• by Chef Jenn Farmer •
Recently I went on an excursion to find some fish for a dinner party where I would be cooking. It was going to be an interesting group, and I wanted it to be special. Instantly I thought of oysters, since to me they convey something akin to elegance, and all with little or no preparation. A tray of Ice, to keep them cold, and a towel, a nice oyster knife for shucking, and you have yourself appetizers. If one is feeling more adventurous, a little mignonette can be added to the mix. It has always been interesting to me that one of the most rustic simple foods could convey such glamour, and bring a certain light to one’s eyes. It is such a primal pleasure.
When I arrived at the fish market, it was nice to see so many familiar faces, and friends. My son tugged at me and talked non-stop while, I tried to focus long enough to see what wonderful catch was being offered that day, I was hoping for oysters and was rewarded. There were some lovely little shells on ice, they looked beautiful, delicate, and were just what I was looking for. I noticed a sign about them being local, which is always a selling point for me, but then was distracted by my son begging for salmon for dinner, and again the pulling me in every direction in the store with, “momma can I get a hat, hey look those are like the clams we found on the beach, what is for dinner, why can’t I have salmon, OH I can, yay, look at that huge lobster, what is that…” well you get the idea, and distraction got me again.
The lovely lady at the counter wrapped up the hake (another of my favorites, I was not expecting to hit the mother lode twice in one day!) and wild salmon, while I selected my oysters. I could tell right away by the feel and smell they were very fresh, and I was excited. Years ago I worked at a raw bar in Las Vegas, and got to see oysters from around the globe on a daily basis (and in large quantity), so I knew just by looking at them that these little bivalves were special. As I was approaching the register, David Glidden, appeared and chatted with me briefly. He confirmed my suspicion that these oysters were exceptional, and gave me a bit of information about them. He said Steve Bender was the man responsible for them, and he explained that he farms the Pocomo Meadow Oysters. I have not spoken to Mister Bender in person (but would love to). I am so excited about these oysters I felt the need to tell people about them now, before even attempting to contact him.
Then it dawned on me that these were the oysters I had been reading about in Sustainable Nantucket magazine. I enjoyed Katie Kaizer’s article and photographs about local fisheries, and Pocomo Meadow Oysters, plus I had just finished re-reading Mark Kurlansky’s book The Big Oyster—History on the Half Shell. So the excitement did not stop with what I was preparing for dinner. I had something far more valuable in that little bag: they were favorites of the local Native Americans; they are an important and highly valuable part of the ecosystem; and it takes years for them to mature enough to make it to market. In fact they deserve a little contemplation before devouring the delicious delicacies. I feel that I definitely am beginning to appreciate oysters more than ever.
For this dinner I carefully opened the little gems, which was quick and easy because their shells were about as perfect for opening as one could get. They were not too brittle, so although they petite they were not delicate. As I was opening them I worked carefully, so as not to lose too much of the inside liquid or “liquor,” which was rich and smooth. They were also of perfect size: plump and succulent, yet not so large one cannot comfortably swallow one down. Then of course the flavor, briny, but not overwhelming, sweet, and very nicely balanced. They did not need any accompaniments, but nonetheless, I took a favorite recipe for watermelon mignonette, and modified to fit the menu for the night. Here was the tasty resulting recipe.
Green Apple Mignonette
- One eighth cup organic, unfiltered apple cider vinegar
- One quarter cup finely diced green apple
- One quarter cup finely diced cucumber
- One teaspoon shallot, minced
- One teaspoon chive, finely chopped
- Coarsely ground black pepper to taste
Carefully mix ingredients together, and spoon a small amount on opened oyster on the half shell. Eat. Makes about 3/4 of a cup of mignonette
One of the great things about mignonette is that it tastes good on oily fish and clams, too, and it is a condiment that is good for you, since it contains no added sugars or salt.
Another classic method of serving oysters is broiled or baked. More than 20 years ago, at one of my first cooking gigs, I was in charge of making Oysters Rockefeller for a very busy upscale restaurant. Tragically the restaurant is no longer, but to this day, that restaurant’s recipe is still ingrained in my brain. It seems like a shame to cover up such lovely fresh shellfish with heavy cream and spinach and bread crumbs, but they were so popular, that I have added an updated version of this classic preparation below. The key is to get a nice crust on the topping without cooking the oyster, just warming it through. Instead of crushed ice this dish, was broiled on and served on a bed of warm rock salt with a lemon and some hot sauce.
Pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees, meanwhile in a cast iron skillet melt the butter, sauté the garlic in the butter for a couple of minutes, taking care not to burn it. Remove about half of the garlic butter and toss it with the panko crumbs. Next add the shallot to the butter and garlic mixture and sauté for a minute or two more, until a little translucent. Add the spinach and wilt it. Add a splash of Pernod and cream to deglaze the pan. Season with pepper, and hot sauce, and allow them to cook for a couple of minutes to allow flavors to mingle. Remove from heat. To the bread crumbs add the chervil, parmesan, and olive oil, toss together to mix. On a sheet pan put down enough rock salt to balance the oysters well, and spoon some of the spinach mixture on to each one. Sprinkle breadcrumb mixture over the spinach, and bake for about 8-10 minutes, until golden brown. Serve with lemon or hot sauce.