Oysters beyond Rockefeller

Raw oysters are slippery and seductive, tasting of ocean and salt and fresh sea breezes. Cooking firms the oyster meat and gives it a smooth, custardy texture. But cook it too long and it turns to rubber.

Inland Seafood’s Vicky Murphy says to cook an oyster properly, you want to gently warm it. You’ll know it’s done when the edge just begins to curl. Inland Seafood provides seafood for over 4,000 restaurants and 1,500 retail outlets in the Southeast and Murphy has spent many years teaching the best way to cook that seafood.

While raw oyster connoisseurs debate the merits of the Beausoleil vs. the Malpeque, does variety make a difference when you’re cooking the oyster? Robert Pidgeon, Inland Seafood’s general manager, says “no.”

“In cooked oysters, the flavor nuances so important in raw oysters don’t really matter,” said Pidgeon.

Only five species of oysters are harvested for eating. “The oyster from the Chesapeake Bay is the same species of oyster as the one from the Delaware Bay and on up to New Brunswick, Canada. The flavor variation comes from the season, the salinity of the water they’re growing in and even the way the tides fluctuate. There are any number of variables that determine that oyster’s flavor,” said Pidgeon.

Murphy knows that doesn’t stop oyster lovers from debating which oyster variety they prefer, raw or cooked. She’s from Tallahassee and partial to the oysters harvested in Apalachicola. She’s also partial to smaller oysters, preferring those that can be eaten in just a bite or two.

If Pidgeon is enjoying cooked oysters, chances are he’s enjoying one of the time-tested dishes like Oysters Rockefeller or Oysters Bienville. “Or I make a dish I call Robert’s Oysters, topping the shucked oysters with shallot butter and crisp bacon before baking,” said Pidgeon.

Pidgeon says the biggest misconception about eating oysters is that they should only be eaten in months spelled with an “R.”

“That old wives’ tale dates from the days before refrigeration. If you’re getting your oysters from a reputable retailer with a good turnover and food safety procedures in place, there’s no reason not to eat oysters all year around,” said Pidgeon.

A professional oyster harvester will gather the oysters and get them on ice immediately so they get down to 40 degrees as quickly as possible, said Pidgeon. Keeping the oysters cold and damp from harvest to delivery to your store is part of what keeps the oysters safe to eat. “If you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t keep the oysters cold, then the oysters open and close and you get the chance of contamination,” said Pidgeon.

Murphy adds that in addition to refrigeration, transportation has also made a difference in food safety.

These days refrigerated trucks move oysters regionally and oysters travel across the country by airplane.

Buying oysters

Shucked oysters are easy to come by, stocked in plastic containers in the seafood department of most grocery stores. In the Atlanta area, we’re generally purchasing oysters identified as “southern” meaning the oysters may come from Alabama, Mississippi, Florida or Texas.

Shucked oysters come in select and standard grades. The standard oysters in a container may be of varying sizes and there may be some damage to the oyster meat. All the selects in a container will be a similar size with no nicks to the oyster itself. Shucked oysters should be good for 14 days after they were shucked, so Pidgeon recommends checking the “sell by” date carefully and eating the oysters before that day arrives.

Oysters in the shell for dishes like Oysters Rockefeller and Oysters Alexander are sold in some groceries like Publix. Specialty stores like Whole Foods may carry several types of oysters ranging from those harvested in the Gulf to those that come from the Atlantic and even Pacific oceans. The oysters coming from western waters are generally more expensive because they grow more slowly in those colder water temperatures and of course they’re more expensive to ship east.

Oysters in the shell don’t come with a “sell by” date so it’s important to buy from a reputable source. “By law, the retailer must have the shellfish tag for the oysters they’re selling which includes the harvest area and date of harvest. You can ask to see that and plan to eat your oysters within 14 days of harvest,” said Pidgeon.

Three hot oyster dishes perfect for cooler February weather.

Oysters Alexander

Hands on: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Serves: 6

If you’re shucking the oysters yourself, be certain to use the right equipment. An oyster shucking knife, not a butter knife or steak knife, is essential, and will make shucking the oysters easier and safer.

In this recipe, the oysters are baked in their bottom shell which is cupped and will hold the oysters, their liquor and the melted butter. Be very careful not to cook the oysters too long. If they’ve shrunk, you’ve overcooked them. Rock salt is available at many grocery stores and is also sold as “ice cream” salt.

1/4 cup pine nuts

3 cloves garlic, peeled

2 shallots, peeled

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh chives

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon brandy

1 teaspoon pepper

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

Rock salt

18 oysters in shells, scrubbed, shucked and top shells discarded

Lemon wedges, chopped chives, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Scatter pine nuts on pie plate and bake until golden, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove pine nuts from oven and increase temperature to 375 degrees.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine toasted pine nuts with garlic, shallots, parsley, chives, lemon juice, brandy and pepper. Process until finely chopped. Add butter and pulse just until blended. Bits of all ingredients should still be visible. Set aside.

Line a roasting pan or ovenproof serving dish with 1/2-inch of rock salt. Arrange oysters on salt and divide butter among oysters. Bake until oysters just begin to firm up and butter melts, about 8 minutes. Garnish with lemon wedges and chopped chives, if desired. Serve immediately. Discard rock salt after serving.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Vicky Murphy, Inland Seafood.

Per serving: 266 calories (percent of calories from fat, 89), 4 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 27 grams fat (15 grams saturated), 76 milligrams cholesterol, 33 milligrams sodium.

Oyster Pie

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Serves: 6

This variation on scalloped oysters is called a “pie” because you bake it in a dish large enough that the oyster mixture is very shallow and the wide top surface provides every bite with a mix of the creamed oysters and crunchy topping. Murphy uses Ritz Crackers in this recipe.

2 pints shucked oysters with their liquor

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1/4 cup sliced celery

1/4 cup chopped onion

2 cups finely crushed crackers, divided

3/4 cup milk

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1/2 cup grated cheddar, divided

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 10-inch pie plate or other ovenproof baking dish.

Careful check oysters for bits of shell. In a medium saucepan, heat oysters and their liquor over medium heat just until edges being to curl, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and drain. Discard liquid and set oysters aside.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt butter and add celery and onion. Saute vegetables until just tender, about 3 minutes. Add 1 1/2 cups crushed crackers, milk, parsley, garlic, lemon juice, pepper and 1/4 cup cheddar. Stir in oysters and pour mixture into prepared baking dish.

In a small bowl, combine remaining 1/2 cup crushed crackers with remaining 1/4 cup cheddar and sprinkle over oyster mixture. Bake 10 minutes or just until top turns light brown. Serve immediately.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Vicky Murphy, Inland Seafood.

Per serving: 455 calories (percent of calories from fat, 47), 19 grams protein, 40 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 24 grams fat (13 grams saturated), 144 milligrams cholesterol, 277 milligrams sodium.

Fried Oyster Salad

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Serves: 4

Vegetable oil, for frying

24 small- to medium-sized oysters, shucked

2 egg whites

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cornmeal

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 pound arugula

Lemon Dressing (see recipe)

Lemon wedge, for garnish

In a deep skillet, heat 1/4-inch vegetable oil to very hot.

While oil is heating, whisk egg whites together in a pie plate and set aside.

In another pie plate, whisk together flour, cornmeal, salt and pepper.

When oil is ready, dip each oyster into egg whites, drain and then into flour mixture. Be sure all sides of oyster are coated with flour. Shake lightly to remove excess flour and carefully arrange in hot oil. When arranging oysters in pan, begin at outer edge and lay oysters in ring around outside of pan. Place a few oysters in the center. Do not crowd pan. When you finish laying out the oysters, the first ones will be ready to turn. Turn all oysters and cook just until they turn golden brown, about 2 minutes total. Remove from oil and drain. Keep warm and continue with remaining oysters if needed.

Divide arugula among serving plates. Arrange oysters on top of arugula and drizzle with Lemon Dressing. Serve immediately.

Discard remaining egg whites and flour mixture.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Vicky Murphy, Inland Seafood.

Per serving: 470 calories (percent of calories from fat, 56), 11 grams protein, 41 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 29 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 28 milligrams cholesterol, 627 milligrams sodium.

Lemon Dressing

Hands on: 5 minutes

Total time: 5 minutes

Makes: 1 cup

If you can’t find Meyer lemons (they’re in season right now) substitute 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice and 1 tablespoon orange juice.

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup fresh Meyer lemon juice

1/4 cup grated Parmesan

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

2 teaspoons minced garlic

Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a small bowl combine olive oil, lemon juice, Parmesan, mayonnaise and garlic. Whisk together, taste for seasoning. May be made ahead and refrigerated up to 1 week. Bring to room temperature before using.

Adapted from a recipe provided by Vicky Murphy, Inland Seafood.

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 68 calories (percent of calories from fat, 94), 1 gram protein, trace carbohydrates, trace fiber, 7 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 1 milligram cholesterol, 35 milligrams sodium.