We are heading to the end of oyster season. Oysters are one of my favorite foods in the world. My family is from Mobile, Alabama, on the northern Gulf coast, near New Orleans, Pensacola, and Biloxi. I had my first raw oyster at the age of four during a Christmas family reunion. Oysters hold a special prominence in my family. I remember when we had annual family reunions that it was a rite of passage, a sort of fraternal hierarchy, over who would shuck the oysters for the family reunion.
I later learned this art professionally when I became a cook/barback/waiter/bouncer at a redneck oyster house in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, during my college years. One of my main duties was to shuck and prepare oysters for raw oysters in the half shell platters. Oysters are some of the riskiest foods you can eat raw, and we had a method of inspecting each oyster before serving it to a patron — we smelled them.
Yes, that was what we were told to do.
After shucking each oyster, I held it to my nose. If it didn’t smell like raw sewage, I let it go onto the platter. Only once or twice did I come across a questionable one.
One of my uncles has eaten a bad oyster. He told me it was something he wouldn’t forget. I, luckily, have been, uh, lucky.
Oysters are such a glorious food. Read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential about his first encounter with a fresh oyster plucked out of the water when he was a child, the forbidden sensuality of the experience, to connect with the glories of slurping a raw oyster, with the love of food itself, that infects gastronomic sensualists like Tony, me, and very likely yourself.
I grew up around oysters. I thought I knew them pretty well. Then I tried them in Korea.
It is blasphemous, but Korean oysters are much better than the ones from home. They are smaller, but they are brinier, saltier, than the ones from Apalacicola. This is a curse and a blessing — mostly a blessing.
They are great as a side dish with Korean food and are purely sinful when included in kimchi.
The downside is when I try to cook them with traditional Creole recipes from my boyhood. Up until now, all of my oyster dishes have come out too salty to handle. Oh, how I wish there was a traditional Mobile Bay oyster bar in Korea.
The other great thing about oysters in Korea is that they’re cheap and plentiful, especially in the winter months. Before the oyster season went out, I wanted to have another go at making one of my all-time favorites, oyster stew.
Oyster stew is simple. It’s essentially a cream soup with oysters in it. Yet there are some subtleties.
In Korea, oysters are sold in plastic “chubs” (industry term, I think), or cylindrical plastic bags. The water that the oysters are packed in is called the “liquor.”
In my latest recipe, I opened one chub of oysters and had them sitting in a bowl with their liquor. I melted a stick of butter (yes, a whole stick), and slowly softened a finely diced onion with four crushed cloves of garlic.
When they were softened, I added some black pepper and around a tablespoon of flour. This created a roux to thicken the stew.
When it was all mixed together, I threw in maybe half to three quarters a quart of milk into the mix and turned up the heat to medium high. Stirring constantly, I let the cream soup mixture heat up to a mild boil.
Turning down the heat, I used a slotted spoon to remove the oysters from their liquor and added them to the soup.
I then added the liquor, a little at a time to add saltiness. I tasted it each time I added, to make sure it didn’t get too salty. If you add all the liquor, and it’s not salty enough, of course, add some salt. Next came some chopped green onions.
I then topped it off with some optional hot sauce and a little cajun seasoning and let it simmer a bit longer.
That was it. And for the first time, it turned out perfectly. I only wish I had gotten a baguette to go with it.
Oh, and if you want to make a fancier oyster bisque, throw it in the blender.