Oysters, Oysters, Oysters–The Oyster Epicenter
The Chesapeake Bay is known as one of the oyster capitals of the world. In its heyday the watermen of the Bay were plying about 17 million bushels of oysters out of the bay annually. Turns out that was probably a few too many as we are only harvesting about 2 to 3% of that number today. But that doesn’t mean the end of oysters, in fact due to many efforts in natural oyster bed habitat restoration, and the booming local, farm-raised oyster industry, just the opposite is true.
For visual verification, just stop by the St. Mary’s County National Oyster Festival which is held every fall in Leonardtown, Maryland. There are oysters galore – oysters to be eaten raw, on the half-shell, steamed, fried, barbequed, frittered, or in vodka shooters. This year was a banner celebration as it was the 50th anniversary of this prestigious festival.
I was honored to be asked once again to serve as a judge of the National Oyster Cook-Off. My fellow judges were Sandra Olivetti Martin, editor and publisher of Bay Weekly, and man-about-town, Rob Kasper, author and former Baltimore Sun food writer. It was great company and experienced palates that these two judges brought to the table, so to speak.
Every year there is a fantastic collection of recipes that the finalists prepare on-site at the festival. This year samplings included the likes of: Oyster Sauce Picante topped with Cornmeal Fried Oysters, Oyster Benedict made with quail eggs and prosciutto, Coconut Curry Oyster Soup, and Mediterranean Flatbread Pizza with champagne poached oysters. Not an easy task to pick winners with the amount of talent we had in the cook-off kitchen.
The winner of this year’s National Oyster Cook-Off, Tammy Davis of Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, wowed the judges with her Coconut Curry Oyster Soup. Often we think of oyster dishes in the historical context of the past, normally expecting dishes with old English roots. But cuisines are living organisms, always changing, growing, and forever evolving. Tammy did a fabulous job balancing the Asian spices of the recipe with the delectable briny flavor of the oysters. The complex broth is a perfect vehicle to accentuate the delicate flavor of the oysters without overpowering.
With the permission of the St. Mary’s County National Oyster Festival I’m providing this year’s award winning recipe. And, as we are entering prime holiday season, here is also a traditional recipe for a beautiful Oyster Corn Bread Stuffing.
Tammy Davis’ Coconut Curry Oyster Soup
1 pint shucked oysters, liquor reserved
1 tablespoon canola oil
4 stalks lemongrass
2 medium shallots
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons chopped ginger
2 tablespoon prepared red curry paste
3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce (may substitute soy sauce)
6 limes, reserve the zest of 3
4 cups chicken broth
2 (13.5 ounce) can coconut milk
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 ½ teaspoon sesame oil
12 ounces sliced mushrooms
4 green onions, chopped
Chopped basil and red chilies for garnish
Prepare broth: Finely chop lemongrass, using only the tender white inner portion of each stalk. Chop shallots and finely mince garlic and ginger and sauté in oil with the red curry paste. Add chicken broth, reserved oyster liquor, fish sauce, lime juice, brown sugar and coconut milk and bring to a simmer.
While the broth is cooking, marinate drained oysters in 1 tablespoon soy sauce and sesame oil and slice mushrooms into bite sized pieces.
After 10 minutes, add mushrooms to broth and allow them to cook for approximately 3-5 minutes so they are still firm. Add oysters and marinade and cook until the oyster edges begin to curl. Serve immediately with chopped green onion, basil, lime zest and chilies as garnish.
Oyster Corn Bread Stuffing
(Makes 3 cups)
4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter
½ cup diced onion
½ cup diced celery
½ cup diced carrot
2 tablespoons chopped bacon
½ cup dry sherry
1 cup chopped oysters
¼ cup chopped parsley
2 cups crumbled of your favorite corn bread
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Melt the butter in a skillet and sauté the onion, celery, carrot, and bacon until the onions are transparent, about 5 minutes. Add the sherry, oysters, and parsley. Remove the skillet from the heat and mix in enough corn bread to reach a firm, yet somewhat moist texture. Season the stuffing with salt and pepper.
(Adapted from the 25th Anniversary Edition of Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields – Johns Hopkins University Press 2015)