Versatile oysters delight chefs, diners

Posted: Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Editor's note: Kachemak Bay water taxi operators are often asked about the purpose of dozens of buoys clustered in the coves lining the south side of the bay. The answer is simple: oyster farms.

This is the last segment of a four-part series that elaborates on that answer while providing an in-depth look at the mariculture trade, Homer's hidden seafood industry.

Despite all the attention Kachemak Shellfish Growers Cooperative farmers give to their oysters while they are underwater, it's what happens to the shellfish when they leave the farm that matters. Oysters, after all, are consumable.

If handled incorrectly in transit, storage or preparation, their succulence diminishes.

There's even an incorrect way to eat them.

"Slurping them without chewing them is doing a disservice to the oyster," said Marie Bader, who with her husband, Ron, owns the Moss Island Oyster Farm in Peterson Bay. "You should definitely chew them to savor the flavor and the aftertaste."

Unless you're a member of the co-op, there are two ways to get oysters in the Homer area: buy them at market and prepare them yourself, or order them at one of the handful of area restaurants that serves them.

Either way, there are things you need to know to ensure maximum satisfaction.

When purchasing oysters at the market, look for shells that are tightly closed. If a shell is slightly open, tap it -- if it closes quickly, it's OK. If a tapped oyster sounds hollow, it's probably dried out. And if it smells bad, it's bad. Oysters should smell like a sea breeze, salty and fresh.

"It's a personal preference thing, but some people like bigger oysters better, while others like bite-size oysters," Bader said.

"Make sure there are no cracks in the shell and look around the edges for cracks. You want them cleaned, too. And deep cup oysters are better -- they're more traditional looking, plus they hold their juices better."

Once you've brought your oysters home, store them in an unsealed container, preferably a shallow bowl, with the flat side up.

"If they're curved side up, when they relax in the cool, dark refrigerator looking for their water medium, they open up and lose their nectar, or liquor," Bader said. "They're still good, but they are dry. Their shelf life is compromised at this point."

While there's no way to ensure the freshness of oysters when dining out, there are a few tricks to help.

"Some restaurants will dish-wash a bunch of shells, and serve oysters from a jar on a clean shell. If you're suspicious in a restaurant, ask them to not sever the adductor muscle," the muscle that joins the two shells, Bader said. "That way you know it's not from a jar. And after you've eaten one, look at the shell for some signs of ocean dwelling. If the shell looks like it's been through a dishwasher a few times, they weren't fresh oysters.

"Send them back if you think a careless chef has rinsed them in the shell under the freshwater faucet," she said. "That's one of the worst things you can do. You're missing one of the best parts."

Dave Olsen, who with his wife, Jennifer, owns Homer's Caf Cups, agreed.

"Never rinse them," he said. "Sometimes you get someone who hasn't been trained right shucking them who leaves some shrapnel in there and rinses them out, but that ruins the taste."

Olsen serves a baked oyster special each night. Past specials have included Asian barbecued oysters, champagne and saffron stuffed oysters, and pesto baked oysters.

"This town is pretty adventurous when it comes to food," Olsen said. "We sell about 20 dozen oysters a week, and it's close, but the baked oysters outsell the raw oysters, especially with locals who've had the opportunity to try them on the half shell."

Oysters Rockefeller, which is a spinach and Pernod puree with anchovy, parsley and green onions, is a standard special. Thickened with bread crumbs, a paste is formed and spread across the open shell of an oyster, which is then baked and served with shredded Parmesan cheese and hollandaise sauce.

Oysters also can be fried and made into stews and chowders.

"The possibilities are endless," Olsen said. "I tried a sort of Marzipan oyster someone had made, which was too sweet, but it got me thinking -- we could make dessert oysters."

However they are prepared, he said, it's the freshness and the quality of the oysters that guarantees the flavor.

"Our menu says if the oysters are not from Kachemak Bay, we won't serve them," he said, tapping a dozen oysters with the handle of a shucking knife to listen for a hollow sound, a good sign they are drying out. "It's support for local growers. These guys in the co-op have done a great job getting the product consistent and listening to their customers."

At Caf Cups, oysters are not shucked until they are ready to be cooked or eaten. If he's serving them on the half shell, Olsen recommends the oysters be eaten as is.

"If it were up to me, I wouldn't even use cocktail sauce," he said. "They have so much flavor on their own."

There are countless ways to serve oysters, but for many people, uncooked and unadorned is best.

"We prefer them totally raw and naked, with nothing on them," Bader said. "No garnishes, nothing."

If you plan to serve them raw, they must be shucked first. While shucking oysters can be an art when done correctly, a little practice goes a long way.

Both Bader and Olsen recommend wearing a glove or holding the oyster in a dishtowel to protect your hand. Find the little dimple on the narrow side of the shell and insert a shucking knife. Wiggle it in until the oyster releases its hinge, and slide the knife across the top plate until the shell comes off, being careful to keep the juices from spilling out of the cupped half of the shell.

"If they open too easily, they're suspect," Bader said. "When we serve them, we sever the muscle, and we flip the oyster over for a nice presentation. It's more of the meat that shows instead of the gills, and it looks better."

Once the oyster is shucked, it can be eaten. For some people, the taste is enhanced by adding any number of things to the oyster while still on the half shell, including lemon, garlic butter, hot sauce, soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce.

But for other people, cooked oysters are the way to go.

"On the grill is great," Bader said. "You avoid the problem of having to shuck them. Just 20 to 30 seconds on a hot grill, they'll pop open and they're cooked. If they don't open, don't eat them."

For those consumers who decide to cook at home, Olsen's advice is simple: "Don't overcook them." He recommends using stuffing that tends to be more moist than dry.

"To me, there's no bigger sin than a dry oyster," he said.

As good as they taste, oysters are good for you, too. Like clams and mussels, they are less than 2 percent fat and contain almost no saturated fat. The high amount of Omega-3 fatty acids in oysters is good for the heart, according to the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association Web site.

Oysters contain far less cholesterol per gram than red meat, poultry or shrimp, and a 3-ounce serving provides more than 100 percent of the daily zinc requirement, an immune-system booster. Six oysters surpass the recommended daily allowance for iron and supply more protein than milk.

Long considered an aphrodisiac, oyster lore claims that famed lover Casanova was a fan of the shellfish.

What that says about Homer is anybody's guess, as the town's population eats as many of the co-op's oysters as all of Anchorage, said Bader.

"If our weekly outgo is 800 dozen to 1,000 dozen oysters, about 400 dozen of them will stay in Homer, about 300 to 400 dozen will go to Anchorage, and about 200 dozen will go Outside. The bulk are eaten right here, locally. That's fantastic."

If you want fresh oysters, you can buy them direct from the farmers or from Coal Point Trading Company on the Homer Spit Road.

"Our dream is to open a retail outlet on the spit somewhere, even just a booth or someone selling them out of a truck," said Bader. "Even if it's just a part-time job with regular hours when people know they can go and get fresh oysters. So many people enjoy them locally, it just makes sense."

The co-op recently earned the right to display the Alaska Grown label, a federal designation which assures quality control in agricultural production. While connoisseurs consider Kachemak Bay oysters among the finest in the world, the word is just beginning to get out.

"We're getting there," said Bob Hartley, who owns Peterson Bay Oyster Farm. "It would be nice to have something like the Copper River salmon, that kind of advertising. We're moving in that direction."

Chris Bernard is a reporter for the Homer News.

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