This story first appeared on Bellwether Vance
In the family album, there's a picture of me in a high chair, a raw oyster in each hand. Which is only fitting since we live among oystermen, near the harvesting fields of Apalachicola, where you will find the best oysters on Earth: small, velveteen, supremely salty.
My winter childhood is memories of my daddy standing on the back porch next to a burlap bag of oysters, shucking them for me as fast as I could eat. The men gathered there, stomping their feet to chase away the cold, sipping from small, sweet-smelling bottles they hid from the women in the house. They cheered me on, a scrawny baby girl with big green orphan eyes, no matter that I had been rescued early and ever since well fed. I remember a couple of times when he gave up, handed me squalling to my mother. Put to bed hungry for want of more oysters.
We ate them only in the colder months, and during the endless hot months in between, even the clear bottle-glass Gulf waters, our sugar white beaches and the promise of ice cream truck delicacies could not make those months go away quickly enough. I waited for the temperatures to drop, for the oysters to come, for my daddy to bring home the wet brown sacks, put on his oyster shucking glove and call me to the porch. Where he'd pry open an ugly toad-like shell to reveal a beautiful, quivery, edible pearl. He'd release it from the shell with a quick flick of the oyster knife, and slide it onto a cracker, just for me.
To keep me tough, he'd test me with Tabasco. A drop. If I could handle it. Hell yeah! Small, pale, bookish and thoroughly unsuited for sports, this was my football. The oyster, a cracker, Tabasco. Keep 'em coming.
It tickles me these days, especially in the Valentine week, when others equate oysters with sexual love, an aphrodisiac. Not that I deny an oyster's power. I'd say an oyster can lay claim to more true love matches than any chaste church singles mixer. It's just that for me, a daughter of the Gulf Coast, the oyster isn't a gateway to exotic pleasures of the human flesh. My love is for the oyster itself, Cupid's arrow gone awry. And love, too, for the memories -- the pride of being tough and admired, and feeling deliciously full all over.
I know not everyone has access to fresh oysters in the shell. Not everyone likes them raw. Not everyone has a daddy who will open them for hour upon end. Here's an easy, light recipe that would make a perfect appetizer for your Valentine's feast.
Fresh-herb crusted baked oysters
1 pint oysters, drained
2 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup finely minced shallot or green onion
½ cup finely minced celery
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup bread crumbs
¼ cup finely minced Italian parsley
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh basil
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh thyme
Zest of one lemon, minced
Dash of hot sauce
Pinch of Kosher salt, and a hearty pinch of fresh black pepper
Lemon wedges, for serving.
- Preheat your oven to 425.
- Place the oysters in a single layer in a small casserole dish.
- In a skillet over medium high heat, heat the olive oil and sauté the shallot, celery and garlic until they are translucent and tender, but not brown. Add the 2 tablespoons of butter, stirring until melted, and then add the bread crumbs, tossing them until well coated. Remove from the heat and add the remaining ingredients. Taste for salt and pepper.
- Cover the oysters in the bread-crumb mixture, and bake uncovered for 10 minutes, or until the oysters are just cooked through and the top is slightly browned. You can put them under a broiler briefly to crisp the top further if you like. Serve with a wedge of lemon and French bread to dip into the juices.
Some people like Parmesan cheese in this type of recipe. Ordinarily I'm a cheese fiend, but I don't like cheese with my oysters. But if you are inclined, you can sprinkle the top with a bit of good Parmesan. It's your celebration after all!