Championing Local Fare
Maryland oysters at their best
by Sandra Olivetti Martin
2007 is the year of eating local.
Annapolis-born literary luminary Barbara Kingsolver sealed the deal with her diary of a year of eating as local as you can get from her own backyard. Even before A Year of Food Life became a best seller, the idea was dormant in our collective consciousness. We wouldn’t be around to read or eat if our ancestors hadn’t cultivated the skill of finding food wherever they went.
Way back when, a Chesapeake Country ancestor cracked open the shell of an oyster. The intrepid who performed the act without benefit of a steel blade must have been hungry to eat that soft glob of shimmering, pearly flesh.
The proof that it was good is that we’ve eaten oysters ever since. The Chesapeake’s rambunctious oyster industry served its native shellfish to half of America in the late 19th century. Subsistence fishermen and kings of industry both counted themselves blessed to feast on oysters.
Fast food and the Bay’s ills have made oysters and the taste for them no longer ubiquitous. Natives, however, still love them, and gourmets are rediscovering them as Chesapeake’s local treasure.
For the few oysters still harvested from Chesapeake’s wilds, the season opens in October and runs to April. During those months, look up local in your on-line dictionary, and you’ll see the picture of a Chesapeake Bay oyster. There is no better time to eat them than in the crisp air of November and December. There is no better occasion than the feasts of this season, starting with Thanksgiving.
Gilded Oysters on the Half Shell
Oysters are self-evident in a way existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre must have appreciated, needing nothing to complete them.
Nor do you. A raw oyster is perfection, as is an oyster stewed in milk or cream.
If humans were content to leave well enough alone, New Jerseyian Lisa Grant would have never imagined Oysters Saltimbocca. Human nature being what it is, she dreamed, and she experimented. She shucked oysters and topped them in their shell with sliced prosciutto, garlic, sage, crushed buttery crackers and seasonings and served it with a lemony sage sauce.
Her artistry won the grand prize and $1,300 in this year’s National Oyster Cook-off, in Leonardtown, the premier event in Maryland’s oyster calendar for 28 years.
It also created an appetizer fit for not only a king King Oyster of the Rotary Club of St. Mary’s reigns over the cook-off but also for your Thanksgiving guests.
Here’s how to make it yourself and collect $1,300 worth of praise.
Oysters Fit for a King
Lisa Grant’s Oysters Saltimbocca with Lemon Butter and Sage Sauce
1 dozen Maryland oysters
2 Tbs olive oil
3 thin slices prosciutto (1 or 2 oz.), chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 Tbs fresh sage, chopped
8 round buttery crackers, finely crushed
2 Tbs white wine
1 Tbs lemon juice
1⁄2 Tbs lemon zest
2 Tbs grated Parmesan cheese
black pepper to taste
1⁄4 cup butter
juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbs fresh chopped sage
dash of hot sauce
black pepper to taste
Fresh lemon slices
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Scrub the oysters with cold water. Shuck the oysters, keeping the oyster meat in the deep part of the shell. Arrange the oysters in a baking dish on a bed of rock salt. Heat the oil in a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add the prosciutto, garlic and sage. Cook for one to three minutes or until prosciutto is slightly crisp; stirring often. Place the prosciutto mixture, cracker crumbs, wine, lemon juice, zest and cheese in a small bowl. Add pepper to taste and mix well. Top each oyster with some prosciutto mixture. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes or until edges of oysters begin to curl. To make sauce, melt butter in a small pan. Add lemon juice, sage, Tabasco and pepper to taste. Serve the oysters with the sauce and garnish with lemon slices and sage.
Gilded Oysters in a Stew
Of all the things you can add to an oyster, none is better than cream. At each year’s National Cook-off, the judges purr like cats over the Soups & Stews category. This year, Nancy Dentler of Greensboro, N.C., stewed her Maryland oysters with ale as well as cream to create first-prize winning Ale House Oyster Stew.
Nancy Dentler’s Ale House Oyster Stew with Onion, Cheese and Bacon Croutons
1 quart cleaned Maryland oysters with liquor
1 cup pale ale
1 Tbs unsalted butter
6 green onions, chopped
1⁄2 red bell pepper, chopped
4.3 oz. package cooked bacon pieces
1 tsp ground mustard
1 tsp nutmeg
8 oz. package shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 quart heavy cream
16 oz. container sour cream
1 baguette French bread
4 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 cup pale ale
4.3-oz. package cooked bacon pieces
4 green onions, chopped
Additional chopped red bell pepper and green onions.
Marinate oysters in 1⁄4 cup ale; set aside. In a large stockpot, melt butter and sauté onions and bell pepper. Stir in remaining ale, plus bacon, mustard and nutmeg. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to low. Slowly whisk in cheddar cheese until melted. Add oysters and cook without boiling about 3 minutes until curled at the edges. Stir in heavy cream and sour cream and cook until warm.
For garnish, slice baguette. In a small mixing bowl, combine shredded cheddar, bacon, green onions and half-cup pale ale. Spray baking sheet. Broil croutons till cheese is melted.
Get 31 winning recipes in this year’s National Oyster Cook-off Cookbook: $6 by check to National Oyster Cook-off, P.O. Box 653, DECD, Leonardtown, MD 20650.