Oysters are part of our culinary history and culture in St. Mary’s as evidenced by our annual oyster festival. The festival, now known as the U.S. Oyster Festival, occurs every year on the third weekend in October and has been featured on the Food Network. They have an oyster shucking contest that brings competition from all over the world, an oyster cook-off, and pretty much any form of oyster you could possibly want to eat: Fried, scalded, grilled, raw, or in all kinds of soups, stews, souffles, etc.
I have this memory of being in one of my friend’s homes, a renovated old manor house overlooking the St. Mary’s River. Her mother was hosting a holiday open house on a cold December afternoon. There was a warm fire in the wood stove and in the dining room, on the antique buffet, was a delicate looking soup tureen filled with oyster stew. We had been playing hide and seek outside and our hands had become red and stiff with cold, to the point that it was near impossible to unzip our coats. The wind rippling across the river that time of year was always quick to rob you of any body heat you had when you ventured out and a warm cup of oyster stew was exactly the right thing to have in our hands when we came back inside.
A good oyster stew is little more than some sauteed shallots and garlic, oysters, cream, and some salt and pepper to taste. It smells wonderful and even if you think you don’t like oysters, you may be surprised by its lovely sweet-with-a-hint-of-the-sea flavor. If you look through all of the award winning recipes submitted to the Oyster Festival’s annual contest, there is a whole section dedicated to oyster soups and stews with all kinds of variations such as pumpkin based, bacon and potato based, or even curried. They are all amazing, but I still prefer the more simple versions.
I honestly love oysters in almost any form they come in, but its been a bit harder to convince my children. I’ve served raw and steamed oysters as an appetizer for Thanksgiving and even did a batch on the grill one year. When I was growing up, one of my neighbors made the best fried oysters, just rolled in a bit of House Autrey seafood breader and into a hot oiled pan for a few minutes. Grilling oysters is about as easy as it gets, just put them on a hot grill and cover until the shells open a bit. And then eat them as is, or add some herbed butter to melt on top. Lately, I’ve discovered that the secret to easy shucked raw oysters is to freeze them first. As they thaw, they open up a bit as they are dead and it doesn’t affect their taste one bit. It helps with the not-stabbing-yourself-through-the-hand-trying-to-find-the-seam.
The Splendid Table has a wonderful oyster stew recipe if you find yourself with a pint of oysters and are wondering what to do with them. A cold day and a warm fire will make it taste even better, but it will be just fine on its own.
Classic Creamy Oyster Stew
- 1 pint shucked oysters in their liquid
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 2 medium shallots, minced
- 1 small garlic clove minced
- salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- 4 cups milk
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 2 to 3 drops Tabasco sauce, or to taste
- Oyster crackers
- Extra butter (optional)
1. Lift the oysters out of their liquid, checking for bits of shell and sand. Pass the liquid through a fine strainer to remove any sand. Chill the oysters and liquid separately.
2. In a 3 to 4-quart saucepan melt the butter over medium heat, stir in the shallots and saute until shallots are softened and clear. Blend in garlic, a few pinches of salt and pepper. Cook 30 seconds. Stir in the milk, cream, oyster liquid and Tabasco. Bring them to a simmer. Cook for 2 minutes at a gentle bubble, take care that they don’t boil over, keep them at a simmer.
3. Turn the heat down so the liquid barely bubbles, blend in the oysters and cook them for just a minute or until their edges begin to curl, you want them very tender. Serve the stew right away with oyster crackers. Some people like to swirl extra slivers of butter into each serving.