Saturday, March 9, 2013

Oysters with Mignonette Sauce

There's nothing quite like raw oysters on the half shell with classic mignonette sauce. They're thrilling to eat: cold and briny; a jewel of the sea. They make great no-cook hors d'oeuvres for cocktail parties or a small gathering of friends. I'm sure my mother is shocked to be reading this, as I used to print out diagrams of oysters and mussels when I was a kid and present them to bivalve lovers attempting to prove a point. "Don't you realize you're eating... everything!?" But once I gave in and tried my first oyster suddenly those diagrams didn't seem to matter.

Most people are familiar with the saying "only eat oysters in months with an r." This old adage was especially important in the days before refrigeration, as eating oysters in warm water months and transporting them in heat was potentially dangerous. Not to mention, wild oysters spawn in the late spring and summer. Farmed oysters can be enjoyed year round, however, so long as they come from a reliable source (for more information on wild and farmed oysters, see the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list).

For me, the thought of oysters always brings to mind M.F.K. Fisher's book, Consider the Oyster. In it she writes, "American oysters differ as much as American people." Truer words have never been spoken. While there are only five species of oyster grown commercially in the U.S. and Canada (Eastern, Olympia, Pacific, Kumamoto, and European Flat), there are endless varieties of each named after the waters in which they're grown. 

Whichever variety of oyster you choose, see that they're stored on ice when you buy them with the curved sides of their shells facing down. This ensures that the oysters are resting in their juices. Fresh oysters will feel heavy in their shells and be tightly closed. But enough oyster talk, here's the recipe for a simple mignonette sauce:

Adapted from Alice Waters, The Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook

1/4 cup Champagne vinegar
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 medium shallot, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
12 to 36 oysters, washed and scrubbed under cold water

In a small bowl, stir together the vinegar, white wine, and shallots. Let stand for 20 to 30 minutes. Season with freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, shuck the oysters: if you don't own an oyster knife, an old school bottle opener works just as well. Place the oyster on a clean cutting board with the rounded side down and the hinge-end facing you. Hold the oyster with a dry kitchen towel to keep it from slipping (and to protect your hand) and insert the knife into the hinge. Rock the knife back and forth until you feel it push in. Twist the knife until the hinge pops. Carefully slide the knife along the top of the oyster to free it from the adductor muscle on the top shell, being careful not to puncture the oyster. Slide the knife under the oyster to free it from the adductor muscle on the bottom shell (being careful not to let the oyster liquor spill out). Discard the top shell. Check for any shell pieces or grit and place the oysters on a tray of ice (a metal baking pan works well) and serve immediately. Spoon on the mignonette sauce and enjoy!

Yield: Enough mignonnette sauce for about 36 oysters 

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