Raw Or Cooked, Oysters Are Traditional Christmas Eve Fare
Oysters are one of the great celebration foods. Over the centuries, poor and rich alike have cooked or ordered them, whether the occasion be intimate and romantic or flamboyant and festive. In a good many homes, especially those whose occupants are of Northern European extraction, oysters appear at the family dining table this very night as part of a ritual Christmas Eve supper. Almost invariably, tradition dictates how the oysters are served.
Bill Taylor, a fourth-generation oysterman from Washington State`s Puget Sound, has fond memories of family Christmas Eves.
During a recent visit to Chicago to introduce the new season`s Olympia oysters at Shaw’s Crab House, he explains how his mother would cook oysters rolled in cracker and bread crumbs and fried in bacon grease. These were consumed almost as quickly as they came from the pan.
“My dad would get a gallon for the family, we ate so many of them,“ he recalls.
Other families serve up platters of chilled oysters on the half-shell on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
His family tradition aside, Taylor thinks these folks are on the right track. He prefers eating oysters raw, on the half-shell, with no sauce or garnishes. For him, the qualities of raw and cooked oysters are “as different as fresh and instant coffee.“
“Like fresh coffee,“ he says, “raw oysters have a greater dimension of aroma and taste. Taste distinctions begin to fade when you cook oysters, and then other ingredients in the recipe may overwhelm them.“
When it comes to eating chilled oysters on the half-shell, Taylor is partial to Pacific oysters. Having shared a goodly number of tiny, intensely flavored Olympias and sharp-tasting, meaty European Flats (sometimes called by the French name Belon) with him on the shore of Puget Sound last spring, I was sympathetic. Oysters from the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf Coast, he explains, tend to come from beds with lower salinity and, to him at least, taste bland.
But aren’t these oysters well suited to being cooked, maybe in a Christmas Eve oyster stew? he is asked.
“Sure,“ he responds. “Oyster stew, hot with lots of cayenne-that’s great. There`s a wonderful description of how to make one in James Michener`s novel `Chesapeake.` “
So, for those who have had the foresight to lay in a supply of oysters but may not have access to Michener`s novel, here is an oyster stew suitable for Christmas Eve. In addition, I`m including one other oyster recipe that will add distinction to a celebration table during or after this holiday season.
One of the worst culinary disasters I’ve been involved in occurred only last Christmas Eve at the home of my mother-in-law. Since I insisted on helping in the kitchen, something she didn’t need, she graciously turned over to me the chore of preparing an oyster stew. As you will see from the following recipe, if the oysters are purchased preshucked, it`s a job a culinary illiterate can perform-unless you allow the stew to boil after the oysters have been added. The result, totally curdled broth and shrunken, hard oysters, is horrible enough to scare Freddy or Jason. The version I`m suggesting is purer than the recipe prepared at New York City`s famous Oyster Bar, which calls for Worcestershire sauce and sherry. For added texture and a subtle flavor accent, consider using the optional fennel and onion.
NEW ENGLAND OYSTER STEW
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chopped onion (optional)
1/3 cup chopped fresh bulb fennel (optional)
2 cups milk
1 cup light cream
1 1/2 pounds shucked oysters with liquor (about 24)
Freshly ground black pepper
A few drops hot-pepper sauce (optional)
1. In a large saucepan, heat butter, onion and fennel together. Cook over low heat until vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes.
2. In a separate pan, heat milk and cream together.
3. Add the oysters to the pan with the vegetables and cook until they plump up and the edges begin to curl, 1 to 2 minutes. Pour the hot-not boiling-liquid over the oysters. Season to taste with salt and black pepper and optional hot-pepper sauce. Serve at once with oyster crackers.
BAKED OYSTERS WITH LEEKS
Four to six servings
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 leeks, cleaned, trimmed and very finely cut (to yield about 1 3/4 cups)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/3 cup whipping cream, plus 1/4 cup
1/4 cup finely chopped shallots
2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar
24 oysters in the shell
Parsley sprigs for garnish
1. Heat oven to 500 degrees. In a saucepan, over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter. Add the leeks, salt and pepper, and simmer while stirring for about 5 minutes. Add 1/3 cup of the cream and simmer 5 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Set aside and keep warm.
2. In another saucepan, combine shallots, vinegar and 1 tablespoon of butter. Cook over high heat until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add remaining cream and bring to a boil. Stir with a wire whisk. Add remaining butter and stir vigorously with the whisk. Season with salt and pepper and remove pan from the heat. Keep warm.
3. Place oysters on a baking sheet and heat them in the oven for 5 minutes (the shells will loosen; do not wait until they open, or oysters will overcook). Remove sheet from oven and open each oyster. Discard the top shell, cut away the oyster meat and transfer to a bowl, reserving the liquor in the bottom shells.
4. Spoon an equal amount of the leek mixture into each of the reserved shells. Top each portion with an oyster. Spoon some butter sauce over the oysters and serve immediately, garnished with parsley.