Valentine's Day is fast approaching, and for those whose plans are still up in the air, we suggest looking to the sea, specifically to oysters and the white wines that pair best with them. We've compiled a list of oyster-friendly wines that are both inexpensive and widely available as well as two excellent recipes—one raw and one baked. We also talked to oyster experts on both coasts about which oysters are best right now and how to pick them out.
Our raw recipe, Pacific Rim Oysters, offers an Eastern twist to classic oysters on the half shell, adding soy sauce, ginger and mirin, Japanese flavors which can also amplify a crisp Sauvignon Blanc. Chef Charlie Palmer's baked Tomales Bay Oyster Gratinée recipe is more inspired by California cuisine, with a simple Meyer lemon and parsley garnish along with parmesan and panko adding a counter-texture to the smoothness of Tomales Bay oysters. You can find many more oyster recipes and wine-pairing suggestions using our Recipe Search.
Oysters have been extolled as aphrodisiacs since Roman times—oysters were the orgy's answer to party food—and many species of the bivalves are in prime season this month. On top of their sensual reputation, they're also inexpensive, the very best rarely costing more than a few dollars apiece. And oysters are not only delicious, from the smooth and briny Malpeques of New Brunswick to the plump, salty, almost smoky Sweetwaters of the Pacific, but they're also very nutritious, with high protein-to-fat ratios and plenty of Omega-3s and zinc. Their sweet, salty, minerally flavors make them a perfect match for the various citrus, grass, apple, peach and mineral notes frequently found in Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Muscadet and some Chardonnays. Finally, February is a prime month for oysters on both coasts, as the colder waters, for most species, mean cleaner, more flavorful oysters.
While it's easy enough to find good oysters from anywhere in the world at your local fish market, experts on both coasts agree that oysters are at their very best when they haven't had to make a long trip. There are many species of oyster grown and farmed on the Pacific Coast, and most are at their best in February says John Finger, cofounder and owner of the Hog Island Oyster Company, which farms oysters in Tomales Bay, about 50 miles north of San Francisco, where they also operate an oyster bar. "Tomales Bay Sweetwaters, the Pacific oyster we grow, are particularly good right now," he said. "Pacific oysters in general are fuller-bodied … they're plump, and they have a smoky sweetness to them." Another Pacific oyster Finger recommends are Chelsea Gems, a tumbled Pacific oyster grown in Puget Sound's Eld Inlet.
"Olympias are really nice right now," Finger adds of the Pacific Northwest's native oyster species. "[Olympias] have a sharpness to them, with a much more minerally flavor, almost metallic … it's a very distinctive flavor and a lot of people really like them."
The only species that isn't at its best in winter are the Kumomotos, which are native to Japan and have a different mating cycle than Pacific oysters. "They're a really good late-spring and summer oyster because they don't get fatter and softer in texture [in the summer] like some of the Pacifics do," Finger said.
On the East Coast, few chefs are as enthusiastic about oysters as Jasper White, chef and owner of the Summer Shack seafood restaurants in Boston and Cambridge, Mass. White tends to stick to East Coast oysters that grow in cold weather, because he finds warm-water shellfish reach maturity too early. "Oysters are kind of like fine wine: The longer it takes them to mature, the richer their flavors," White says. "From New Brunswick, the Malpeque oysters have been really great this year. They're a medium-sized oyster, and like most of the northern oysters, they tend to have deep cups—they're kind of like West Coast oysters in that way—so there's more than meets the eye. The Malpeques have a really nice brininess and very smooth, cucumber finish."
"Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island—pretty much any oyster from up there you're going to be really happy with," White says. He also mentions Pemaquids and Glidden Point oysters from Maine, which he says are safe bets year after year. White also highly recommends Cape Cod's Wellfleet, Cotuit and Wareham oysters. "There's also an oyster called Island Creek, out of Duxbury, Mass., which is a really top-notch oyster," White adds. "Thomas Keller serves them [at Per Se], but they have a special, smaller size they save just for him."
The experts also agree on how to find the best oysters at your local market. "First and foremost, ask questions," Finger said. "If they seem to know a lot about oysters, that's a good sign." White agrees that the key is to buy from a reputable and busy seafood dealer. He also says that the best oysters are those that have lost as little fluid as possible while in transit, making them heavier than oysters that have lost fluid by opening. "Oysters should feel heavy for their size," White says.
If you're buying oysters before you're ready to eat them, they should be kept on ice and placed in a mesh bag, but never submerged in water. The bag should also be twisted as tightly as possible to keep them from opening, or "gaping."
Finger also explained that the cold months, February especially, are the best times to eat oysters because oysters store their energy over the winter, recuperating from the summer mating season and preparing for the next one, resulting in cleaner, more flavorful shellfish in the winter months.
As for oysters' mythical aphrodisiac properties, "There's no doubt in my mind that it's true. No doubt," White says. "Oysters have the highest zinc content of any food on the planet, and zinc gives you energy and strength. And it's such a sensual experience—the oyster is alive, and you're killing it by eating it … it's kind of like a sacrifice."
• 24 Japanese-type oysters in the shell (plump oysters, not the flat type)
• Seaweed for garnish
• 2 teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger
• 1/4 cup rice vinegar
• 1/4 cup mirin (sweet sake)
• 2 tablespoons soy sauce
• 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1. Open the oysters over a large bowl to collect the juices. Loosen the oysters from their shells and arrange them on plates covered with seaweed.
2. Strain and measure 1/4 cup oyster juice and combine it in a nonreactive saucepan with the ginger, rice vinegar, mirin and soy sauce. Boil the mixture until it reduces in volume to about 1/3 cup. Add the olive oil and let it boil for 1 minute longer. Spoon about 1/2 teaspoon of this sauce on each oyster and serve. Serves 4 to 6.
|Charlie Palmer's baked oysters will impress the most discerning dates.|
• 30 oysters, scrubbed
• 2 Meyer lemons, cut into wedges and seeds removed
• 1/3 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
• 1/3 cup Parmesan, grated
• 1 3/4 cups panko
• Rock salt (for plating)
1. Heat broiler. Tear a sheet of aluminum foil twice the length of a baking sheet, and crinkle so that it fits evenly on the sheet, creating a surface that the oysters can be set into without tipping over. Shuck the oysters, leaving them on the half shell, and push them snuggly into the bed of aluminum foil.
2. Squeeze the lemon wedges over the oysters. Sprinkle the oysters with the parsley and Parmesan. Top each with 1 tablespoon panko.
3. Place the baking sheet about 6 inches from the broiler; cook until the panko is golden, about 5 minutes.
4. Form a bed of rock salt on a platter, and using tongs, carefully transfer the oysters to the platter. Serve immediately. Serves 6.
Joe Callahan — Saint John New Brunswick CA — February 16, 2011 6:08pm ET
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