as minus tides) during the daytime, and as my father always said, “When the tide is out, the table is set.” Clams, geoduck, mussels, and one of the world’s most prized gems of the sea, oysters, are all there, ready and waiting for our gastronomic pleasure.
I’ve often said that people can be divided into two kinds, those who eat raw oysters and those who don’t and won’t. I’m obviously among the eaters; I grew up eating raw oysters and don’t even remember my first one. We had our own oyster bed in front of the house on Hood Canal, and as much as I hate to admit it now, I thought a hot dog was a special treat then because it wasn’t a clam, oyster, shrimp, mussel or fish of any sort.
When I was in high school, I was dating a young man whose father owned what is now Taylor Farms Shellfish Co. Whenever he came to pick me up for a date, he brought my mother a pint of the most prized of all oysters, tiny little Olympias. He obviously knew the way into my parents’ good graces, and when we eventually broke up (but remained friends), they were, I suspect, far more distressed over the split than I. No more Olympias, which we couldn’t grow on our own beach.
The oysters you might see if you’re walking on the beach at low tide are probably Pacific oysters, the most common variety on most Puget Sound beaches. They are, in fact, found on salt water beaches from here to Japan and as far south as Australia, and are grown in oyster farms throughout the Pacific Northwest. Another very popular variety, originally imported from Japan, is the Kumamoto, a bit smaller than the Pacific usually, and with a darker almost fluted edge around the flesh when the shell is opened, and a very delicate flavor.
We’re fortunate, here on the island, to have access to the freshest live oysters, even if we can’t walk the beach picking up a dozen or so. A short trip to Coupeville is all it takes to satisfy that oyster craving when it hits. I, however, will probably grab my oyster knife and head to Shelton to visit both family and the oyster bed of my youth, which is still thriving. Nothing is as sublime eating as an oyster just plucked from the sand, opened, and slurped from the half shell while sitting on the beach at low tide.
I won’t even bother to set the table.
Forget the old adage “never eat oysters during months without an ‘r’ in them.” Our local waters are still far too cold during May and into June for the oysters to begin spatting; they should still be crisp and smell “like a taste of the sea.”
Oysters are health food, in case you’re unsure about the benefits of being an oyster eater. They’re a low-cal protein, high in iron and calcium. The only limitation is to eat oysters in moderation if you are subject to high cholesterol. And if you just can’t handle oysters raw, here are some delicious alternatives.
Hang Town Fry used to be on the menu in most diners, and was frequently on our breakfast table; somehow it fell from popularity, but it’s still one of our favorite breakfasts or suppers, when we have fresh oysters. If you’ve never had a Hang Town Fry, do try this.
HANG TOWN FRY
2 dozen medium oysters, shucked and drained (reserve liquor for another dish)
Flour, mixed with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
5 eggs, total (see instructions)
Bread crumbs or fine panko
2 T. butter and 1 T. olive oil
Pat oysters dry. Put flour in a shallow dish; do the same with breadcrumbs. Beat one egg with a T. or so of dry sherry added. Melt butter together with olive oil in a hot skillet (don’t let butter burn). Roll oysters first in flour, dip in beaten egg, then roll in breadcrumbs. Put them into the hot frying pan and fry to a golden brown on one side.
Lightly beat remaining 4 eggs in a bowl; pour over the oysters in the skillet. Allow to cook for about a minute, until eggs set up a bit, then turn over and lightly brown on the other side. Don’t overcook; it should look like an egg pancake with oysters mixed in. Serve with tiny browned breakfast sausages and shoestring potatoes, to make an authentic Hang Town Fry. Serves 4-6.
Another easy but delicious way to enjoy fresh oysters, either for dinner or breakfast, is this variation of Eggs Benedict, without the eggs.
OYSTERS BENEDICT WITH CAPER HOLLANDAISE
6 slices of bread of your choice
Canadian-style bacon, sliced (you’ll want 1-2 slices for each slice of bread)
18-24 shucked oysters, with their liquor
Caper Hollandaise Sauce (recipe follows)
For the sauce:
3 egg yolks
2 T. lemon juice
Pinch of cayenne pepper
½ cup melted butter; keep hot until ready to use
2 t. chopped capers
Make sauce: Place egg yolks, lemon juice and cayenne in a blender container. Cover and quickly pulse ingredients. Turn blender on high speed and very slowly pour in the butter, blending about 30 seconds, or until thick and fluffy. Add the capers to the sauce; keep warm until ready to serve.
Toast the bread and place one slice on each of 6 warmed plates. In a frying pan, fry the bacon and drain on a paper towel then put one or two slices on each piece of toast. Put oysters and their liquor into the same frying pan; simmer 3-5 min. or just until their edges begin to curl. Remove with a slotted spoon and place 3-4 oysters on top of bacon slices. Drizzle a bit of oyster liquor over oysters and top with Caper Hollandaise Sauce. Serve immediately. Serves 6.
And for your guests who just can’t handle oysters raw on the half shell, treat them to this easily prepared, kicked up oyster appetizer.
OYSTERS IN THE SHELL WITH PROSCIUTTO
Place 2 dozen fresh oysters, top shell removed, oyster still in bottom shell, on a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with 2-3 T. (total, not for each oyster) balsamic vinegar. Chop 6 slices prosciutto and sprinkle over the oysters. Sprinkle with cracked black pepper and place under a hot grill or broiler for about 1 min., or until prosciutto is just beginning to crisp. Be careful not to burn oysters. Makes 24 appetizers.