Illustration by Kristy Heilenday
Fossils indicate man’s enjoyment of these bivalves began as early as the Neolithic age, but written records shed more light on this shellfish: In Ancient Greece, Rome and Japan, nets made of bamboo, twigs and cloth pulled oysters from the water thousands of years ago. Closer to home, Native Americans harvested oysters from the Chesapeake Bay long before explorers and settlers arrived, and closer to our era, in New York City, oysters helped put the region’s restaurant and fishing industry on the global map.
WHAT TO BUY
Here’s what not to buy: that old adage preaching oysters are only good in months that end in “R.” Thanks to modern bedding, cultivation and transportation methods, fresh oysters can be found and enjoyed year-round. Don’t buy these bivalves too far in advance, either; the day before or day of is usually best.
You’re looking for tightly closed shells, no foul smells and oysters recently plucked from cold waters. Once you bring them home, store them in your refrigerator for up to one week. Want less hassle? You’ll often find pre-shucked oysters in your grocer’s seafood section.
HOW TO PREPARE
Clean your oysters under cold running water, wiping away all dirt. Using an oyster knife, carefully shuck, then bake or broil them open-faced in your oven, topping them with compound butters, breadcrumbs, bacon, cream, spinach — the meal is your oyster — or throw them, closed, directly onto the grill until they open. You can also remove them from their shells completely, battering and frying the meat, or toss them into a New Year’s dressing for good luck (recipe below).
Of course, nothing beats the slurp of a fresh, unadulterated oyster swimming in saline, so carefully clean and shuck these beauties and serve raw on the half-shell atop a bed of ice — mignonettes and lemon wedges encouraged.
Oyster and Spoonbread Dressing
Serves 8 to 10
By Michael Hall of Spoonbread Bistro
1 pound packaged spoonbread
3 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups onions, chopped
1/2 cup celery, diced
1 pound shucked oysters, with liquid reserved
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 ½ teaspoons rubbed sage
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning
14 ounces chicken broth
Prepare the spoonbread according to package directions and set aside. Allow it to cool, then crumble and toast it in the oven on a greased baking sheet for 15 minutes at 400 degrees. Remove and let cool.
Grease a 9-inch-by-9-inch baking pan and set aside. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter along with the celery and onions until translucent, about three minutes. Transfer this mixture to a bowl, add the toasted spoonbread and combine with a wooden spoon. Chop the oysters coarsely, then add them to a bowl with the eggs, spices, chicken broth, reserved oyster liquid and the spoonbread mixture.
Transfer to the greased pan and bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Serve with your favorite pork chops, poultry or other meat.