Oysters in the spotlight

No holiday table is complete without this showstopping shellfish

Behold the holiday table: a spread brimming with eye and appetite appeal, groaning under the weight of a plump roast turkey, surrounded with polished red Lady apples, or perhaps a leg of lamb circled with a wreath of rosemary sprigs and glazed kumquats, or a festive crown of pork stuffed with herbed bread, dried fruits, and toasted almonds, fit for a coronation.

All eye-stoppers, and worthy of the December centerfold in Gourmet magazine.

But all that glitz and glamour aside, it's the lowly, unpretentious oyster that grabs the spotlight and creates a stampede whenever it appears at a holiday fete.

As appearances go, its crusty look is more Walter Matthau, than, say, Julia Roberts.

The humble oyster was devoured eons before 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift observed, "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster."

We'll never know who that courageous fellow was, but there is plenty of archaeological evidence that the Britons supped on them as early as 58 BC. Shortly after the Romans invaded Britain, they shipped oysters back to Rome packed in bags of snow to satisfy their appetite for these denizens of the deep.

Certainly no social-climbing Roman worth his salt would consider a banquet without a bounty of chilled oysters on the half shell - to set his guests up for the stuffed peacock and hummingbird tongue course.

On the other side of the ocean, American Indians delighted in plucking oysters from the icy waters of the North Atlantic and supping on them long before the Europeans appeared on their shores.

Time has not diminished man's appetite for the oyster. Today they are available deep-fried, batter-fried, sautéed, and grilled. During the holiday season, they are especially popular in turkey stuffing, stews, or, at their simple, elegant best, on the half shell.

And despite the "Oysters R in Season" adage (which says one must eat oysters only during months that include the letter "r"), oysters are, for the most part, now available year-round. (Although purists might argue they are best in the cool months, when they're not spawning - September through April.)

My own oyster experience goes back to when I was about 8. Mother would take me to Boston's South Station, where she'd put me on the train headed for New York's Grand Central Station. (Come to think of it, today my dear mother might be arrested for sending me off alone at that age.)

Once there, I'd disembark and head to the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant, climb up on a stool at the oyster bar, order Oyster Stew, and wait for my Uncle Ben to meet me and take me to his home in Long Island.

I always looked forward to those trips to New York, and especially that first luscious oyster floating among the crushed crackers in that warm, creamy stew.

Buying, shucking, and storing oysters

As with all seafood, and especially for live shellfish, freshness is key. Unfortunately the oyster, being the modest mollusk that it is, keeps its appearance tightly locked up. That leaves the onus on you and your fishmonger to choose the freshest, and therefore the best, oysters.

Oysters should smell as fresh as the surf, be tightly closed, and weighty for their size. It's important to smell, heft, and examine each oyster before you buy it. When knocked together, oysters should sound as dense as beach stones. Any with cracked or broken shells, or ones that are not tightly closed, should be discarded. And if any smell foul, avoid the entire batch.

Although they will live several days after being harvested from the sea, the sooner oysters are eaten, the better. Ask your fishmonger exactly when they came in. If you buy them freshly opened, they must be eaten within hours. If bought live in the shell, they should be kept on ice or wrapped in a damp towel in the refrigerator, and eaten within a day or two.

Like tearing a phone book in half, shucking oysters is more a matter of leverage than brute strength.

Fold a damp towel several times and place it on a firm, steady surface. Oyster shells have a deeper cup side and a flat side. Place the oyster cupped-side down on the damp towel for support. Hold the oyster with a gloved right hand, and using an oyster knife or "church key" bottle opener, insert the pointed implement deeply into the hinge of the oyster.

Twist and slowly rock the opener back and forth to pry open the bivalve. When open, use a small sharp knife to cut any muscle from the top shell and then from under the bottom half; flip the oyster meat over in the bottom (cupped) shell for a neat appearance, being careful not to spill the "liquor" - the term for the juice of the oyster.

Oysters on the half shell should be served on a bed of crushed ice, with lemon wedges and, if you desire, a sauce of you choice. Also keep a pepper mill handy.

As an appetizer, plan on six oysters on the half shell per person.

Grand Central Oyster Stew

The Grand Central Oyster Bar has been renovated over the years, but their oyster-stew recipe has remained basically the same.

Chefs at the Oyster Bar advise that "If you're adventurous, the stew may be made over direct heat, but it's a tricky process."

The following recipe serves one, but can be multiplied. Although freshly shucked oysters are always best, I often make oyster stew with 8-ounce refrigerated containers of oysters kept on ice at the supermarket fish counter. (An 8-ounce container is enough for two servings of stew.)

8 freshly opened oysters

2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter

1/4 cup oyster juice (in shell)

Dash of celery salt

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 cup half-and-half

1/2 teaspoon paprika

Place all ingredients except half-and-half, paprika, and 1 tablespoon of the butter in the top part of a double boiler over boiling water. Don't let the top of the pan touch the water.

Whisk or stir briskly and constantly for about 1 minute, just until oysters begin to curl.

Add half-and-half and continue stirring briskly, just to a boil.

Ladle stew into bowls. Serve piping hot topped with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and sprinkled with paprika.

Oyster Stew Lyonnaise

For years, this classic oyster stew from Lyon, France, has been a popular selection on the menu of legendary chef Paul Bocuse.

4 tablespoons butter

3 leeks washed, trimmed of green leaves, and coarsely chopped

3 to 4 russet potatoes (1-1/4 pounds), peeled and cut into cubes

6 cups water

Salt and pepper

1/4 cup vegetable oil

4 slices firm, white bread, cut into small cubes

1 cup heavy cream

1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 quart shucked oysters

1/4 to 1/3 cup Gruyére cheese, grated

1/2 cup parsley, chopped

Paprika

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large, heavy saucepan. Add leeks and cook over medium heat, stirring until soft - about 5 to 7 minutes. Add potatoes, water, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to boil, then simmer about 20 minutes until potatoes are cooked; set aside to cool slightly.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the oil in a large, heavy frying pan. Add bread cubes and brown them over low to medium heat, watching them carefully. Set aside.

Purée leek and potato mixture in a food processor or blender until smooth. (You may have to do this in two or more batches.)

Pour puréed mixture into a deep saucepan. Add cream and nutmeg and bring to a boil. Add oysters and their "liquor" (juice in the shell) and cook just until oysters curl and begin to rise to the surface. Do not overcook.

Spoon chowder into soup bowls; top each with a few croutons and sprinkle with a bit of Gruyére, parsley, and paprika. Serve with any additional croutons, cheese, and parsley on the side.

Serves 6.

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