THE CALIFORNIA COOK
Oysters, beyond raw
Why would anyone cook a perfectly good oyster? It's simple -- there's no arguing with delicious.
GRILLED AND SPICED: Half a dozen barbecued oysters from the Marshall Store on its deck along Tomales Bay in Northern California. (Peter DaSilva / For The Times)
Barbecued oysters are not the kind of thing I usually order. I've always thought of cooked oysters as something you settle for -- what you eat only when the oysters are no longer of the first quality or when you have had so many raw ones you're tired of them (and despite repeated attempts at reaching that limit, I have never even come close).
At Marshall Store, the raw oysters were magnificent, as expected; after all, we were eating them no more than five yards from the icy Northern California waters where they were grown. But what really amazed me was how great the barbecued oysters were. Freshly shucked, they were lightly brushed with garlic butter, quickly grilled and then finished with a squirt of house-made chipotle sauce.
The preparation was simple, but the result was beguilingly complex. All of the flavors were in balance: the garlic butter smoothing out the oysters' sharp brininess and the chipotle sauce offering a hint of sweet smoke and fire.
Old prejudices die hard, but there is no arguing with delicious.
Curious, I started re-examining old oyster recipes. That's where, as if to rub (sea) salt in my wounds, I came across this quote from James Beard: "Many gourmets, or 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."
Back to the kitchen
THOROUGHLY chastened, I retired to my kitchen to explore. A couple of weeks and scores of cooked oysters later, I've learned that he's right. Cooked oysters aren't better than raw, but they are different -- and in a delicious way.
Cooking oysters changes their flavor and their texture. What was once aggressively briny, tasting like cold, clean seawater, is calmed, allowing the mollusks' natural sweetness to shine through. The seductively slippery texture is firmed, turning from wet and wild to soothingly custardy.
The transformation is magical, whether you're gently poaching the oysters in a rich tarragon-scented stew, or roasting them to be served with melting braised fennel or a sprightly chipotle butter.
But let's be clear right from the start that when we talk about "cooking" oysters, we're really talking about something closer to "warming" them. It takes only three or four minutes' poaching and less than 10 minutes in the oven.
It's really easy to tell when an oyster is done: You can see it plump and firm, and the small ring of muscle around the outside will gently curl. Perhaps it's just my imagination, but it looks as if the oyster is smiling.
You should be smiling too. Though raw oysters are among nature's most inconvenient foods -- even well-practiced oyster shuckers can run into problems opening them -- it's pretty amazing what a little cooking can do.
The edible part of an oyster is basically one big muscle that is devoted to keeping the two halves of the shell closed. Warm an oyster in the shell, though, if only for five minutes or so, and the muscle relaxes. This makes opening it, if not quite a breeze, at least much easier. At this point it's certainly not suited for the raw bar, but it's still well short of fully cooked.
You can even do this in the microwave: 20 to 30 seconds on medium heat or "defrost" will do the trick. Don't go any longer, though, or the shell will begin to give off a somewhat unpleasant smell.
Once the oysters are warmed, shuck them as you normally would: Wrap the oyster cup- side down in a dish towel to protect your hand. Probe the narrow hinge end with an oyster knife. When you find a spot where the knife can slip in a couple of inches, just give the blade a twist. It will pop the hinge, opening the oyster.
Use the sharp edge of the knife to separate the muscle from the shell, top and bottom, and you're ready to go. It's a good idea to work over a bowl, so you can catch any of the delicious liquid that leaks. Before you add it back to the dish, pour it through a strainer to remove any shell fragments.
Using jarred oysters
JARRED oysters, available at most good fish counters, can be handy, but in my experience they should be used with discretion. In the first place, I've found widely varying quality with different brands. The ones I've been happiest with have been from high-quality oyster growers such as Hama Hama (available at Mitsuwa markets) and Taylor Shellfish Farms (at Marukai stores or www.taylorshellfishfarms.com).