There's perhaps no other seafood which is more appealing to me than smoked oysters. Many of you may have had the canned variety, which are sold in most grocery stores. Obviously, the quality and flavor varies greatly, and the good ones are rather expensive. That got me thinking that there's really no reason at all that I shouldn't try preparing them myself.
My first try was not entirely successful, as I ended up with tiny chewy bits which even the cats weren't interested in. My technique, or lack thereof, was simply to place them on a sheet of foil, which I poked some holes in so the smoke could circulate better. I expected them to dry out quite a bit, but not to the extent that they did ... pretty much a total loss.
I adjusted my technique on the second attempt, however, and the results were far superior. What I was really looking for was a moderately firm but juicy oyster which I would ultimately marinate in a good olive oil. This time I started the process as before, placing the oysters on a piece of foil and poking a few holes in it to allow for better circulation (and for the oysters to drain a bit). I removed the oysters after smoking them for about 15 minutes at around 145 degress. As the temperature control in many smokers is difficult to measure, just keep an eye on them until they begin to shed some of their liquor, and begin to become more plump and round, under cooking them a bit is OK, because we're not finished with the process yet. The next step is actually to remove the oysters and place in a small pan then pour in enough extra virgin olive oil to completely cover them. Place back in the smoker at the same temperature for another hour or more, depending on how smokey you want them to become. Personally, when I taste the olive oil and get a slightly smokey (but not bitter) flavor, that's perfect. Just remove the pan and set aside to cool. Once they're near room temperature, I generally add some sliced raw onions, and a touch of white wine vinegar. You can store these in the refrigerator, or even can them.
Besides just eating them straight or with some good bread, there are numerous ways to to use them, including:
- Throw a few in with your seafood pasta dish
- Use them on top of salads
- Make a delicious sandwich with whatever strikes your fancy (I like them with artichoke hearts, roasted piquillo peppers and a slice of good cheese)
“Oysters are the most tender and delicate of all seafoods. The stay in bed all day and night. They never work or take exercise, are stupendous drinkers, and wait for their meals to come to them.”
Hector Bolitho 'The Glorious Oyster' (1960)
OK, I've been meaning to write this post for some time as I've had a few, we'll say, interesting discussions on the matter.
For millennia, oysters have been revered for their qualities as an aphrodisiac, and no place were they more sought after as an exotic and popular delicacy than in ancient Rome. Originally imported from England, the Romans eventually stored and farmed them in salt water pools. Supposedly, they "fattened them up by feeding them wine and pastries." Hmm, I wonder if those "picky" English oysters would insist on cream scones and teacakes, or if they were OK with a cannoli or struffoli, maybe even a simple biscotti? As to whether those legendary Roman whoopie fests were at all "inspired" by the mass consumption of bivalves is up for debate, but it's clear that several civilizations throughout history have recognized oysters as having certain beneficial qualities for libido. Enough speculation.
What we know is that oysters contain high quantities of zinc and protein, both of which are thought to be necessary ingredients to in a healthy and sustained libido. They also contain compounds that have been shown to be effective in releasing sexual hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. These compounds are D-aspartic acid and NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate). Moreover, the scent and texture of a fresh briny oyster can be alluring and even stirring for many people. Don't believe it? Go eat 2 or 3 dozen and check back in the morning.
I have a recipe I call "Roman Oysters." Nothing fancy, it's just basically grilled oysters with olive oil, a little garlic, red pepper, rosemary and sea salt (if needed). I wasn't really thinking about the not-so-fringe benefits when I created the dish eight years ago, but it turns out that rosemary and garlic are also both considered to be aphrodisiacs and olive oil contains vitamin E, so maybe you'd get a quadruple dip of goodness. Hey, maybe everyone would!
During the whole debate about the FDA's proposed ban on raw oysters, one aspect of the issue that didn't get addressed much is the actual health benefit of eating raw oysters. Rather, it was Vibrio vulnificus that took not only center, but the entire stage.
As for the health benefits for every individual (with a normal immune system) who consumes raw oysters:
The National Heart and Lung Institute states that oysters are ideal for a low-cholesterol diet, but oysters (especially raw) are also a great source of vitamins A, B1(thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), C (ascorbic acid) and D (calciferol). Four or five medium size oysters supply the recommended daily allowance of iron, copper, iodine, magnesium, calcium, zinc, manganese and phosphorus. *
"Cat skate oyster water and bread" - Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin
"Until I saw Chardin's painting, I never realized how much beauty lay around me in my parents' house, in the half-cleared table, in the corner of a tablecloth left awry, in the knife beside the empty oyster shell." - Marcel Proust
I first began cold smoking using salmon (home-cured), but this is also one of my favorite ways to eat raw oysters. The process is quite simple. Obviously, you'll want to make sure to keep the temperature in the smoker down, either by using indirect smoke, or by using a very small amount of charcoal and keeping a good distance between the heat source and oysters.
I use a water smoker and put a big chunk of ice in the water bowl. One thing I've figured out by trial and error is that one can get better results by placing the oysters in a pan in their own liquor, making sure there's enough liquid to cover the oysters, and that there's a bit of space between each one. Throw a handful of ice cubes in, which will keep the oysters cold throughout the smoking process. The smoke will permeate the liquid and the oysters should pick up a nice flavor ... you really don't need that much to make a difference. I've smoked them for as little as an hour, and as much as two, and have tried several woods, including pecan, alder and hickory. I think the alder wood gives an especially nice flavor, but they're all good. Someone once told me that pecan isn't any good for seafood, but I've not found that necessarily to be the case.
In terms of serving suggestions, I think it goes very nicely with just a bit of lemon, or a good mignonette. I've also served them as an appetizer, over a salad of jicama, avocado, red peppers and corn, seasoned with a little bit of lime, rice wine vinegar and a squirt of agave.
Heat-smoked oysters is another favorite, but I'll leave that for another post.
We did it!! Thank you all for your help in making this happen!
November 13th, Apalachicola, FL: The Gulf Coast oyster community applauds the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for abandoning a unilateral plan to ban the sale of traditional, raw oysters. Oyster dealers, workers, food lovers and community leaders throughout the Gulf Coast region and the nation joined forces in a massive grass-roots effort to oppose the FDA plan over the last two weeks. Mike Voisin, a founding member of the Gulf Oyster Industry Council whose family has harvested oysters off Louisiana for seven generations, welcomed the FDA announcement as a first step.
“We’re glad to see that the FDA has stopped its unilateral action,” Voisin said. “But traditional, raw
Gulf Coast oysters must be available to consumers under any future plan. We support new technologies, but the oyster just as Mother Nature made it must always have a place at the table.”
“If the FDA returns to working within the established process of the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, we welcome that. But the agency should not suggest that post-harvest processing is the only way forward. We also remind FDA that a full economic analysis of the impact on jobs is required, not just a study of post-harvest processing. We look forward to working with them on such studies.”
“We’re committed to further improving the safety of our already safe product, through existing plans
for better refrigeration, and through new technologies,” Voisin said. The Gulf Oyster Community thanks the thousands of people from all walks of life who supported thesimple right to eat traditional, raw oysters; politicians in all the Gulf states who pushed back againstFDA; and shellfish lovers nationwide. Special thanks go to our Senators and Congressmen who ledefforts on Capitol Hill.
Louisiana Congressmen Threaten FDA Over Oyster Ban
Washington - Louisiana lawmakers Tuesday threatened budget consequences for the Food and Drug Administration if the agency doesn't back off a plan to ban Gulf Coast oysters harvested during warm weather that are not treated with anti-bacteria technology. Full story >>
Marilyn Kilgen, an expert on seafood-borne pathogens and a microbiology professor at Nicholls State University, has spent the past 30 years studying Vibrio bacteria in oysters.
She contends the FDA’s new rule is not only detrimental to the oyster industry and the majority of consumers, for whom eating raw, unprocessed oysters are a delicacy that may carry health benefits, but is also a relatively arbitrary decision.
“There’s no science behind this because this is not something that presents enough of a health risk to the healthy population compared to the other food-borne bacteria,” she said, adding that one is at far greater risk of Vibrio infection from an open wound in the marine environment than from eating oysters.
“It would be like we’re not going to worry about AIDS, but find some very benign disease that hardly affects anybody and we’re going to put all of our efforts and all of our energy into preventing that. And we’re going to put a major industry out of business, by the way.”
No, it's not something you dowse your body with before a hot date. Here's the explanation:
10. Oyster Powder.—Open the oysters carefully, so as not to cut them, except in dividing the gristle which attaches the shells ; put them into a mortar, and when you have got as many as you can conveniently pound at once, add about two drachms of salt to a dozen oysters ; pound them and rub them through the back of a hair sieve, and put them into the mortar again, with as much flour (which has been previously thoroughly dried) as will make them into a paste ; roll the paste out several times, and lastly, flour it, and roll it out the thickness of a halfcrown, and divide it into pieces about one inch square; lay them in a Dutch oven, where they will dry so gently as not to get burned; turn them every half hour, and when they begin to dry, crumble them. They will take about four hours to dry; then pound them fine, sift them, and put them into dry bottles and seal them. Three dozens of natives require seven ounces and a half of flour to make them into a paste weighing eleven ounces, or when dried and powdered, six and a half ounces. To make half a pint of sauce, put one ounce of butter into a stew-pan with three drachms of oyster powder, and six tablespoonfuls of milk ; set it on a slow fire, stir it till it boils, and season it with salt. This makes an excellent sauce for fish, fowls, or rump steaks. Sprinkled on bread and butter, it makes a good sandwich. But only use plump juicy natives in the preparation.
This is one of my favorite accompaniments to raw oysters. It an approximation of a sauce I had at a little family-run Sushi Restaurant while living in San Francisco which, most unfortunately, it's no longer there (the restaurant, that is).
Makes about 16 oz, which should be enough for 3-4 dozen oysters, depending on how much you put on.
Though I generally just "eye" it, I think this is pretty close:
1 cup rice wine vinegar
1/2 cup dry sake
1/4 cup mirin
2 tablespoon tamari
1 teaspoon very finely chopped hot chillies (Thai red or green chillies, even Serrano will work)
1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon shredded fresh ginger (really, to taste)
1/8 - 1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil (again, these oils differ in intensity so, if you're not sure, start with just a little and keep adding/tasting until it blends nicely with the other ingredients)
Simply add all ingredients and let stand for a few hours before using. A teaspoon on each oyster should be enough, and don't dump the oyster's liquor, of course. It really should keep for a few weeks, but it never last that long around here.
A note: be careful when you slurp down an oyster too quickly with this stuff, if you shoot it directly into your gullet, the vinegar can burn a bit ... tears come to eyes, you cough, everybody has a laugh. You get the picture? A nice cold premium sake would go very well with this.
One would hope that the entire Gulf Coast congressional delegation would get on board with this, and soon:
"Three Gulf Coast senators introduced legislation Thursday that would bar the Food and Drug Administration from using federal money to enforce a ban on the sale of raw, untreated oysters during warm-weather months."
We've collected 2744 signatures so far in the petition and we now have combined our efforts directly with the Gulf Coast Oyster Industry to maximize the effectiveness of our message to the FDA.
We would greatly appreciate it if all signers of the original petition proceed to http://www.saveourshellfish.org and sign the new petition. This issue is of vital importance to the livelihood and culture of the region, and the effects of an FDA ban would resonate on a national scale.
Thank you sincerely for your support, it means the world to many thousands of people.
Charming oysters I cry:
My masters, come buy,
So plump and so fresh,
So sweet is their flesh,
No Colchester oyster
Is sweeter and moister:
Your stomach they settle,
And rouse up your mettle:
They'll make you a dad
Of a lass or a lad;
And madam your wife
They'll please to the life;
Be she barren, be she old,
Be she slut, or be she scold,
Eat my oysters, and lie near her,
She'll be fruitful, never fear her.
U.S. Congressman Charlie Melancon (D-LA) called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reverse its ban on the sale of fresh live oysters from Gulf Coast states during the summer months unless they are processed. Read the full story.
No raw oysters for most of the year? Exactly what would it mean to New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities with storied oyster production and consumption traditions? Of course, there are the thousands of jobs which would be directly affected, and there are the many thousands more who would suffer economic effects.
What many may not realize is that what the FDA's regulation could do is have a cataclysmic effect on local culture. Even if we start from the premise that eating dead, previously irradiated or frozen oysters is OK, which it is not, there's no getting around the fact that a dozen Gulf oysters will cost 2 or three times as much as they do currently. Remember, this regulation applies to all oysters that are harvested in the Gulf 8 months during the year, so whether they're being cooked or not, they must be processed. What that means is that your $8 oyster poor boy now costs $15+ ... there's nothing poor about that!
More than just the price increases, however, is the loss of our cultural identity. There are the rituals associated with eating raw oysters, there are the oyster-centric gatherings, the festivals, the shuckers, and the great ones (like Thomas at Pascal's Manale) are a culture unto themselves. New Orleans still has what so many other cities have lost, our living history. We haven't "sterilized" our city because it would cease to be "our city," and become just another "disney-ized" place that really means very little to the people who live there.
In spite of the fact that the FDA's approval of the technique, there are ample reasons to be skeptical of irradiated foods. I've collected a few:
According to OrganicConsumers.org
"Irradiation damages food by breaking up molecules and creating free radicals. The free radicals kill some bacteria, but they also bounce around in the food, damage vitamins and enzymes, and combine with existing chemicals (like pesticides) in the food to form new chemicals, called unique radiolytic products (URPs)"
"In addition, irradiation will likely have a mutagenic effect on bacteria and viruses that survive exposure. Mutated survivors could be resistant to antibiotics and could evolve into more virulent strains. Mutated bacteria could also become radiation-resistant, rendering the radiation process ineffective for food exposed to radiation-resistant strains. "
Yummy, I bet those URPs are good for you too! Oh wait, I'm sure the FDA has done a lot of research to study what the long-term effects are of zapping bivalves with the equivalence of 30 million chest X-rays. What, they haven't??
Some interesting reading:
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has made a decision to target the Gulf Coast oyster industry and force regulations which would cripple our $300 million industry and impact thousands of jobs. The rules would require that oysters harvested from the Gulf during the months of April through October be "sterilized" (most likely by irradiation), a process which kills the oyster and changes the taste and texture of the animal. As the FDA thumbs their nose at Gulf Coast seafood producers, they're checking under 2% of all imported seafood (including oysters) and testing only a percentage of that. This figure becomes more poignant considering that imported seafood accounts for around 75% of all U.S. seafood consumption. The agency's reasoning is that 15 people die per year eating raw oysters, and this is an easy-to-fix problem. Though any lives lost are a tragedy, let's keep this number in perspective. Dozens more children die each year choking on hot dogs, thousands more die from eating tainted vegetables and meat. You can sign a petition which will go the the FDA here: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/save-raw-oysters