How to Cook a Prize-Winning Oyster

On an ideal October weekend, up to 20,000 people thronged the 50th anniversary St. Mary’s Country fairgrounds for the U.S. Oyster Festival, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Lexington Park. Festival-goers stood in long lines to gobble oysters raw and steamed and — if they were lucky — to sample the inventive recipes competing in the National Oyster Cook-off.
    Oyster culinary creators from around the country have schemed and stewed for months to be among the nine chefs chosen to prepare their hors d’oeuvres, soups/stews and main dishes for visitors and judges. They are John Shields, Rob Kasper and me.
    Making the finals is an honor. Earning first place in one of the three categories a triumph. Winning the grand championship — and cash prize of $1,300 — is a ticket to ride.
    Meet the three who made it to the top. Then share their glory by preparing their not-very-difficult recipes for family and friend.

The winners: Judy Armstrong, of Prairieville, La., Robert Bonner of Prince Frederick, and Tammy Davis, of Chesapeake Beach.

How One Champion Cashed His Ticket
    2014 grand champion Robert Bonner, 49, of Prince Frederick, cashed his ticket for his own catering business, Caney Creek Catering.
    “I’ve loved cooking all my life, but I’ve had no formal training,” says Bonner, who works an as elevator installer and volunteers as a paramedic. “Winning gave me approval — and the courage to start my business.”
    This year, the cook-off’s three judges awarded Bonner two prizes: best presentation and first prize for hors d’oeuvres.
    “Well that looks good,” said Kasper — food, drink and culture writer for the Baltimore Sun for three decades and author of the book Baltimore Beer — on surveying Bonner’s four-layer Oysters Benedict.
    What we didn’t know, as we savored Oysters Benedict, was the back story of its creator.
    Bonner’s 2015 submission also earned him an invitation to compete. But he had another commitment: catering for homeless people in Calvert County’s End Hunger drive.
    Bonner recalled having a “two-way argument” with God about what to do. God apparently won.
    His return in 2016 reaffirmed his confidence. “After competing against some of the best cooks in the nation, I guess I must be pretty good,” he said.
    “That’s a perfect Hollandaise. Your average home cook could not manage that,” concurred judge Shields, cookbook author, PBS cooking show host and proprietor of Gertrude’s Restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Oysters Swimming in Another Milieu
    The 2015 National Oyster Cook-off didn’t go as planned for Tammy Davis, either. She got the batter wrong and ran out of time to cook the pancakes on which her dish depended. They fell apart before judging.
    Davis, of Chesapeake Beach, had no such problems this year. Her first prize-winning Coconut Curry Oyster Soup also earned the Grand Prize, adding $1,000 to her category-winning $300.
    “We think of English preparations as Chesapeake cookery, and it was 200 or 300 years ago,” said Shields. “But not anymore. Asian is a great part of Chesapeake culture nowadays. Integrating those flavors isn’t easy, but this has the right balance, and the oyster isn’t lost.”
    Davis, 48, formerly in the Foreign Service at the State Department, incorporated spicy tastes she relished during her postings in South Asia and elsewhere. She used locally produced mushrooms, hot peppers, garlic and ginger.
    “This is oysters swimming in another milieu,” said Kasper.
Disaster to Delicious
    Judy Armstrong, of Prairieville, La., finds the National Oyster Cook-off relaxing.
    It may well be compared to preparing pulled pork sandwiches, spaghetti and chili for hundreds of people who endured sudden calamity in mid-August in flooding that the Red Cross called the worst U.S. natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy four years ago.
    Armstrong emerged from church on August 18 to find muddy, bedraggled people, suitcases in hand, marching toward the vestibule. She knew her task in coming days: helping feed victims of the storm.
    As principle at St. Thomas More, a K-8 Catholic school in Baton Rouge, Armstrong, 62, is accustomed to shouldering responsibility.
    Cooking and competing, she said, “uses a different part of my brain, bringing in creativity and relaxation.”
    She earned a second place at the 2015 cook-off and has enjoyed success before:  She won a trip to Italy in one contest and last year took a second in Macy’s Sizzling Showdown in Kansas City.
    Her first-prize-winning main dish recipe — Oyster Sauce Picante Topped with Cornbread-Fried Oysters — turned up the heat while preserving the flavor and — most important of all — the integrity of the oyster.
    “The oyster marries well with other ingredients,” said Kasper. “But you don’t want to cook it too much.

National Oyster Cook-off judges Rob Kasper, John Shields and Sandra Olivetti Martin, left, tasted dozens of oyster hors d’oeuvres, soups, stews and main dishes. They had no idea which dishes belonged to whom until the awards ceremony.

The Recipes

Robert Bonner’s Oyster Benedict
1 dozen Maryland oysters on half shell
1 dozen quail eggs
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Hollandaise sauce recipe to follow
Old Bay

    Place oysters on half shell. Heat in hot oven until edges curl.
    Boil water in deep pan; add salt and vinegar. Add quail eggs and poach to desired doneness, usually 2 minutes. Scoop out eggs and drain.
    Chop prosciutto and fry with olive oil until crisp.
    Place poached egg on oyster, topping with 1 teaspoon Hollandaise sauce.
    Sprinkle with a touch of Old Bay and top with prosciutto.


Hollandaise Sauce

4 egg yokes
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted (1 stick)
Pinch Old Bay
Pinch salt

    In double boiler, whisk egg yolks and lemon juice until warm. Slowly whisk in melted butter. Do not heat too fast or hot or it will scramble. Remove from heat and add pinch of Old Bay and salt. Stir. If too thick, add a drop or two of water.

Tammy Davis’ Coconut Curry Oyster Soup
1 pint Maryland oysters, liquor reserved
1 tablespoon canola oil
4 stalks lemongrass
2 medium shallots
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons chopped ginger
2 tablespoons prepared red curry paste
3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce (may substitute soy sauce)
6 limes, juiced; reserve zest of 3
4 cups chicken broth
2 (13.5 oz.) cans coconut milk
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 ½ teaspoons sesame oil
12 ounces sliced mushrooms
4 green onions, chopped
Chopped basil and red chilies for garnish

    Prepare broth: Finely chop lemongrass, using tender white inner portion of each stalk. Chop shallots and finely mince garlic and ginger and sauté in the oil with red curry paste.
    Add chicken broth, reserved oyster liquor, fish sauce, lime juice, brown sugar and coconut milk. Bring to a simmer.
    Marinate drained oysters in soy sauce and sesame oil.
    Slice mushrooms into bite-sized pieces.

    After 10 minutes, add mushrooms to broth, cooking 3-5 minutes to firm. Add oysters and marinade; cook until the oyster edges begin to curl. Serve immediately with chopped green onion, basil, lime zest and chilies as garnish.

Judy Armstrong’s Oyster Sauce Picante Topped with Cornbread-Fried Oysters and Parsley
1 cup canola oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
1 (4-ounce) can tomato paste
4 Roma tomatoes, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
24 ounces beer
3 cups oyster liquor
2 teaspoons Creole seasoning mix
36 medium Maryland oysters
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped and divided
8 green onions, thinly sliced
4 cups cooked rice, prepared according to package directions

    In a large (5-6 quart) Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium high heat. Whisk in the flour and continuously stir until the roux darkens to a deep brown. Stir in the onion, bell peppers, celery and jalapeño; sauté for 3-4 minutes until vegetables are softened. Stir in the tomato paste, diced tomatoes and garlic until blended.
    Gradually stir in beer and oyster liquor and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 20 minutes. Add Creole seasoning, oysters, thyme, basil, ¾ cup parsley and green onions. Continue simmering for 5-7 minutes until the oysters begin to curl at the edges.

Cornmeal Fried Oysters

Canola oil
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups cornmeal
2 teaspoons Creole Seasoning mix
12 oysters

    Heat the canola oil in a deep saucepan until the temperature reaches 375 degrees. Mix the flour, cornmeal and seasoning mix in a medium bowl and coat the oysters. Gently add the oysters to the hot oil in small batches and fry for 2 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oil and to a paper towel to drain.
    Serve Oyster Sauce Picante over a bowl of rice, topping each serving with two fried oysters and garnish of remaining parsley.
    Serves 6.