Let Us Eat Oysters

      Oysters are ours to eat again.

      True, aquaculture ends the traditional summer drought, making oysters accessible all year long.

      Yet never do oysters taste better than in crisp November. The first reliably cool of the traditional oyster-eating R-months, November rouses our hunger for the warm, savory soups and stews that give oysters so satisfying a home. Roast oysters taste their best now, when it’s cool enough that picking up a hot rock feels good — as does cooking them outdoors on a warm grill or fire. From November, through winter, I’ll gladly eat a three-course meal of oysters.

      So this time each year, I go searching for new recipes to feed my oyster appetite. Where better to find them than the U.S. Oyster Festival in St. Mary’s County, where oyster cooks from across the nation compete each year for honor, trophies and sizeable cash prizes at the National Oyster Cook-Off.

       These cooks, amateurs and professionals, have spent hours in their kitchens perfecting their recipes. (Meet them in How a Winner Does It.) From each year’s submissions, Maryland state seafood marketers cull the most likely to please palates and compel home cooks. On the third Saturday of October, the nine finalists meet at the St. Mary’s fairgrounds to cook their recipes for judging and popular tasting.

       Again this year I’m the journalistic judge, along with a pair of culinary professionals. John Shields is proprietor of Gertrude’s Restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art, PBS cooking show host and cookbook author. Read about his newest, The New Chesapeake Kitchen, also in this issue. Gwen Novak continues her family’s century-old culinary tradition in Solomons with No Thyme to Cook, a cooking school and party gathering place in her family’s rebuilt Bowen’s Inn, a popular restaurant, marina and hotel for Southern Maryland.

       With us judges, the challenge is to make us want to eat the whole thing. 

Here’s how the first prize winners in the competition’s three categories — hors d’oeuvres, soups/stews, main dishes — won our hearts and stomachs.

Hors D’oeuvre
Martin Hyson’s 
Smoked Chardonnay Oysters
24 Sage Leaves
2 cups olive oil
Kosher salt 
2 cups dry Chardonnay
1 lemon, juiced 
2 teaspoon fresh chopped garlic
24 oysters shucked on half-shell
24 pieces (2-inch cubes) Brie cheese, rind removed
1⁄3 cup chopped pistachios, plus many in the shell for optimal oyster bed.
Heat olive oil to 375, drop one leaf at a time and let fry 2-3 minutes. Drain on paper towel and sprinkle with Kosher salt.
Make sauce, combining Chardonnay, lemon juice and chopped garlic.
Soak your favorite smoking wood; heat grill.
Place oysters on shell on grill; cover each oyster with Chardonnay sauce. Cook until oyster edges are curled, 12-15 minutes.
Place slice of Brie on each oyster and close grill for 2 minutes or until the Brie is velvety smooth and melted. Open grill and sprinkle chopped pistachio. 
To serve, top each oyster with crispy fried sage leaf. 
Soup, Stew, Chowder
Susan Bickta’s Creamy Oyster Florentine Chowder
6 tablespoons butter
5 ounces shitake mushrooms, sliced
1 28-ounce container chicken stock
4 small Yukon gold potatoes, unpeeled and cut into 
1½-inch pieces
1 8-ounce block cream cheese, softened and cut into small cubes
2¼ cups half and half
1 9-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
2 pints shucked oysters with their liquor
1⁄3 cup chopped green onions (plus extra for garnish)
1 teaspoon salt
1⁄8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons flour
¼ cup milk
Cook butter and mushrooms over medium high heat in a 4-5 quart Dutch oven, 6-8 minutes, stirring often, until the mushrooms start to soften. Add the chicken stock and potatoes. Bring to a boil and cook 8-10 minutes or until potatoes start to soften. Add the cream cheese; mix well and continue stirring until cheese has melted, about 5 minutes. Add the half and half and spinach. Bring to a simmer and add the oysters, their liquor and the green onions. Cook 6-7 minutes or until oysters start to curl around the edges. Stir in the salt and cayenne.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and milk. Stir into the simmering chowder. Cook, stirring constantly, until chowder thickens, about 6 minutes.
Garnish each serving with green onions. 
Serves 6-8.
Main Dish 
Debbie Reynolds’ Crispy Fried ­Oysters Louisiana Poutine Style

       Editor’s note: Perfectly fried may be the most delicious way to eat an oyster. Grand Prize Winner Debbie Reynolds achieved that perfection in this recipe. These oysters can stand by themselves with no gilding. So if it’s a fried oyster you want, try this recipe.

        Reynolds has gilded the lily, adding curds and etouffee gravy. The curds require no more steps than acquisition. The gravy can be made in advance and held; cooking it takes about a half hour, once ingredients are organized. All but the last step, frying, can be done in advance.

4 tablespoons butter 
1⁄4 cup flour plus 1⁄3 cup for flour coating
2 cups seafood stock 
1 cup onion diced 
1⁄2 cup celery diced 
1⁄2 cup bell pepper diced 
4 cloves garlic chopped 
1 teaspoon fresh thyme chopped 
1 14-ounce can diced tomato  
1 tablespoon Creole or Cajun seasoning 
hot sauce to taste 
sea salt to taste 
1⁄4 cup green onions sliced for garnish 
tablespoon Italian parsley chopped for garnish 
24 fresh select oysters 
1 large egg  
1 tablespoon club soda
½ teaspoon garlic powder
1⁄4 teaspoon pepper
1⁄8 teaspoon cayenne pepper 
3⁄4 cup panko breadcrumbs 
1⁄2 teaspoon Italian seasoning
frying oil
1 to 11⁄2 cup cheese curds or cottage cheese
Make the etouffee gravy in a large Dutch oven: Melt butter and 1⁄4 cup flour, combining until smooth. Stir on medium heat 10-12 minutes till golden brown. Add onion, green pepper and celery; cook 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add, garlic, thyme and bay leaf, stirring 2 more minutes. Next throw in 1 cup chopped tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, paprika and creole seasoning; cook 5 minutes. Gradually pour in 2 cups seafood stock, bring to a boil and let it simmer. Last stir in green onions and chopped parsley.
Line colander with two layers of paper towels. Rinse oysters, drain and put in colander, patting to dry. 
In small bowl, add egg and club soda whisk to blend well. 
Put 1/3 cup flour, garlic powder and black pepper in plastic bag and shake well to mix.
In a small bowl, add cayenne pepper, panko crumbs and Italian seasoning and mix well. 
Add oysters to bag of flour coating and shake. Dredge in egg/club soda mix. Roll in panko coating. With tongs, gently remove oysters from breadcrumbs and place on a wire rack. Allow oysters to rest at least 10 minutes.
Heat oil in deep pan to 375 degrees. With tongs, gently remove oysters from baking sheet and drop into hot oil. Fry in small batches about 2 minutes or until golden brown on one side; turn and brown other side (1-2 minutes). Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.
To assemble, plate fried oysters, sprinkle cheese curds or cottage cheese on top and pour on gravy. Serve immediately.