My mother was an oyster fanatic. Oysters were her favorite food in any form from raw to stewed, baked or broiled, and even nestled in casseroles.
Her sister, my Aunt Elda, was also a crazy oyster lady, and she lived on the seashore in Connecticut, which was probably why her obsession was so easily fed. She used to bring oysters by the bushel basket, literally, when she came to visit, and one of my earliest and most vivid memories is of these two sisters, sitting by a basket of oysters, greedily eating as many as they could while others hovered around waiting for a turn. I remember the absolute joy of their savoring this shared delight, and their laughter.
This was also the day my mom decided that it would be great to have a child (me) learn how to savor a raw oyster and against my better little-kid judgement I slurped one down just like they were doing. It did not go well. I wish I could say it was love at first mouthful, but this experience was memorable, not in a good way. In fact, well into adulthood, I couldn’t even eat an oyster cracker because it had the “o” word in it. There’s a lesson there.
Never fear, the trauma disappeared, eventually
Luckily, I tried them a few more times in adulthood and grew to absolutely love them! Not with the strength of mother’s obsession, but with great appreciation for this wonderful seafood that is abundant in our New England waters.
The flavor of oysters varies greatly depending on the location, time of year, temperature of the water, and probably moon phase and wind current for all I know. Oysters harvested in New England in the last winter and early spring are the best, but you can enjoy them all year long.
Still very much a treat
When I was a kid, it was easy work to collect oysters by the bushel basket at low tide, and they were a treat. However, today, I get them by the each, they are not cheap, but they are still a treat! They are still special, and should be handled with care and respect.
Know where your oysters are from. This is the time to make a friend of your fishmonger at her/his shop. Buy fresh as possible with tightly closed shells that have no off odors. If you have never shucked an oyster before, ask the fishmonger to show you how, they are delighted to do so. You can also go to YouTube where there are many good instructions, much better than I could attempt to explain here without risking your injury! I’ll just say that with the right tool and technique, they are not difficult to open once you get the hang of it.
The sweet time of year
In this dish, I used some extremely sweet and delightful, albeit small, oysters from Maine. I hope I can still find them next time I go searching. Although it is no longer necessary to observe the “only eat oysters in months with an “r, ” as we hit late September and October, the flavor of New England oysters is enhanced. They are often used in traditional regional holiday foods.
On a recent menu at an oyster bar in Maine, the selections included dozens of New England oysters from Moonstones to Winter Point Selects, and they were all good (well, at least the ones we sampled).
Oysters have been consumed in New England for thousands of years, a staple of the native diet. If you are traveling to our neck of the woods and want to see something really striking, head to the Damariscotta River estuary which has a remarkable oyster shell midden (mound) one of hundreds in the state, that were shell dumps reaching up to 30-feet high, some with oysters a foot long. That’s a lot of bivalve consumption.
Let the flavor shine
I like oysters with as little added to them as possible. Mother ate them raw with a little drizzle of fresh lemon, and they are pretty perfect just like that. When cooked, butter, lemon, parsley, and perhaps a little hot sauce is all you need.
I’ve sprinkled a little breadcrumbs on these for texture. If you want these for a pretty appetizer for a party, add more breadcrumbs to the butter mixture so you can fill up the shells.
If you are not ready to eat your oysters raw, start with a simple broiled or grilled presentation. Once the oysters are shucked, the dish is really quick to put together and cook.
Grilled or Oven Roasted Oysters
4 tbsp. parsley, finely minced
4 tbsp. softened butter
Zest of a lemon
Pinch of paprika
Dash of hot sauce
A few fresh breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Finely mince the parsley and blend well into the softened butter along with the zest, paprika, and hot sauce. Set aside.
Open your oysters, keeping the oyster in the bowl-shaped side. Slice the muscle underneath the oyster as well, and balance the shell on the lid you have removed on a large baking sheet. Try not to spill too much of the oyster “liquor” inside the shell. It has lots of flavor.
Place a tablespoon of the butter mixture on each oyster, and sprinkle just a pinch of fresh breadcrumbs, not much.
Roast the oysters for about five minutes, until the edges of the oysters start to curl up and the mixture looks bubbly. If grilling, have the coals hot, and cook with the lid on.
Sylvia’s Oyster Casserole
This is from my mother’s oyster recipe supply:
As with many of her recipes, there are no measurements here, so you’ll have to use your own judgement. If mother said cream, she usually meant half-and-half, and crackers were most often saltines.
“Place cracker crumbs on the bottom of a buttered dish. Add a layer of oysters, then another layer of crumbs. Next, salt and pepper. Mix some Worcester sauce with some cream and pour over the top. Dot with butter and bake until bubbly.”
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Oysters are a rarity around here. I only had them as a child around the holidays in what was called Oyster Stew that was really a creamy soup. I’ve eaten them since in restaurants, but never made them at home. To you they’re something normal, while to me they’re exotic.
My mom used to make oyster stew as well, and it was cream based, she called it a chowder, and it was quite tasty. I’m thinking about digging out her oyster stuffing recipe for the holidays, because that’s really when you see a lot of great oyster dishes.
I do not know why but I have never really warmed (no pun intended) to the idea of cooked oysters, I have had Kilpatrick and Rockefeller before and they were OK but I thought they lost the essential oyster flavour.
Isn’t it strange to think that oysters were once considered a poor man’s food and were used to bulk up stews as they were less expensive than even the cheapest cuts of meat?
I am typing this in Thanet on the Kent coast of England and only a few miles from Whitstable which is famous for it’s oysters which were actually exported to Rome when the Romans occupied this part of the British Isles. I must take a trip over one of these days.
I like them raw or cooked, but when I cook them I don’t want too much to get in the way of the flavor of the oyster, you are so right about this; I don’t want to have to search for it under a heavy topping!
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