How do you like your oysters? Fresh, raw on the half shell? Steamed over coals in the shell and eaten buttered? Patted in cornmeal and fried?
For most of us, simplicity and tradition equal perfection.
But we humans are innovators, so each year’s blessing of oyster bounty brings this tantalizing question.
How do you improve on God’s gift to Chesapeake Country, Crassostrea virginica?
Every year, culinary competitors coast to coast make like alchemists, taking to their kitchens to gild our native oyster. From their numbers — 80-plus this year — nine are chosen to showcase their recipes at the U.S. Oyster Festival, sponsored the Rotary Club of St. Mary’s County. Making the finals of the National Oyster Cook-off is an honor. Earning first place in one of the three categories — appetizer, soups/stews, and main dishes — is a triumph. Winning the grand championship — and cash prize of $1,300 — is an exaltation.
Just ask this year’s grand prize winner, Hidemi Walsh.
Appetizer and Grand Prize Winner: Hidemi Walsh
Walsh thrust both arms high in victory when her first prize was announced. She stretched even higher, doubling over in a back bend when her Miso-Mayo Oyster Gratin was declared grand prize winner.
The judges — retired Baltimore Sun food columnist Rob Kasper, of Baltimore; No Thyme to Cook cooking school chef and proprietor Gwen Novak, of Solomons; and me — were unanimous in that decision. Beautiful, they had pronounced each nearly naked oyster in its pristine shell. Ummm, they had agreed on savoring it. Simple perfection they had declared on evaluating it.
“It will be my go-to oyster appetizer this winter,” I vowed. “There’s nothing to it, yet it’s got this great taste.”
The one puzzle — why blanch an oyster before cooking it — Novak resolved on her smartphone: to plump it.
Success offered a measure of consolation for Walsh, grieving after the recent death of her father, Shuichi Shinkawa, in Japan.
Walsh, 49, of Centreville Va., a diminutive woman, said she began cooking in her 20s rather than eating out after she’d put on so much weight “I looked like a snowman.”
“I have been learning classic American foods since I moved to the U.S. but never forget to add my country’s flavor,” she said.
When winners gathered to have their photograph taken together, she held up her hand and cried Wait!
Darting to the edge of the stage, she retrieved something from a bag, beaming as she took her place and embraced it.
It was a framed photo of her late father.
You’ll find Walsh’s recipe easy to make and all the more delicious when you serve it with love.
12 shucked Maryland oysters, shells reserved
4 teaspoons white miso paste
4 teaspoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon mirin
8 small shiitake mushrooms
4 teaspoons minced scallions, green parts only
crushed red pepper for garnish
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Rinse oysters under running cold water. Blanch 7 to 8 seconds in a pot of boiling water. Drain and place on paper towel to drain.
In a bowl, mix together miso, mayonnaise and mirin. Remove and discard shiitake stems. Slice mushrooms thinly.
Spread butter lightly inside 12 very clean shells and lay on a rimmed baking sheet, open side up. Divide mushrooms among the shells. Add 1 oyster. Spread miso mixture over each oyster and sprinkle with scallion. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until the top is nicely browned. Sprinkle with crushed red pepper and serve.
In mid-town Manhattan a few years back, Tammy Davis had the good fortune of working near the famed Oyster Bar Restaurant on the lower level of Grand Central Station.
Oyster pan roast, one of her favorites on that huge seafood menu, became a delicacy that Davis, of Chesapeake Beach, never forgot.
In another previous life working as a State Department employee, Davis grew fond of flavors from around the world while working in such far-flung places as Pakistan and Micronesia.
So it was no accident when she presented judges with a traditional yet exotic oyster dish made with harissa, a Middle Eastern red chili paste, cooked in heavy cream. They ate it up, awarding Davis — last year’s grand prize winner for her Coconut Curry Oyster Soup — her second successive first prize in that category.
Like other winners, Davis planned a next stop at the World Food Championship in Orange Beach, Ala., billed as the biggest competition in food sport with $300,000 in prize money at stake.
Pondering her strategy, Davis was considering what Asian influence she could apply to a pile of fresh-caught jumbo Gulf shrimp.
Sounds a worthy challenge for a Marylander who, despite her successes, describes herself as a “home cook.”
As another home cook, you’ll appreciate that Davis has made this variation on oyster stew about as simple as the original. The spicy crisp pita chips make a fine contrast to the silky soup. The only drawback in this recipe, judges agreed, was its vast quantity of butter fat.
24 Maryland oysters, shucked
1 stick butter
1 cup clam juice
3 tablespoons harissa paste
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 cups heavy cream
dash celery salt
parsley and paprika to garnish
2 pieces pita bread, split
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
½ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds, crushed
1 teaspoon salt
Combine first eight ingredients in a 4-quart saucepan or in the top of a double boiler over boiling water. Stir briskly, and heat to simmer around the periphery until the oysters begin to curl around the edge. Remove from heat and divide oysters evenly into four bowls.
Mix salt and spices with sesame seeds. Brush the 4 pita pieces on the rough side with olive oil and sprinkle with the spice mix. Cut each into 6 chips. Bake on a parchment-lined tray at 350 degrees 10 to 15 minutes or until crispy.
Pour soup over the oysters, garnish and serve with spicy pita chips.
Main Dish Winner:
Mary Edwards, 68, of Long Beach, Calif., has a recipe for vitality.
“Sex. Drugs. Rock ’n’ roll,” she said. It was unclear whether she was joking.
Add cooking to that list of pastimes.
Edwards made her first appearance in the National Oyster Cook-Off 10 years ago and was aced out that day, she contends, when a judge detected a piece of muscle in her oyster.
This year, she decided with a girlfriend to enter again. Her friend’s recipe wasn’t accepted; hers was.
Edwards now lives 3,000 miles away, but she grew up in Maryland, in Kensington and Chevy Chase.
She loves oysters, and she views cooking as a pursuit worthy of entering her life list.
“It’s a hobby you can eat,” she said.
This main course takes a little more work as its second stage is frying a quart of oysters. The reward of eating is worth the effort, especially if you avoid cooking your oysters that extra 30 or so seconds you might think they need.
1 quart Maryland oysters, ½ cup liquor reserved
1 tablespoon vegetable or peanut oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
2-3 tablespoons Thai red curry paste, or to taste
1 (14 ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk
½ yellow bell pepper, chopped
1 cup fresh corn
1½ cups fresh spinach
1 cup tomatoes, diced
1 tablespoon fresh basil leaves
1 teaspoon fresh mint, chopped
1 fresh lime
1 cup flour
4 large eggs
2 cups panko bread crumbs
oil for frying
In a sauté pan, heat the oil and cook the onions, ginger and garlic, stirring as needed, for a few minutes until the onions are translucent. Stir in the Thai curry paste until mixed thoroughly. Stir in the coconut milk and the oyster liquor until mixed well. Add the bell pepper and the corn and simmer for a few minutes before stirring in the spinach, tomatoes, basil, mint and a good squeeze of fresh lime juice. Remove from the heat and keep warm.
Place the flour, eggs and panko in separate bowls. Whisk the eggs with the zest of the lime. Dip the well-drained oysters first in the flour, then in the egg and then in the panko. Working in batches, fry them in 375-degree oil until golden brown and crispy. Place them on absorbent paper.
Spoon the curried sauce over the rice, top with the fried oysters and sprinkle with chopped cilantro and a lime slice.