Forget chocolate and champagne. This Valentine’s Day it’s all about oysters. With their rough, irregular shells and mottled, gray-green coloring, oysters may not seem like the sexiest looking fare. Yet, they have long been considered one of the world’s foremost aphrodisiacs. Ever since the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, rose from the sea in an oyster shell, folks have equated this bivalve with love.
The most coveted of all mollusks, oysters have been culinary darlings for centuries. Their heyday came in the 19th century when quantities were high and costs were low. At that time diners in North America and Great Britain consumed them as if there was no tomorrow. A slew of oyster-based dishes, including Oysters Rockefeller and Oysters Bienville, came into being. Whether eaten on the half-shell or in a prepared dish, folks just couldn’t get enough of those delectable shellfish.
Unsurprisingly, overconsumption led to shortages and higher prices. Fortunately, the oyster market has rebounded. Now farmed rather than gathered in the wild, their numbers remain high while their costs stay relatively low.
Think that oysters are too complicated or time consuming for your Valentine’s Day feast? Think again for oysters respond well to a wealth of quick and simple cooking methods. I can grill them in their shells or steam or saute them in a stockpot. I can also stuff them with herbs and bake them or coat them with breadcrumbs and pan or deep-fry them. I can make them into seafood soups and stews as well as casseroles and pies. If pressed for time, I can always resort to the three “S”’s: Scrub, shuck and serve them the on the half-shell with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Elegant and easy, they’ll woo with one bite.
Similarly, oysters partner nicely with a variety of flavors. Butter, cayenne, chives, cream, garlic, lemon juice, parsley, shallots, soy sauce, thyme and white wine all compliment their briny taste.
When selecting oysters, I consider size as well as shell. The smaller the oyster is, the tenderer it will be. In terms of shells, live oysters should have solid, closed shells. If slightly ajar, they should snap shut when tapped. If they rattle when I shake them, I toss those out. In all likelihood they’ll contain dead oysters.
Oysters can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. Before slipping them into the fridge, I simply place them in a bowl and cover them with a damp towel. If at all possible, I use them right away. I live by the adage “faster usage, better flavor.”
When I don’t feel like fiddling around with oyster knives and shells, I buy already-shucked oysters. Before taking them home, I check to ensure that the oysters’ liquid appears clear, not murky. I may also pick up canned, frozen and smoked oysters in grocery, gourmet and seafood stores.
Makes 6 shooters
Legend has it that oyster shooters originated in San Francisco during the gold rush era. During that time miners reputedly slipped seasoned oysters into their whiskey glasses and downed the two together. A creative way to kick off your Valentine’s dinner, these one-shot wonders won’t fill you up or leave you tipsy.
Kosher salt, for decorating rims of shooters or shot glasses
6 oysters, cleaned, shucked and liquid reserved
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 teaspoons Tabasco or other hot sauce
6 ounces chilled vodka
juice of ½ lemon
special equipment: 6 shooters or shot glasses
On a small plate or cutting board make a mound of Kosher salt. Wet the rims of the shooters or shot glasses and dip them into the salt. When finished, you’ll have six salt-rimmed glasses. Place an oyster and its liquid in each glass. Sprinkle equal amounts of ground pepper on the oysters. Add 1 teaspoon of Tabasco followed by 1 ounce of chilled vodka and equal amounts of lemon juice to each glass. Serve immediately.