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Oysters! The coldest months of the year are upon us and that means several things to oyster lovers, low prices, outstanding selection, and the highest quality! The old saying is that one should only eat an oyster during the months spelled with an "R". This, historically, was more preventative medicine than culinary discretion. Summer months bring warmer waters and warmer waters bring spawning oysters and higher bacteria counts. While there is nothing really wrong with a spawning oyster, they are a bit "creamy" in appearance, texture and flavor. As for oysters with high-bacterial counts, fortunately I have absolutely no idea how they taste and I hope neither do you. We can all rest assured, however, that with today's aquaculture standards and the vigorous testing of waters by several governmental agencies that potentially harmful oysters very rarely make it to market.
The oyster is a bivalve, and feeds on plankton by filtering sea-water through its system. A single oyster can filter a hundred gallons of water in a single day. They prefer brackish waters, a mix of salt and fresh waters, and flourish in bays, coves, and estuaries. Several growing methods are employed by oyster farms to bring the product to market. Perhaps the most simple is the "beach grown" method. This entails little work, outside of picking the oysters up and cleaning them off, and results in oysters which are covered with barnacles and have shells that feel like a jacket of rock. They are sturdy oysters. "Rack and bag" employs moving the oysters from one semi-protected environment to another, in this case, a secured rack, or shelving, system to porous enclosed bags. The idea here is that by isolating the oysters from the natural deadly forces that surround them, much quicker growth is produced. The oyster spends little time developing shell. Instead it grows large with a thin shell barely keeping up with its tremendous inner growth. Lastly, "suspended culture" is incorporated by those who never tire of hard work in cold, windy conditions. This combines biochemistry and old-fashioned hard work to produce some spectacular oysters. The oyster larvae are nurtured in holding tanks and upon reaching a suitable size they are transported to giant bags or "lanterns" which are suspended from piles for the oysters to eat, eat, eat until they reach market size.
If you live in an area where you have several choices of raw oysters, ask your fishmonger for details about how the oyster was grown and where it came from. Compare the flavors of one kind of an oyster to another. Like wine each area will produce its own distinct tasting oyster. Personally I like mine straight with a good glass of Sauvignon Blanc, or a Pinot Gris. However, a shot of tabasco sauce, a grind of ground pepper, a dab of horseradish, a squeeze of lemon juice all make wonderful toppings for oysters.
If cooked oysters are more your speed, try adding oysters to your favorite stuffing recipe or add some to scrambled eggs ala Hangtown Fry. Toss some in herbed breadcrumbs, fry and put them on your favorite hoagie roll with iceberg lettuce, some sliced tomato and tarter sauce for a Po' Boy. Poach some in half milk, half-cream, finish with butter and ground black pepper for the best cold weather Oyster Stew you can imagine. And if you are feeling really industrious try a Chanterelle & Oyster Bisque