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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Consider the Oyster

No doubt...everything that needs to be said about The Oyster, has been said, and probably more eloquently, more poetically and with more whimsy than what I am about to share.

I am a late-bloomer in many ways and eating oysters is no exception. I don’t recall having anything to do with oysters as a child. (I mean really. What child would?!) As an adult I occasionally ate them, but always cooked. There was an oyster stuffing we tried one year at Thanksgiving, but it seemed a bit disappointing…the oysters lost and overwhelmed by the rest of the stuffing ingredients. I did enjoy them fried, in a Po’ Boy sandwich, on a trip to
New Orleans. Then – again in New Orleans – a rather convincing case for eating oysters raw was made at a wedding we attended.
Unlike any other wedding I’d ever been to, there were no assigned tables…no place cards…no torturous imprisonment next to someone’s college roommate from Michigan. Joy!
At this wedding, one could roam among the elegant buffets serving oysters and other New Orleans specialties…fill up a plate, and then sit, or stand, wherever one liked. It was heaven. My mother seemed miffed. My father and I were thrilled!
The oyster possibilities seemed endless…every possible way to eat oysters known to man was featured, including the very delicious, Oysters Rockefeller.

On occasional wintertime trips to Paris over the years I became obsessed with the extravagant, intimidating Plateau de Fruits de Mer (translation: platter of fruits of the sea) served in the winter months in most of the Parisian brasseries. You'd see them everywhere... at the center of a table among a group of convivial friends, chattering away, and digging in to three-tiers of plates filled with ice and shellfish stacked high. I was enthralled. Intrigued. It all looked so glamorous …a raw oyster, plucked from a glistening plate of ice and lightly sprinkled with lemon juice, followed by a sip of white was so chic, in a way.

So, you see, I've been converted.

That said, I recently dragged my husband, and the dog, on an oyster field trip disguised as a visit to the beach. (You can do this sort of thing here in Northern California.) A quick, yet spectacular, one-hour drive north of San Francisco delivers you to the Point Reyes National Seashore, which is breathtakingly beautiful, and while I could get carried away here about the natural beauty, I know you're thinking, yes, ahem, but what about those OYSTERS?? Yes, right...there is an area near Point Reyes called Tomales Bay...a narrow slip of salt water, sheltered from the currents of the Pacific (oysters like their peace and quiet).

My mission was a visit to Hog Island Oyster Company, which was started by three former marine biologists who believed in sustainable aquaculture. Their Kumamoto is my favorite -- petite, creamy, delectable and on the menu at many restaurants here in San Francisco.

We brought along a cooler filled with ice for the two bags of oysters we bought right there by the bay. In back, a large patio was filled with happy people eating their oysters--you can reserve a picnic table in advance at Hog Island. I even saw several communal barbecue grills available if you wanted to grill up a dozen right there.

Just a short while later we were settled in at our kitchen counter with a bottle of wine, a baguette, our beautiful oysters and a bottle opener (the ideal tool for shucking, according to Julia Child). Simple is key with oysters--my husband prefers a squirt of lemon and I like a traditional Mignonette Sauce of vinegar, shallots, a pinch of sugar and black pepper. We tried two varieties--Kumamoto, and the larger Sweetwater--both were wonderful.

So, no poetry, or witty quotes...all I can say is when you stand at your kitchen counter, eating a freshly shucked oyster, just hours out of the water…slurping the briny goodness from the shell, and then taking a dreamy sip from a glass of crisp, tangy Chablis there’s…well, a bit of an epiphany. A feeling of well-being washes over you…here is simplicity itself, and it is stunning.

Mignonette Sauce
adapted from The Barefoot Contessa by Ina Garten
2 shallots, minced
3/4 cup good Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh green herbs such as parsley, dill, and/or chives

Place the shallots, vinegar, and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook uncovered for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Add the pepper and herbs and serve with the raw oysters.
Yield: 1/2 cup