Cooking Oysters

     At a moment of fraying connections, of nose-in-the-phone solitude and epidemic loneliness, Chesapeake Country offers one enduring remedy — the oyster.

    Oysters are a great foodstuff of Maryland history and a treasure of our waters. But they’re also sinew in what binds families over generations, proved in the winner’s circle of the Annual National Oyster Cook-Off, part of Rotary Club of Lexington Park’s 53rd U.S. Oyster Festival in St. Mary’s County last month.

     Read on for their stories and for prize-winning recipes to bring comfort to your feasts, families and friends. 

Marty Hyson

Crispy Buffalo Maryland Oysters on Blue Cheese Grits: $1,300

     “It’s an homage to my father,” said Hyson, this year’s grand champion.

     Hyson’s oyster entree honoring his father — served over buttermilk and blue cheese grits — so pleased the judges that he walked away on a perfect autumn day both with the winning main dish entry and top honors overall.

      Hyson, of Millersville, area manager for a major furniture rental company, almost missed the ceremony while being waylaid by a beer.

     He might have known the drill: In 2018, he’d taken honors on stage as his Smoked Chardonnay Oysters captured the appetizer category.

     This year’s dish, presented to judges on a rainbow bed of sweet peppers, took form in a bar. (Are we seeing a trend here?) He had in front of him a plate of chicken wings with blue cheese sauce adornment.

     “I thought, wow, this would be good with oysters,” he said.

     They were, nicely fried and not too overtaken by the grits’ tanginess.

Crispy Buffalo Maryland Oysters on Blue Cheese Grits
4 tsp. kosher salt divided
1½ cups quick-thickening grits
2 cups half and half
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
3 oz. blue cheese crumbled
½ cup blue cheese crumbled small for garnish
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 cup thinly sliced celery
1 Pint Maryland oysters (drained)
2 cups buttermilk
1 cup flour
½ cup corn meal
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. paprika
½ tsp. salt
1½ tsp. cracked black pepper
½ cup melted butter
½ cup your favorite hot sauce
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 cups vegetable oil for frying
Bring 6 cups of water to boil in saucepan. Add 1 Tbsp. salt and grits, pouring slowly while whisking slowly. Stir in half and half, butter, bring to a boil over medium heat until thick. Cover for 40 minutes or until smooth and creamy. (You may add more cream if needed) Remove from heat and stir in blue cheese, 1 tsp. salt and pepper.
Maryland Oysters
Drain and soak oysters in buttermilk until ready to fry
Combine flour, corn meal, salt, cracked pepper, paprika and garlic powder in large bowl. Dredge and fry until crispy brown (2-4 minutes) Set aside on paper towel to drain excess oil. Mix melted butter and hot sauce and set aside.
Arrange 2-3 fried oysters on skewer on top of the grits. Drizzle buffalo sauce on oysters, then garnish with celery and blue cheese. Sprinkle with cracked black pepper.

Susan Bickta

Thick and Creamy Maryland Oyster Chowder with Bacon and Herbs: $300

      Bickta arrived from Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley steeped in family oyster tradition. Her father cooked the chowder for the family’s Christmas eve dinner, a ritual she has carried forward since his passing four decades ago.

     Even far from the Chesapeake in Lehigh Valley, Bickta has oysters in her DNA. Her great-grandfather sold them in his H.S. Grosh emporium. 

Bickta, 69, also has in mind comfort food when she sets out for the stove. A year ago, her Creamy Oyster Florentine Chowder won in the soups and stews category.

     This year, judges gave her the prize for a stew that might be the essence of comfort.

    “The thing that makes it so creamy is the 15 ounces of cream cheese,” she said while preparing her recipe for the annual Rotary  Club of Lexington Park Oyster Festival and National Oyster Cookoff.

Thick and Creamy Maryland Oyster ­Chowder with Bacon and Herbs
8 slices smoked bacon, cooked (just crisp) and ­crumbled, divided (reserve bacon fat)
3 Tbsp. butter
6 small red-skinned potatoes, unpeeled and diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery (with tops), thinly sliced
1 large shallot, diced
2 14.5-ounce cans chicken broth
1 15.5-ounce container cream cheese with chives and onions
2 ¾ cups half-and-half, divided
2 pints shucked Maryland Oysters and their liquor
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. dried parsley flakes plus more for garnish
Garnish: oyster crackers
Place a 4- to 5-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the reserved bacon fat, butter, potatoes, carrot, celery and shallot. Mix well and cook for 5-6 minutes, stirring often. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 4-5 minutes or until potatoes soften. Add cream cheese and 2 cups half and half. Cook, stirring often, until the cheese is melted. Add the Maryland oysters and their liquor. Bring to a simmer and cook 6-7 minutes or until oysters curl around the edges. Stir in 2/3 of the crumbled bacon.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the flour and remaining ¾ cup half and half. Add to the Dutch oven; mix well and simmer, stirring constantly, until the soup thickens. Stir in the salt, pepper and parsley flakes.
Serve, garnished with remaining crumbled bacon and a sprinkling of dried parsley flakes, plus oyster crackers.

Mike Strejk

Maryland Oyster Spring Rolls with Remoulade Dipping Sauce: $300

     Strejk has his species of bivalves, Olympia oysters, from Coos Bay and other Oregon coastal waters near where he lives in Portland. He thinks about oysters when not eating them.

    “Every time I sit down to a meal, I say, I wonder how an oyster would work with this,” he reports.

     Strejk, 69, a draftsman, traveled the farthest to the competition, and he had no problem adapting to the Chesapeake’s crassostrea Virginia bivalve.

     He’s partial to Thai food, and he enjoys spring rolls of any sort. 

Maryland Oyster Spring Rolls with Remoulade Dipping Sauce
Spring Rolls
2 dozen Maryland oysters, drained
8 rice wrappers (8.5”)
2 ounces vermicelli rice
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
½ cup red onions, rough chopped
½ cup baby portabella mushrooms rough chopped
1 lb. bacon, julienne cut (¼ inch)
1 Tbsp. minced garlic 
Add bacon to a skillet over medium-high heat, fry until crisp, (15 minutes) remove from skillet, cut into ¼-inch strips and set aside. Do not drain bacon drippings. Add red onions, mushrooms and garlic to the same skillet. Sauté until tender, 7 minutes. Remove from skillet and set aside.
Add Maryland oysters to the same skillet, sautéing until edges are turning up, 5 minutes. Remove and set aside.
Bring a medium saucepan of water to boil. Boil rice vermicelli 3-5 minutes, then drain. Fill a large bowl with warm water. Dip one wrapper into the water for 1 second to soften.
Lay wrapper flat. In a row across the center, spread 2 Tbsp. onion, mushroom and garlic mix. Lay a handful of rice and chopped basil on top of the mix. Add 4 pieces of bacon and 4 Maryland oysters, leaving 2” on each side. Fold all uncovered sides inward then tightly roll. Repeat until all ingredients are used. 
Remoulade Dipping Sauce
½ cup mayonnaise,
¼ cup sour cream
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. whole grain mustard
1 Tbsp. ketchup
1 tsp. tarragon vinegar 
½ tsp. Tabasco
2 tsp. capers chopped
1 scallion white and pale green parts thinly sliced salt and pepper to taste
sesame seeds for garnish
Combine mayonnaise, sour cream, Dijon, whole grain mustard, ketchup, vinegar, tabasco, capers in a bowl. Whisk together and set aside. 
Cut the spring roll in half. Add Remoulade sauce to a small ramekin and place on plate. Sprinkle sesame seeds over top and serve.

40th Annual Oyster Cookoff cookbook: $5 to the Rotary Club of Lexington Park, P.O. Box 766, California, MD 20619.