The siren call of the bivalvian universe has chimed: It's time to turn away from the sleepy, seaside Rhode Island towns and Prince Edward Islands of the world and shift our attention to the Southern oyster. If you prefer your oysters on the half shell washed down with a crisp white wine in the warm embrace of your favorite seaside haunt at happy hour, you’re not alone. Southern oysters may be shrouded in legend and invoke fear for the casual chef, but these bivalves need not be reserved for a regal splurge when you dine out — preparing them on your own isn’t the bloody mess you envision. In fact, anybody can master selecting and serving up a Southern oyster at home. Best of all, you can still sling them back with that glass of wine — or three — with no happy hour limitations.
And there's good reason to revere these Lowcountry and downhome gems: "Southern food is one of America’s most distinctive regional cuisines, based in part on many native ingredients, including seafood," says Kara Nielsen, Culinary Trendologist for Sterling-Rice Group. "The taste of place, so evident in oysters thanks to the various waters that feed them, has great value to today’s diners and opens doors to tales of origin, to producers’ unique stories, and to a deeper understanding of what makes food taste how it does."
Not to mention that the recent boom in the cultivated, premium oysters market aligns with our national obsession with locavore dining. "Seeing the rise of premium oyster elevation in Southern coastal waters is encouraging because it’s a sign of clean and productive waters and growing economic opportunity for the people involved," says Nielsen.
Here are four tips to keep in mind if you decide to shuck some South for your mouth.
1. Choose wisely.
First up, a quick refresher in oyster selection safety: "When selecting an oyster, always make sure the oyster is tightly closed and not open at all," says Chef Chad Anderson, Executive Chef, The Watch Rooftop Kitchen and Spirits at The Restoration in Charleston, South Carolina. (This obviously applies to all oysters and not just those hailing from Southern states.)
"When buying oysters, always ask to see the harvest date. Any place that serves oysters is required to keep this information on hand with the respective oysters," says Gavin Pera, Restaurant Chef, Burlock Coast Seafare & Spirits at The Ritz-Carlton in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "Oysters are alive when you buy them, so never purchase oysters that have been out of the water for more than five days. The oysters should also be completely closed, and feel heavy for their size." Also important to note: "If you are going to be cooking your oysters instead of serving them raw on the half shell, you'll want to choose a larger, more plump oyster as they will significantly shrink as they cook," says Chad.
Simple recipe: Grill oysters over an open flame with a spoonful of melted garlic butter seasoned with lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Add some shaved Parmesan cheese, and when the cheese is all melted and the oyster is bubbling aggressively, remove and allow to cool slightly before eating.
2. Try Apalachicola’s.
They're the two most abundant and popular Southern oysters, and damn tasty. "Apalachicola’s are found all over the gulf coast and into the Carolinas," says Pera. Follow Pera's lead and top with hot sauce and a spritz of fresh lemon juice. Done.
3. Try a Po'Boy
Up North, we get lost in half-shell mania, analyzing the brine factor in our favorite bougie liquor den. Make like a Southerner and prepare an oyster po'boy. It's simpler than you think. Pera explains: Soak the oysters in buttermilk and dredge them in a mixture of corn meal and all-purpose flour (a 4:1 ratio of flour to corn meal) and a pinch of salt. Fry them for about two minutes until crispy. Serve on French bread with lettuce, tomato, and remoulade with a side of lemon wedges. To make his signature remoulade, combine an ounce each of chopped capers, minced shallots, and dill (or parsley, if you'd like) along with the zest of two lemons, a quarter cup or so of lemon juice, two ounces of mustard, and two cups of mayonnaise. Combine everything and season with salt, pepper, and more lemon juice — this remoulade recipe yields about ten portions, simply halve it if you need less.
4. Indulge in some Gulf oysters.
"There is nothing more delectable than a cold briny oyster fresh from the Gulf of Mexico. Gulf oysters tend to be larger than those from other waters, and they are best enjoyed raw with a squeeze of lemon during the colder months," says Executive Chef Thierry Connault, M Bistro at The Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans, Louisiana. (And this Crescent City establishment takes the oyster game seriously: they have an Oyster Butler on property who is available to teach guests about all of the different types of oysters and how to shuck them properly.) The ways to enjoy cooked Gulf oysters are nearly endless, but you can't go wrong with putting them under the broiler for around three minutes or baking at 450° for 10 to 12 minutes before topping with andouille sausage for a hint of smoke.
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