Oysters: Recipes that Bring Home a Taste of the Sea
by Cynthia Nims // Sasquatch Books, $19.95
My introduction to oysters was at Anthony’s Home Port in Everett. My 8-year-old self opted for the oyster shooter starter to my Sunset Dinner, Anthony’s popular four-course meal. Our server rechecked my request as I bravely nodded.
I felt ready to eat like a grown-up.
The first oyster slid down whole, and by the end of the second I was in shock that anyone would consciously choose to swallow this lump of slimy seawater.
It was years before I ate oysters again, and my transition from “oyster hater” to “oyster lover” isn’t as vivid as that first taste. I credit multiple lemon drop cocktails served alongside trays of chilled Pacific oysters at a little spot — sadly, now closed — in Mukilteo.
Somehow, these “tastes of the sea” worked themselves into the same category I held chocolate and champagne — the can’t-live-without category.
Cynthia Nims little book, an almost 8-by-8-inch square, Oysters: Recipes that Bring Home a Taste of the Sea provides all the big details on how to grow, select, shuck, slurp and adore Pacific coast oysters. It’s a practical introduction for the oyster-squeamish as well as an inventive resource for the oyster initiate. Her recipes range from raw oyster shooters to rich oyster stew or baked oysters with leek and Parmesan.
I started with a trip to Taylor Shellfish Farm off Chuckanut Drive, bringing home a few dozen with which to experiment.
Nims details how best to store your oysters — she opts for a colander — and explains that oysters can easily stay fresh 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator as long as they aren’t swimming in their melted transport ice.
In selecting your oysters she says to look for ones that when tapped don’t give a hollow sound, which means the oyster has lost much of its liquor — that sea-salty brine cradling the oyster meat. I confidently tossed one that fit this description, it’s hollow sound, open shell and dried out appearance made me realize that I need to double check my purchase before heading home.
Fresh oysters in the raw are my favorite and my husband and I taste-tested Nims’s lemon-rosemary mignonette, a fresh take on the typical light sauce of vinegar with shallot, and the icy grapefruit-basil granite, a shaved ice that’s stupid-easy to make and impressive to serve.
What we found was that while both were delicious, the oysters character influenced which accompaniment went well. Oyster varieties vary in qualities of sweetness, minerality and brininess. But not only this, oysters take on the quality of the water where they’ve grown. This is why Pacific oysters grown in the Puget Sound can taste differently than those raised in Tillamook Bay, Oregon. This effect is referred to as an oyster’s “meroir” — think an aquatic version of terroir.
Next, we ate Nims pan fried oysters with fennel tartar sauce. These oyster pockets were made all the more addictive by her sauce, which has a nice briny bite that doesn’t miss the usual raw onion flavor. We were left scavenging through our refrigerator for more items to dip in her sauce. With no shame, we ate it straight.
Next up, I made a recipe that used tinned or jarred shellfish, of which I’ve always been a little afraid. I rarely eat crab or shrimp that isn’t fresh or at least frozen whole, and oysters, never. For this I braved her oyster chowder using her suggested brand of jarred oysters — Washington’s Ekone Oyster Company that you can find at Winco Foods. Creamy and balanced with the sweet bites of cooked oyster meat, she made me a jarred oyster convert.
I also went for her childhood favorite, smoked oysters. I couldn’t put my finger on what tasted so familiar about them, until I realized they have a flavor not unlike smoked salmon, specifically those tender grey bits near the fish’s fat.
As an aside, make sure to read each recipe to its end. I kept forgetting to note the “continued” which sits low on the first page of the recipe and missed adding a couple ingredients to my shopping list.
I finished my review by visiting some of her recommended oyster bars. She devotes a section to the oyster bar culture and several oyster-specific outings are suggested in the back pages of the book.
In Portland I stopped into Dan & Louis Oyster Bar, the oldest family owned restaurant in Portland, with enough atmosphere to prove it. Dan & Louis has the right blend of dive feel with comfort and I immediately felt right at home. My Manhattan cocktail was straight forward with its bright maraschino cherry, unabashedly not a hipster-crafted cocktail that is so common at newer oyster bars. The raw oysters came served with the restaurant’s house cocktail sauce, horseradish and lemon.
Nims’ list of new oyster bars includes a favorite of mine, The Walrus and the Carpenter in Ballard, whose craft cocktails are so good I shamelessly copy them at home.
I also hit up one of the Taylor Shellfish Bars in Seattle to try a few raw oysters I wasn’t able to get at my local Taylor Shellfish farm. It was a little difficult to pay three times what I usually pay at the farm. If it’s within your means, a trek to one of the closest Taylor oyster farms is worth the journey. Get a bucket of your favorites, and enjoy them with the smell of the sea that fed your oysters.
Oysters is both cookbook and guide and eliminated any remaining oyster trepidation. I shucked, purchased and cooked my oysters with confidence. Not one to include them in a general dinner menu, her book will most certainly change this fact.
Who should buy this: The oyster curious. The oyster-eating alum. A cute anniversary gift, if you believe in any of that aphrodisiac stuff — I’m not one to say it isn’t valid, especially when paired with a bottle of champagne and followed with a box of chocolates.
Publisher: Sasquatch Books
Recipes you should try from Cynthia Nims’ Oysters
Rosemary and oysters may not seem the most natural of combinations. Rosemary is an herb with some punch, no doubt, but balanced with the bright lemon it makes a really delicious accent to oysters.
Makes about ½ cup, enough for about 4 dozen half-shell oysters
1 tablespoon loosely packed fresh rosemary leaves
¼ cup boiling water
⅓ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1. Put the rosemary in a small heatproof bowl, and pour the boiling water over. Set aside to steep for about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving both the rosemary and the water.
2. In a small ramekin or other small serving dish, combine the lemon juice with 2 tablespoons of the rosemary water. Finely mince enough of the rosemary leaves to measure ¼ teaspoon and stir them into the lemon juice mixture. The flavors will be best if allowed to sit for 1 hour before serving. Refrigerate if making more than 2 hours in advance.
Pan-Fried Oysters with Fennel Tartar Sauce
This is one of the most popular ways to cook oysters: oysters, some seasoned flour, and a bit of fat (butter, oil, bacon fat, you choose) are all you need. For a gluten-free variation, you can use other types of flour such as chickpea or rice.* You may need a bit extra in order to fully coat the oysters, as not all flours coat the same. In a pinch, any delicious tartar sauce will be a fine complement, but the savory crunch of this fennel version is worth the few extra minutes to whip it together. Not all fennel bulbs come with tender green fronds still attached, but try to find a bulb that does. The greens make a nice herbal accent in the tartar sauce. If you’ve got fronds to spare, scatter them—whole or just coarsely chopped—over the oysters just before serving.
Makes 2 main course servings or 4 to 6 appetizer servings
For the fennel tartar sauce:
¾ cup mayonnaise
½ cup finely chopped fennel bulb
3 tablespoons finely chopped cornichon or dill pickle
2 tablespoons chopped fennel fronds or minced chives
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more if needed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for flouring
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
24 freshly shucked medium oysters or jarred small oysters, drained Mild olive oil or vegetable oil, for frying
1. To make the tartar sauce, combine the mayonnaise, fennel bulb, cornichon, fennel fronds, and vinegar and stir well to blend. Season to taste with salt and pepper and refrigerate until ready to serve, preferably for at least 1 hour in advance to allow the flavors to blend.
2. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with brown paper or paper towels and set an oblong wire rack on top, if you have one. Lightly flour another baking sheet or a tray for holding the coated oysters.
3. On a large plate or in a shallow bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and pepper. Add a few of the oysters at a time, tossing well to evenly coat with the flour mixture, then lift them out and shake off the excess flour. Set the coated oysters aside on the floured baking sheet and continue coating the remaining oysters. Reserve the excess flour.
4. Heat about 1/4 inch of oil in a large heavy skillet, such as cast iron, over medium heat. Keep in mind that the heavier the pan, the longer it will take to preheat.
5. While the pan is heating, quickly retoss the oysters 3 or 4 at a time in the
flour to ensure an even coating. When the oil is hot, carefully add about 6 of the oysters (don’t crowd the pan; cook fewer if needed) and cook until nicely browned, about 3 minutes. Turn the oysters and brown on the other side, 2 to 3 minutes longer. Transfer the oysters to the prepared baking sheet and keep them warm in the oven while frying the remaining oysters. Add a bit more oil to the pan and allow the oil to reheat if needed between batches.
6. Taste the tartar sauce again just before serving, adjusting the seasoning if needed. Arrange the oysters on individual plates with a generous spoonful of the sauce alongside and serve right away.
Recipes (c)2016 By Cynthia Nims. All rights reserved. Excerpted from “Oysters: Recipes that Bring Home a Taste of the Sea” by permission of Sasquatch Books. Photography by Jim Henkens.
* I did use a gluten free mixture of mostly rice flour. In this recipe it ended up like paste, a flavor the oyster easily covered. But I’d like it if the breading could also star in the show, so next time I’ll use a gluten free cornmeal style breading.