Market Matters- Oysters Raw and Real

I was wondering around the Hollywood Farmers Market just marveling at the amazing array of fresh vegetables. I mean here it is the very middle of February and every farmers stand is bursting with winter crops of all descriptions. Which makes choosing a vegetable very, very difficult.

That’s when it occurred to me. I do not have to choose a vegetable for this week’s Market Matters at all!

Now, I have talked about aquafarming before. So you may realize it is considered a very safe and sustainable method to provide some types of seafood to our tables. Aquafarms are an especially great source for bi-valves.

So I am choosing the most celebrated of all the bi-valves. The oyster.

I got myself over to the Carlsbad Aquafarm stand. Rob runs the stand in Hollywood and seems to be a man with a mission. He is easy to talk to and ready to share information, recipes, even a little gossip as long as the subject is bi-valves. He has a great selection of super-fresh oysters, mussels, and clams. There are always several varieties of each. He was featuring 4 types of oysters when I was there: Carlsbad Blondes, Catalinas, Lunas, and Endless Summers.

Rob will expertly shuck them for you right on the spot. So it’s easy to taste them all.

Many a certifiable foodie will tell you that the only way to eat an oyster is raw. Though it is a great way to eat oysters, it is an inaccurate statement! And if you do not believe me I offer you this quote from James Beard: “Many so-called gourmets, tell you that to eat an oyster in any fashion except directly from the shell is to show ignorance of gastronomic tradition and the rules of good taste. This is nonsense.” So said James, so say I…

Besides Rob was handing out free recipe cards for Roasted Oysters with a simple compound butter. I do not pass up free recipes.

All of the oysters I tasted at the market were, as expected, fresh and delicious.  Each variety had its subtle differences but they were all sweet and briny.

My personal favorite was the Luna. It had the quintessential taste of the sea you’d expect from a really fresh raw oyster, with just a hint of sweet melon. Yum.

I was also intrigued by the colossal size of the Endless Summer variety, nearly the size of my hand. It had a much crunchier texture and a distinctly cucumber-like finish. It was tasty alone, and raw, but compared to its cousins at the table it seemed born for other things.

So on a whim I picked up a dozen of the Endless Summer oysters and stuck that recipe card in my pocket. Something told me that these were the perfect candidates for cooked oysters, and I don’t mean fried.

Anyway somewhere on my walk home I lost that recipe card. I had picked it up and only registered the title “Roasted Oysters with a Compound Butter”. So I’ll never know exactly what flavors they were suggesting for that compound butter.

But that did not curtail me in the least. I’d make up one of my own. Roasted Oysters with Chipotle Butter.

Now if you are going to cook oysters you have to be prepared for a shock because it really changes them. It changes their texture. It changes their taste. It changes the way they feel in your mouth.

So you want to choose a recipe that takes advantage of these changes. In fact, I’d say you should choose a method that highlights these changes because honestly most people only know oysters in their raw or fried forms. Why not make them aware of the differences right away?

Cooking an oyster calms the aggressive briny flavor. It tones this saltiness down and cranks up the sweeter notes. No longer is it slippery and wet. It becomes soft and pudding-like. Something to hold on your tongue and savor a moment.

To achieve this you will want to pick a gentle cooking method. Stewing oysters in a rich creamy broth is a fabulous way to cook oysters. And since I had lost the recipe for roasting them with a compound butter I was heavily leaning in this direction.

But I was interested in transforming these particular oysters without really changing the experience of eating an oyster on the half shell. Because like I said… they were good raw, but we’re asking for a little help. Besides I was really struck by the massive amount of liquor held inside the Endless Summer oyster. Far more than the other oysters I tasted. There was almost a disturbing amount of liquid. Which was one of the reasons I thought it was a better candidate for cooking than enjoying raw.

So I will stick with roasting. Actually roasting is a bit of a misnomer because it brings to mind high heat applied directly to the food. I am planning on high heat, but I think I will leave them in the shell to protect their delicate nature. So it seems like braising or poaching is a better term because I am going to be leaving them in their shells and cooking them in their own sweet liquor. And like I said these oysters had plenty of that!

And while I am getting technical, cooking might not be the best word to use either. Because despite the high heat, I am going to be just barely warming them. They will plump up a bit, and get slightly firm. The whole “cooking” process will take less than 10 or 12 minutes.

Which brings me to the sauce. I am going to do a garlicky, chipotle butter sauce. I think the garlic will stand up and balance the briny flavors and the smoky heat of the chipotles will really highlight the sweet qualities the gentle cooking style brings out. These flavors will also induce you into keeping that oyster in your mouth a moment. So you can really experience the velvety texture.

1 dozen oysters

6 tablespoons butter

3 cloves coarsely chopped garlic

3 canned chipotle peppers plus 1 1/2 tablespoons adobo (liquid reserved from the can)

1 the juice of one lime

1 green onion, minced (use both the white and some of the green)

rock salt

1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees.
2. In a small skillet melt the butter. Set aside to cool slightly
3. In a mini food processor or blender purée the garlic, chipotles, adobo lime juice until smooth.
4. With the machine running drizzle in the butter slowly until emulsified. Transfer the mixture to a bowl.
5. Pour the salt onto a baking sheet. Place the oysters, cup-side down, on the rock salt. Roast until the oysters begin to open, 8 to 10 minutes.
6. Working over the bowl of the butter mixture (to capture the oyster liquor) remove the oysters from the oven and open them. Use a butter knife or similar tool inserted into the hinge end and pry them open with a twist. Separate the muscle at the top and the bottom. Discard the top shells. Mix the contents of the bowl very well. This is your chiplotle butter sauce.
7. Drizzle about 1 teaspoon of the chipotle butter sauce onto each oyster.
8. Return them to the oven until the butter melts and the oyster plumps and firms, about 3 minutes. Serve immediately.


Greg Henry