Anything that is good to eat and comes from the ocean should smell of the ocean, salty and fresh and that includes the oysters taken from the briny waters of the Mississippi Sound.
The oysters you buy at your fishmonger come in two sizes: standard and select. Oysters do not freeze well, so your choices are to buy them alive by the bag or shucked and sealed in a container.
If you buy them in a refrigerated container they have a shelf life of about 14 days from the date they were packaged. The last and poorest choice is to buy them canned.
There are well-meaning souls who advocate against eating raw oysters and warn of the dangers of the vibro, naturally occurring bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal illness. It is a polite way of describing an illness that if once suffered is to be long remembered. To this question it is best if each take his own counsel.
If you wish to ponder the oyster further you must read "Consider the Oyster," published in 1941 by M.F.K. Fisher. The book opens with the marvelous words "An Oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life," and continues on with memorable quotes, beautiful prose and culinary technique.
The recipes Fisher suggests are mostly simple and include oysters and butter crackers, pain d'huitres
or the oyster loaf of New Orleans fame and French Creamed Oysters.
The variety of ways oysters can be cooked is vast, but the delicate flavor should not be masked by too strong or too many other flavors. The oyster is not only delicate in flavor, it is slight in texture too and so should not be overcooked. If you are frying oysters and do not overcrowd the pan and the temperature of the oil is hot, an oyster is perfectly done in 60 to 90 seconds.
What to drink with oysters is a matter of much discussion. A good cold quality beer is hard to beat, but others suggest champagne, Spanish dry sherry or a muscadet. I would almost always vote for a good Pinot Grigio.
1 quart of drained oysters
1 package of tempura powder
1 package of panko bread crumbs
1-2 tablespoons Italian seasoning
1 pinch fresh ground black pepper
1 pinch cayenne pepper
Paper towels on which to drain
Large pot for deep frying filled less than 1/2 full of oil
Preheat the oil to 320 degrees. Mix the seasonings with the tempura powder. Toss the oysters in the dry tempura powder and set aside so that the moisture will soak through the coating. If you are in a hurry spritz the oysters with water to moisten. When the oysters have become tacky, toss in the panko until well covered and then shake off the excess. Fry in small batches for 60 seconds. When beautifully browned remove and drain on paper towels or a brown paper sack which had been opened up. Serve with a wedge of lemon and just a drop of hot sauce.
The key to this recipe is the freshness and quality of the ingredients.
1 quart of oysters
1 cup of oyster liquor
2/3 cup white wine (not sweet)
2 cups heavy cream
3-4 tablespoons local butter
1 pinch white pepper
1/2 pinch cayenne pepper
Drain the oysters and reserve their liquor. Add one cup of the oyster liquor, the cream and wine to a sauce pot and bring to a simmer for 10 minutes. Taste the sauce and season as necessary. Add the oysters and simmer until the edges just start to curl. Serve immediately with slices of good, hearty local bread and butter.
Chef Tom Wolfe of Wolfe's Gulf Coast Grill in Pass Christian, Miss., didn't give me his great recipe for baked oysters but this is as close as I can guess as to how he makes his. He uses a wood-fired brick oven, which makes a huge difference, but the recipe is still a good one.
24 oysters on the half shell
1 cup panko bread crumbs
2 ounces butter
1/4 cup chopped green onion
4-6 cloves minced garlic
2-3 tablespoons minced capers
Juice from 1/2 a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese as needed
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Melt the butter in a sauté pan and add the garlic, cooking for 2 minutes, seasoning with black pepper. Add the green onions, capers and lemon juice and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the bread crumbs and incorporate well. Taste and season as necessary. Top each ouster with a spoonful of the mixture, place in the oven and bake 10-12 minutes. Dust the top of each with the Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.
OYSTERS AND PASTA
1 pint of drained oysters
1 pound of linguini cooked to package directions
3-6 strips smoked bacon
1/4 cup chopped onion
3-4 cloves chopped garlic
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup chopped green onions
Juice of 1 lemon
Small bunch cilantro
Chop the bacon and sauté until just starting to be crispy, add the onion and cook for 3-4 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for 2 more minutes. Add the white wine and reduce by half. Add the lemon juice and green onions and toss well. Add the oysters and simmer for 3-4 minutes, or until the edges curl, but no more. Toss with the pasta and garnish with the cilantro and Parmesan.
Julian Glenn Brunt, who has been a Mississippi Gulf Coast resident for more than 20 years, has a deep and abiding interest in art, culture and the culinary heritage of the South. His column runs weekly in Taste. You can contact him at email@example.com.