Oh my! Oysters are good in any way, shape

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ernest Hemingway said it best in A Moveable Feast, his brilliant ode to food and life in Paris in the 1920s, “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste…leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid…and washed it down with the crisp taste of wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy….”

I have long had a love affair with oysters. I can eat them any way. They are held in high regard around the Louisiana area for their simple, delicate perfection – ranking as one of nature’s most delicious expressions of what is right in the world.

I purchased a beautiful oyster cookbook (that has just come out) called The P & J Oyster Cookbook by Kit Kohl and the Sunseri Family. This cookbook is a collection of more than 120 oyster recipes provided by chefs who revel in cooking the luscious shellfish plucked from the Gulf of Mexico. These recipes will take you around the city of New Orleans, and a few around other parts of the world. They are easy to prepare and suitable for any occasion.

P&J Oyster Company is the oldest continuously-operating oyster house in America. Since 1876, it has been cultivating, harvesting, processing, and selling the delicious mollusks to the finest restaurants and the most discriminating retail customers.

In 1889, Antoine’s created Oysters Rockefeller with P&J oysters. The company’s oysters were also present at the creation of Oysters Bienville, and many other classic New Orleans oyster dishes. Chef Leah Chase, widely recognized as the “queen of Creole cooking,” has never allowed any other oyster in her kitchen.

Most of us agree that oysters are best when eaten in the months with the letter “r”. In the summer, the oysters become fatty and milky and lose their briny flavor.

In fact, Casamento’s, a famous restaurant in uptown New Orleans (known for their oyster loafs which I really like) closes in the summer because of the poor quality of oysters. Maybe we should also just enjoy the oysters in their season.

My new cookbook has so many good recipes I did not know where to start. But I did have to secure the oysters. I went to Tony’s in Baton Rouge and bought two quarts of oysters and decided to start eating my way through the book. These recipes are the results of this week’s two quarts of oysters.

Oysters with Mushrooms and Aioli

From Chef John Besh, Restaurant August

Yield: 4 servings

24 shucked fresh oysters, with bottom shells reserved (Since I usually buy oysters already shucked, I keep on hand old, washed oyster shells to use in cooking.)

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

2 egg yolks

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 pinch salt

1 cup olive oil

1 cup cleaned, sliced mushrooms, wild varieties preferred (I only used white button mushrooms)

1 cup chopped raw bacon

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced shallot

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (time to start your herb garden if you haven’t already)

2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter

salt, to taste

Strain the oyster juices (the “liquor”) into a container to remove grit and refrigerate or freeze for future use. Place the oysters in a medium-size bowl and set aside.

Prepare a sufficient number of half-shell trays to hold 24 oyster bottom shells. I use a rimmed baking sheet filled with salt, with the 24 shells on top of salt.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

First make the aioli. Combine the garlic, egg yolks, lemon juice and salt in a food processor. Blend the mixture together on the highest speed. Very slowly drizzle the olive oil into the food processor while at high speed and turn the processor off once the oil has been added and the emulsion has formed. Set aside.

In a hot sauté pan render the bacon until crisp, add the mushrooms, and cook for five minutes over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat to medium and add the garlic and shallots and cook for three more minutes before adding the thyme and butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper, remove from heat.

Spoon heaping tablespoons of the bacon-mushroom mixture over each oyster on the half-shell. Add a dollop of aioli over the bacon-mushroom mixture on each oyster and broil on the middle rack of the oven until the aioli turns golden brown. Serve immediately.

Mom’s Bacon and Cheese Oysters

Yield: 4 servings

24 shucked fresh oysters with bottom shells reserved

6 ounces mozzarella cheese, grated

2 slices raw bacon

2 fresh jalapeño peppers, stemmed, seeded, and finely diced

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Prepare a half-shell tray or use a rimmed baking sheet.

In a medium sauté pan cook the bacon slices to a crisp. Drain them on paper towels to absorb the fat. Crumble the bacon into very small pieces.

Place a raw oyster on each bottom shell. Top each oyster with about 2 tablespoons of grated mozzarella and then evenly sprinkle about ¼ teaspoon of bacon bits and about ¼ teaspoon of diced jalapeño.

Arrange the oysters in their shells on the tray and bake 11 minutes or until the edges of the oysters begin to curl. Serve immediately.

The following is another John Besh recipe from his restaurant Lüke. This is a gratin filled with flavor and has the treatment of a traditional French dish.

Oyster Gratin with Horseradish

Yield 6-8 Servings

24 shucked fresh oysters

¼ cup butter

¼ cup all-purpose flour

½ onion, sliced

1 garlic clove, crushed

2 cups milk

1 clove

1 bay leaf

½ cup prepared horseradish

salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/3 cup bread crumbs

1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1/3 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Strain the oyster juices into a container to remove grit and refrigerate or freeze for future use. Place the oysters in a bowl and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

In a large saucepan melt the butter over medium high heat and add the flour. Combine the butter and flour and stir with a whisk. Continue stirring for five minutes, allowing the blond roux to cook, but not brown. Add the onion and garlic, lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring continuously until the onions are translucent.

Add the milk, continuing to stir, and raise the heat to high. Bring the sauce to a boil, then lower the heat to low. Add the clove and bay leaf, and allow the sauce to simmer for 45 minutes.

Remove the sauce from heat and stir in the horseradish. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Strain the sauce through a fine sieve and allow it to cool.

Season the oysters with salt and pepper and place them in the bottom of a casserole dish.

Pour the sauce evenly over the oysters.

In a bowl, combine the bread crumbs, oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and red pepper flakes. Sprinkle the mixture generously over the oysters. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown.

Remember: March and April are still “r” months. In May, it’s over till the fall.