DIARY: Oysters in all their simplicity make one of the best starters for a meal ever invented.
RECIPE: How to shuck and enjoy boysters.
My daughter Megan asks me what I want to do on Fathers’ Day and my first response is to go sailing, but the weather forecast looks rotten. Naturally, my second choice turns to food and what could be a better indulgence than a plate full of juicy oysters accompanied by a really cold vodka martini? So off we go to Pure Spirits in Toronto’s Distillery District, which always has a good array from east and west coasts. I decide on a dozen Fanny Bay oysters, larger than usual, and enjoy them enormously with just a squeeze of lemon juice and a drop of Tabasco. No need for a main course with these big guys, but I do indulge in a mango raspberry tart.
The trick with fresh oysters, of course, is to get the little blighters open without stabbing yourself and spilling your claret all over them. There’s another downside too: anyone who’s ever had a bad oyster will tell you it’s not an experience they ever wish to revisit. Both these minor drawbacks are far outpaced by the rewards of a delicious tender fat sea-fresh oyster slithering into your mouth from the half shell, surrounded by succulent juices, redolent with the complex flavours of the ocean.
People say that oysters are an aphrodisiac and I would not disagree. Perhaps it’s because they’re packed with vitamin E, zinc and dopamine, but they do seem to engender a feeling of friskiness. Many years ago the British food writer Clement Freud was asked by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show if he agreed with the theory. He replied that he wasn’t entirely sure, but always swallowed oysters quickly in case he got a stiff neck. I liked the story enough to use it in my book How to eat well and stay single.
Canadians are well blessed with excellent oysters, and although we are far from the sea in Toronto, we have regular fresh shipments of farmed oysters from both the East and West coasts. The most popular East coast type is the Malpeque and the most popular West coast variety is the Pacific oyster. More than half the oysters in Canada come from the West coast. Farmed oysters come from one of three types of farming. Some are grown below the tide line on the ocean floor, some are grown on rafts suspended in deep water and some on ropes hanging from rafts or buoys in deep water.
Since the 1850s, oysters have been farmed by planting the immature seed oysters on the ocean floor in Prince Edward Island where the Malpeque oysters I have bought have grown to maturity. Oysters feed by sucking in nutrients from the seawater surrounding them. As they are susceptible to pollution, there is no worry on this front. Polluted oysters will die before we see them at the shop. The ones we buy are from clean sea water.
To address the issue of freshness first, always make sure you buy from a reputable fishmonger or sea food purveyor. The oysters should be displayed on ice and you should, by personal enquiry, be assured they are indeed fresh. No responsible establishment want to make its customers sick, so this is your first line of defense. Next make sure you pick oysters that are tightly closed, for they are still living in their shell and will be at the peak of freshness. If you tap them gently, they should snap closed. Any that are slightly open and don’t snap shut are deceased and should not be purchased. When you’ve made your selection, have the shop pack them on ice for the journey home, however short, and once there, keep them on ice (but not in the fridge where they might be in danger of freezing) until you are ready for the next step. I kept mine overnight in a galvanized tin tub, filled with ice, then drained and refilled the next morning. They should not be kept submerged in water. I would not advise keeping oysters more than overnight before eating.
Although a chain-mail glove, such as those used by butchers, is often recommended for oyster shucking, it’s really quite unnecessary with a little care and common sense. As you will see from the accompanying photographs, there are just a few simple steps to follow. The only specialized equipment you really need is a special oyster shucking knife. It needs a sharp point and a sturdy blade, with no cutting edge. Oyster shells can be sharp, so be careful.
First scrub the oyster shells vigorously under cold running water and pay particular attention to the dirt that may have collected around the small opening at the narrow, or muscle, end. Your oyster may come with quite a colony of other tiny shells, seaweed, or even small barnacles. Don’t worry too much about them. They’ll cause no harm.
Fold a terry cloth kitchen towel to make a firm foundation for your work and then make a half-fold to grip the oyster. The shell has a flat side and a cupped side, which should be placed facing down to reserve the juices.
Now this step requires a bit of muscle. Grip the oyster in the towel firmly, insert your special oyster shucking knife (accept no substitute) into the hinge and press quite hard until it slips in. You may have to wiggle the knife a bit. Give your knife a twist (like starting the ignition on the car) to get the two halves to open. After one or two oysters you will quickly get the hang of this step.
Now slide the knife around the edge of the oyster to separate the muscle that holds the two halves together. If successful, you will be able to lift off the flat half of the shell, leaving the cupped half on the towel. Now cut the rest of the oyster from the shell. You will see that there is a muscle under the flesh which has to be separated. Clean away any bits of shell which may have gotten into the juices, or dirt from the filter system.
Set the half oyster on a dish filled with crushed ice, which has the effect of keeping the oyster fresh and holding it in place to prevent the juices from spilling.
I’m not a believer in lots of fancy sauces, which I think hide the delicate natural flavours, so I just serve the oysters with a wedge of fresh lemon for squeezing and a bottle of hot sauce (Tabasco is my favourite) for guests to add as they wish.
If you are not going to the table immediately, cover each dish with foil wrap and store in the fridge.
HOW TO SHUCK OYSTERS
- 6 fresh oysters per person
- bag of crushed ice
- 1 or 2 seedless (or de-seeded) lemons cut into wedges
- hot sauce
- Set out your equipment in advance: a good oyster knife, a clean terry towel and a wooden chopping board. Fill half of the sink, or a separate tub, with crushed ice.
- Rinse each oyster thoroughly under cold running water, and use a small brush to scrub off an dirt or grit that may adhere to the shell (and seaweed and other crustaceans if they bother you, but they won’t do any harm). As you scrub inspect the oyster to make sure it is tightly closed. If it is open, give it a sharp tap and if it doesn’t snap tightly closed, discard. Err on the side of safety.
- Set on the ice, cup side down, until just before you are ready to serve.
- Take the towel and fold it in half. Slipping an oyster into the fold, grasp it firmly, cup side down. Insert the knife at the point end where the hinge is located. Using a fair amount of force, insert the knife and give it a twist to force the two sides of the shell open.
- Slide the knife along the crack that is now opening, cutting the muscle that holds the two halfs together, working your way around the entire shell until you are back at the point end.
- Lift of the flat shell, slice under the meat to ensure the flesh if free, remove any broken bits of shell or grit, and place on a platter on a bed of crushed ice.
- Serve immediately with wedges of lemon, with hot sauce on the side, for those who like a bit of spice. Provide small forks, or even special oyster forks, for your guests to lift the oysters from the shell.
Categories: Market to Table