Monday, March 9, 2009

Oyster Stew

Lately I've been considering the oyster. We're lucky in Washington: this is the only state between Mexico and Canada on the West Coast where you can harvest wild oysters on public land. Both Oregon and California are closed to oyster harvest, though I imagine you might be able to find u-pick shellfish farms in those states for a fee. With a shellfish license that costs a few bucks, a daily limit of 18 oysters in Washington starts to look pretty good when you consider market and raw bar prices.

Like M.F.K. Fisher, my favorite way to eat oysters is raw, which is to say alive, with a light mignonette dipping sauce. These are good times for those of us who indulge in such carnivorous habits, especially in the Northwest. Oyster farmers have developed a number of standout strains, from the deep-pocketed Kusshi to the marriage of East and West in the Totten Virginica. Here's a good resource for North American oyster appellations, so you know what you're ordering at the raw bar.

But mostly I like to pick among the wild oyster beds of Puget Sound, where the oysters are not nearly so civilized. Many of my beaches now carry notices warning harvesters that eating raw shellfish can be hazardous to your health—no doubt the usual CYA legalese that we're so accustomed to in this litigious age.

Signage hasn't stopped me yet, even though these are rough-and-tumble, barnacle-clad specimens, sometimes of monstrous proportions. You have to look carefully for the smaller ones—or you can go for quantity over quality and make stew.

1 cup celery, minced (about 3 ribs)
1 shallot, minced (3 tbsp)
1 large potato, chopped
4 tbsp butter
3 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 limit large oysters (or 2 12 oz jars)
salt and white pepper
fresh parsley, chopped for garnish
hot sauce

In a heavy pot saute shallot in butter over medium heat. Add potatoes and celery, season, and saute for 15 minutes. Add 3 cups milk and cook just below simmer until potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes. Use an immersion blender or food processor to blend milk and vegetables. Add heavy cream, then oysters and their liquor. (I chopped up my big oysters into bite-size pieces.) Oysters are done when edges curl. Serve immediately with hot sauce and cold beer.


Jon Roth said...

OM Goodness, that looks awesome Lang. We usually go down to Tomales Bay a couple times a year and buy oysters and put them on the BBQ. This stew looks incredible!

Chef said...

Lang: Perhaps you can (ahem) give us all a little education about the different species of oysters. Shigoku is all the rage right now in Seattle. That's a Pacific oyster, correct? :)

FoulHooked said...

OK, you sold me...I'm a raw/fried/smoked oyster guy, but that looks too good not to try.

mdmnm said...

Lovely. I'm envious of your access to such beautiful and fresh oysters! You might try a few whole cloves in your oyster stew- my mother's recipe from New Orleans calls for several and they add a nice note.

Langdon Cook said...

Jon - Oysters on the BBQ are awesome--and smoked are even better! Tomales is a special spot--and a great white breeding zone, btw.

Becky - Ha ha! Isn't marketing grand? Here's info on the "ultimate" Shigoku oysters (and, yes, "it can be a Pacific oyster," to quote our waiter that night, but now after reading the Oyster Guide's article, I kinda understand what he meant; theoretically you could give kumamotos the same treatment).

FoulHooked - Give it a go and report back. I don't think you'll be disappointed. Remember to serve the stew immediately after the oysters curl.

Mdmnm - I'm always ready to try any twist already approved in Nawlins.

Chef said...

okay, but I'm still confused. A shigoku is a Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas)-right?- that is treated differently to get the deep cup, correct? You could treat the Kumumoto (Crassostrea sikamea) that way but it still wouldn't make it a Pacific. Right?

Langdon Cook said...

Becky - I'll have to look at it more closely, but from what I understand "Shigoku" refers more to a process than a species. Yes, they're using Pacifics, but Pacifics account for something like 98% of the West Coast oyster trade anyway. My point was that kumomotos (diff species) could be subjected to the same process and be called "Shigoku." Just a speculation. Don't quote me!

Anonymous said...

Lang, gorgeous pictures! I've eaten some of the tastiest raw oysters right off the beach on Hood Canal. Is there an season for oysters or is that a year-round daily limit?

Peabody said...

I just had oyster stew for the first time at last American Thanksgiving. I liked it, which was surprising since I am not a huge oyster fan. Your stew looks yummy, just like the kind I had.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

VERY pretty stew, Lang. I especially like the drizzle o' hot sauce. I used to tong oysters on Long Island, and once ate more than 100 Blue Points at a sitting (I lost count...could have had something to do with the case of Moosehead I was polishing off at the time...) Ever eat cornmeal-crusted oysters fried in bacon fat for breakfast? Killer.

Langdon Cook said...

Audrey - I usually forego the oysters during the warmest months of summer b/c they're spawning and all the good meat gets siphoned off to reproductive causes--making them watery or milky (though not necessarily unpalatable, if fried up for po' boys, say).

Peabody - Next Thanksgiving: Raw on the halfshell!

Hank - My first was probably a blue point, since my grandparents lived in Oyster Bay, L.I. when I was a kid, though I'm sure you're aware of the blue point controversy, how they shifted from east to west side of the island thanks to early shellfish marketing.

Trout Caviar said...

You live in a blessed place, Lang, and you clearly know how to make the best of it. I'm only able to contain my envy and oyster-lust because I'll be visiting the west coast of Vancouver Island at the end of the month, planning to lay waste to a decent portion of the shellfish population! Thanks for whetting my appetite!


Anonymous said...

Shigoku, meaning "Perfection", is the name assigned to the Pacific oysters that go through the tumbling process conceived by Bill Taylor, patriarch of Taylors Shellfish. I'd bet they have it trademarked by now. Pictures of the technique can be found in flickr if you search under Shigoku. Pacific oysters grow much faster than Kumamotos, and hence a market size oyster can be gotten from this technique in about 1.5 years. The youth and large exposure to plankton results in a special flavor for these. Kumamotos would take at least 2.5 years to come to market size using the same technique...they are quite slow growing, and they are small to begin with. This is from experience with Kumos, in a rich high flow environment near Deception Pass. We're growing them in grow bags, attached to bedrock at about a minus 2 tide level.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and the Kumamotos were brought to the US after WW2, when Pacific oyster seed was rare, due to war damage. Subsequently, due to slow growth and availablility of the Pacific seed again, west coast oyster farms switched back to Pacifics. Decades later Taylor's searched for, and found, some roughly 50 year old Kumos on some beds they own in south Puget Sound, and with their expertise in oyster hatchery work they were able to induce spawning in these old oysters. Purebreds, from the US, are now going back to Japan, where the Kumamotos were pretty much wiped out. My uncle, John Glude, was on the 3 person US team that brought in the Kumamotos way back then.