Volume 14, Issue 45 ~ November 9 - November 15, 2006

Planning the Thanksgiving Feast
A Bay Weekly Annual

Crown your Thanksgiving table with the oysters of champions ~ plus a few tempting recipes from family and friends

by Sandra Olivetti Martin, Bay Weekly editor

Oysters are Chesapeake Bay’s totem of perfect harmony. Cupped in the yin-yang of their shell, they take little and give much. Drawing sustenance from their surrounding water, they filter and edify it. Growing plump and multiplying, they mound in reefs where life thrives. Abounding, they give livelihood to water-going human neighbors and underpin economies: businesses, roads, towns, transportation systems, culture. Oysters made Chesapeake Country rich, and Chesapeake Country spread its bounty across the nation.

Honoring the culture of the oyster has spawned a rich cuisine that ranges from primitive simplicity to baroque complexity.

That is why there must be oysters on Chesapeake Thanksgiving tables.

The Gold Standard

Erin Huebschman’s Thanksgiving tradition follows the gold standard of simplicity. As dinner was prepared inside, the men and children of the Severna Park family gathered outside around a fire, where patriarch Charles Bangert Sr., Huebschman’s grandfather — succeeded by Charles Jr., her uncle — tossed on oysters. With the exception of the Weber grill, their ritual is one families have followed for centuries.

When a shell popped, Bay Weekly webmistress Huebschman recalls, “whoever was holding the shucker would loosen the oyster and pass it down, the hot shell warming your cold hands. Then you’d use the fork — one fork; we’re all family — to dip your oyster in the kettle of melted butter.”

Oyster grillers might vary their sauces. Ann Mackenzie, retired as food editor at both the Baltimore News American and the Aegis, adds minced garlic and a touch of red pepper. Bill Lambrecht, cofounder of Bay Weekly and a proud oyster griller, adds jerk sauce and proprietary spices plus vinegar and olive oil to a bit of melted butter. Marty Hyson of Millersville, a prize-winning oyster chef, adds basil, capers, white wine, bacon and blue cheese.

But nobody’s improved on the basics. The warmth of a fire-cooked oyster on a cold day is one more benefice befitting thanks and thanksgiving.

Oysters of Champions

At the elaborate end of the spectrum are the oyster masters, like Hyson, who compete in the National Oyster Cook-off, held annually for 27 years on the third weekend of October at the St. Mary’s County Fairgrounds to open the oyster season. Complexity is the quality that lifts off the cream here. “We’re always looking for something different,” says Noreen Eberly, Maryland Department of Agriculture’s seafood marketer, who separates the nine finalists from the hundred-plus hopefuls seeking fame and fortune in gilding the oyster.

First place in each category — hors d’oeuvres, soups and stews and main courses — brings its winner $300 (second place $200 and third $100), considerable bragging rights and eligibility for the grand prize, $1000 and a silver tray. Many who compete are serious chefs who spend the year trying out recipes on family and friends.

Among the chefs who return year after year as finalists are Hyson; Brian Boston, of Sparks, who won last year’s hors d’oeuvres competition; Alex DeSantis, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Douglas Pope, of Delta, Pennsylvania, a second-prize winner last year; and Jack Campbell, a recurring first-prize winner, of Clackamas, Oregon. Of that quartet, only Boston is a chef, working by day at the Milton Inn.

This year, Campbell was not only a finalist in the hors d’oeuvres competition but also an honorable mention chef in the other two categories, thus earning three recipes in this year’s cookbook, published each year with the winning recipes. DeSantis was a finalist in main courses and an honorable mention chef in hors d’oeuvres. The DeSantises make the competition a family affair. Shirley DeSantis won a second place in the 2006 competition.

From East Coat, West Coast and places you’d think might never see an oyster — soups and stews finalist Gary Stefan hails from Tempe, Arizona — the chefs are summoned to the dusty St. Mary’s County Fairgrounds, down the road from Leonardtown. In the festival kitchen there, the nine finalists — three in each of the three categories — prepare two-batches of their recipes under the eyes of all who care to see, except the judges. One batch is sampled by festival-goers, who award the people’s choice. The second is artfully arranged to win the favor of the competition judges.

Mackenzie, of Belair, is one of the four judges, along with culinary historian and chef extraordinaire William Taylor, of Leonardtown. In 27 years, that pair have judged 318 oyster creations. Joining them again this year are Betty Wrenn Day, food writer for the Gazette Journal on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula; Reed Hellman, editor of Recreation News, in Windsor; and this writer.

Oyster lovers all, we’re seeking the succulence of the irresistible dish. We five are happy as we gobble our way to perfection. Oyster judging isn’t like wine tasting; we don’t just smell and let the flavor break in our mouths before spitting. Most of us don’t think you can make a fair decision until you’ve eaten the whole thing.

Elizabeth Bennett, pictured with the Oyster King, took first place in main courses for her Southwest Oyster Quesadillas.

In this year’s judging, war nearly broke out over hors d’oeuvres. The delicacy of the fried oysters and the crispness of the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese cup where they bedded down made Jack Campbell’s Frisco Oyster Cups a favorite. The topping of raspberry sauce, however, brought Campbell’s dish to the edge of that unexplored territory, the oyster dessert. Just as tempting in their own right were RJ Johnson’s Stuffed Buffalo Smokehouse Oysters (second place) and Marty Hyson’s Smoked Oysters with Basil Caper Butter (third).

Oysters love to jump into the soup, and in the National Cook-off, they’re simmered with strange pot-fellows. Robert Vining, of Metairie, Louisiana, paired his with cauliflower and pasta shells for third place. Gary Stefan, the Arizonian, stewed a cabbage and two ears of corn in 12 ounces of Pilsner beer, three cups heavy cream and one cup dry sherry (plus onions, garlic, carrots and celery and assorted spices) into Treasured Oyster Bisque, topping each bowl with one lovely, lonely oyster, a treasure in his part of the world. Claiming first prize was Chef Boston’s Smoked Tomato, Corn and Oyster Stew.

Main courses show the amazing places inventive chefs can take Maryland oysters. Washington-stater Elizabeth Bennett took first place for taking her Southwest Oyster Quesadillas to the Southwest. Oyster and Summer Squash over Hominy Cakes earned $200 and second place for Doug Pope, of Delta, Pennsylvania, who took his oysters South. Perennial competitor DeSantis took third for taking his Oyster and Cannellini Beans with Polenta Rounds to Italy.

Judging for the finest of them all earned Jack Campbell the $1,000 grand prize, added to his $300 first place. The people chose Brian Boston’s Smoked Tomato, Corn and Oyster Stew.

The Thanksgiving Oyster

This year, I judged with an ulterior motive. Once the prizes were given, I went seeking Thanksgiving recipes for Marylanders’ holiday feasts. Setting aside main courses — mighty as the oyster is, it can’t compete with turkey — I found among the winners a pair of appetizers and a soup to do right by any Maryland Thanksgiving feast.

With Maryland Thanksgiving the subject and no prize money at stake, judges and a behind-the-scenes organizer also entered my competition. Good as all these recipes are, they skipped over a traditional favorite, oyster dressing. For that delicacy, another Bay Weekly founder, J. Alex Knoll, fills the gap with a recipe I’ve judged year after year and found good.

Smoked Oysters with Basil-Caper Butter

Step the traditional grilled-in-the-shell oyster up to competitive level with Marty Hyson’s Smoked Oysters with Basil-Caper Butter.

24 Maryland oysters on half shell

1 stick unsalted butter, softened

2 Tbs. fresh basil, chopped fine

1⁄4 cup capers, drained

1 tsp. fresh lemon juice

1 cup white wine

1 teaspoon each salt and pepper

6 slices of applewood bacon, chopped fine

1⁄4 cup crumbled blue cheese

In a bowl add butter, fresh basil, capers, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Form into log-shaped roll on wax paper and refrigerate (can be made two days prior).

On a hot grill, place a smoker box on coals with soaked wood chips (hickory, maple, applewood). Place oysters on hot grate and pour a small amount of white wine on each oyster and 1⁄4 inch slice of the basil butter.

Close grill and let cook 5 minutes or until edges curl on oysters. Sprinkle with bacon then blue cheese, and let cook for another 2-3 minutes. Remove from grill and arrange oysters on decorative platter. Garnish with your favorite bread.

Baked Thanksgiving Oysters ala Eberly

As spouse and aide-de-camp to Maryland’s seafood marketer, Randy Eberly knows his oysters, having compared species and preparations coast to coast and beyond. His Thanksgiving appetizer is a deviled oyster on the half shell.

1 dozen oysters; shuck and reserve liquor and deep half of shells

2 Tbs. chopped onions

2 Tbs. olive oil

1 garlic clove, finely minced

1 Tbs. dried parsley

1⁄3 cup dry white wine

1⁄3 cup Italian bread crumbs

1⁄3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Saute onion in olive oil until translucent, about one minute. Add garlic and Saute one more minute. Add parsley and wine; saute one minute. Add oysters and heat until edges curl. Remove from heat, remove oysters and chop coarsely. Return chopped oysters to the mixture. Add bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese. Mix well, adjusting consistency with more oil or bread crumbs until dry enough to stuff oyster shells. Sprinkle the top with more Parmesan cheese and bake in oven at 375 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes.

Oysters Martini

Bill Taylor, chef, dinner designer and chief judge of the National Oyster Cook-off, specializes in perfecting American cuisine. Serve his high-style appetizer at Thanksgiving cocktail hour.

Shucked oysters: Poach in their liquor until they plump and curl. Drain and chill

Large shrimp: Cook, peel and chill.

Red-ripe tomatoes: skin and chunk.

Avocados: peel, chunk and mix with lime juice.

Combine ingredients gently. Sprinkle with chilled vinaigrette and pile into stemmed martini glasses. Garnish with fresh basil leaves and one large shrimp hanging over the edge. Serve on a buffet on a silver tray with oyster forks.

Smoked Tomato, Corn and Oyster Stew

“I like to use Maryland ingredients,” Brian Boston told me as he basked in both People’s Choice and his second first prize in two years. “Tomatoes and corn are both local, and they make a little different oyster stew.” They also make a soup to warm Marylanders hearts on a chilly holiday.

Smoking adds another dimension, and Boston likes it so well he’s doing a lot of it. He smokes the corn in its husk over wet hardwood chips for about 20 minutes, then blends it smooth for his Smoked Tomato, Corn and Oyster Stew.

1 quart Maryland oysters with liquor

4 ounces pancetta (rendered-fat set aside)

1 cup minced onion

1 cup minced celery

3 Tbs. flour

2 quarts half and half

4 ears of sweet corn (cut off the cob)

4 smoked tomatoes (skinned, seeded and pureed)

salt and black pepper to taste

2 Tbs. seafood seasoning

2 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce

1⁄4 pound butter

Combine butter and rendered fat in a thick-bottomed pot. Sweat the onions and celery. Stir in flour to make a roux. Add half and half; whisk until smooth. Add all other ingredients except oysters and bacon. Bring to a simmer for 10 minutes; do not boil. Add oysters at the last minute. Dish and sprinkle with pancetta. Makes one gallon.

Would Boston serve this soup as a first course for Thanksgiving?

“A celebration depends on where you are,” says the Milton Inn chef, who anticipates feeding 600 people this Thanksgiving. “The oyster is a Maryland thing, an elegant item, and I definitely make it part of Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Frisco Oyster Cups

Raspberries and oysters? Absolutely, said grand prize-winner Jack Campbell, of Clackamas, Oregon. “Fruit and seafood is a good marriage. I’m trying to put together all kinds of fruit and seafood. I started with raspberries and salmon, but now I’m using cherries, pears, apples. On the West Coast, like the East Coast here, you get seafood all the time, and the oysters are great.”

For Thanksgiving, Campbell said he’d adapt his big winner, eliminating the Parmesan cup and serving it in a casserole, “blasted under the broiler and maybe crusted with brown sugar.”

“Frying the oysters crispy is important,” he advised, “and make the raspberry compote with honey as well as sugar. Don’t forget the sharp, salty complement of bacon.”

Brown sugar and oyster?

“I also do a brown sugar glaze on oysters brushed with butter. A single layer in a pan, under the broiler,” says Campbell.

Thus oysters edge closer to dessert.

Frisco Oyster Cups

1 quart freshly shucked Maryland oysters, drained

1⁄4 cup all-purpose flour

1 tsp. cayenne pepper

3 Tbs. vegetable oil

Raspberry Sauce

1 pint fresh raspberries

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup dry white wine

1 pound bacon, cooked crisp, drained and chopped

Fresh mint leaves, to garnish

Frisco Cups

1 pound Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated finely

In a small non-stick skillet, sprinkle a fine layer of grated cheese in a circular pattern and shake to evenly distribute. Cook over medium heat until it has melted and formed a light crust, about 3-4 minutes. When the edges are set, carefully lift and turn to cook other side. Cook on second side about one minute or until lightly golden. Remove from pan and cool on a paper towel. While still warm place over the back of a small custard dish to form cup. Allow to cool completely. Continue with remaining cheese. Makes about 12-15 Frisco cups.

Combine flour and cayenne pepper and lightly dredge oysters, shaking off excess. Pan fry oysters in a large oiled skillet over medium-high heat until browned on both sides, about 1-2 minutes per side. Set aside and keep warm.

To make the sauce, add raspberries, sugar and wine to a small saucepan and lightly boil over medium heat. Cook until raspberries have dissolved into a glaze, about 10 minutes. Stir constantly to avoid burning. Add additional wine if mixture becomes too thick. Fold in the cooked bacon pieces and remove from heat.

To assemble, place several warm oysters in the Frisco cup and spoon a small dollop of the raspberry mixture over the top. Continue with all the oysters and garnish with sprigs of mint. Serve warm.

Alex Knoll’s Baked Rockefeller Dressing

This is a twist on two classics, paired for Thanksgiving. Fresh-shucked oysters are best, in which case be sure to save the liquor; otherwise, a pint of shucked oysters will do.

1⁄4 pound thick-cut bacon, chopped

2 Tbs. butter or olive oil

3 cloves garlic, chopped

3 shallots, sliced thin

1⁄4 cup Pernod, dry white wine or vermouth

1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp. marjoram

1⁄4 cup fresh arugula, rinsed, dried, chopped

2 Tbs. fresh parsley

24-30 fresh-shucked oysters with liquor reserved or one pint.

4 cups stale sourdough, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 tsp. salt

Cook bacon until just done, drain and set aside. Melt better in the same pan over medium heat; stir in shallots, garlic and marjoram. Cook for one minute or until translucent but not brown. Add Pernod, scraping the pan bottom to remove any fond, and Worcestershire sauce. Cook over high heat 3 minutes, stirring. Add prosciutto, arugula and parsley, reduce heat and cover, cooking until wilted, one to three minutes. Add oysters and half of reserved liquor, saving the remainder, and gently mix together. Add bread cubes, stirring together. The mixture should barely cling to your finger. If it’s too dry, add remaining oyster liquor as needed.

Place dressing in ovenproof casserole and cover with foil. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour, removing foil after 30 minutes. Dressing will be done when top is golden brown.

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