oysters

Ultimate Oyster

I’ve eaten dozens and scores of oysters on the half shell over the decades, once carrying a cooler full of them back to Minneapolis for Christmas when one could still carry a cooler full of oysters on a plane to the delight of security personnel.

These lovelies were not eaten on the half-shell. Rather, they were on the half-shell, but they were not raw.

I sort of set out to make barbequed oysters. I didn’t want just cooked oysters slathered with sickly sweet barbeque sauce, though, I wanted to replicate the ones I’ve had twice at the Marshall General Store on Tomales Bay. Both times I was up in Marshall for work – once to write a profile of cheese maker Marcia Barinaga for Culture magazine, the other time to tour the Straus Creamery. The oysters are cooked on a grill with some garlic butter and then lightly brushed with a barbeque sauce.

The thing is, I flew through Houston airport last month. I had a two-hour lay-over at lunch time. I hit Pappadeux’s and treated myself to a dozen raw oysters. They arrived, plump and fresh, with a dish of cocktail sauce and a dish of something much more intriguing. I’m pretty sure it was a mignonette made with sweet and spicy pepper jelly. And yet… I had no pepper jelly at hand.

So instead of barbeque sauce or the magic I had at the Houston airport (stranger things have happened, surely, than the discovery of something delicious at an airport?), I made my own spicy concoction that I dub spicy mignonette. I heated up the grill, set the oysters cupped shell-side-down on the grill, cooked them until the shells loosened, took them off the grill, easily shucked them, topped them each with a bit of garlic and parsley butter (a.k.a. beurre maitre d’hotel), put the oysters now on the half-shell back on the grill to cook through (look for the edges to just start to curl up), used tongs to carefully lifted them off the grill and onto a platter without spilling too much of their juices or the yummy butter onto the flame, and served them with the spicy mignonette.

We worked our way through the two dozen oysters pretty quickly. I sat, happy with my work, watching as my dashing husband went back at his shells to pry off any remaining bits of oyster and my omnivorous son licked his shells clean. Then they both attacked the remaining sauce with bits of bread. Dipping and eating until the dish was as clean as the oyster shells. Trace of neither bivalve nor sweetened and spiced vinegar was left when we were through.

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Fish, chips, and barbequed oysters

Ernie joined me on a little day trip up to Bodega Bay yesterday. He patiently climbed trees and played in a ditch while I attended to a photo shoot. He was rewarded with this ear of grilled corn and proceeded to entertain the crowd with crazy antics like this.

By the time we headed home we were starving, because an ear of corn only fills a person up so much and as any food writer knows, there is oddly no food to eat at food photo shoots. By the time everyone is done shooting the food it is old and sad and you’ve been looking at it for way too long to find it even remotely appetizing. Funny, huh?

So E and I stopped off at The Boat House in Bodega Bay for fish-and-chips (except we substituted onion rings for the chips) and some bbq oysters. We waited a long time for the oysters. We had fully finished the fish and were sitting and waiting for some time when the runner finally came out with our platter of oysters. He put them on the table and said, “they’re a bit crispy, but they’re still good.”

What? Are you kidding me? Are you seriously serving me overcooked oysters? On purpose? Even the lovely deck setting and brightly shining sun couldn’t make up for that. We each tried one and decided to head home. The idea of waiting for more of the same was just too much.

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Oysters and friends

Have you ever surprised someone? Have you ever flown to another city for no reason but to go to dinner and take a walk and shoot the shit? I did that yesterday. I flew to Portland in cahoots with a friend who lives there to surprise another friend who was coming into town (who promptly dubbed us wing-nuts). I highly recommend it. It’s ridiculous and impractical and absurd. And joyous and magical and life-affirming.

First we snarfed down take-out from Jarra’s Ethiopian Restaurant–an old favorite of ours from college that haunts our taste memories. It was just as good as ever. Just as good as we remember it. Maybe even better.

manhattan.jpgA few hours later we headed to Alberta Street Oyster Bar. Honestly? It wasn’t as good as when I was there two years ago and my poor hands are showing the effects of way too much salt in most of the dishes (ouch, my fingers hurt when I bend them). But we did slurp through a mess of plump Totten Inlet oysters with a brilliant cucumber-horseradish mignonette with glee and my cherry-infused bourbon Manhattan left nothing to be desired as I sipped through the welcome bits of ice floating on its dark, beaconing surface.

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Cochon

The tour of gluttony continues. What can I say that others haven’t said before me? Even Bruni came all the way to the city where the South is north of here to give it the thumbs up. My pal and NOLA expert Pableaux describes the experience better than I could ever hope to (see what context can do for food?).

Cochon is cooking up delicious food.  The epynomous dish is shredded suckling pig formed into a large patty, browned, topped with cracklings, and served with a few turnips and pickles. It is salty and savory and rich and meaty and salty and addictive and too much and way too much and unbelievable and salty. What it isn’t is greasy. And there are house-made pickles to cut the richness and plenty of quaffable beverages to cure the salt factor.

So far I’ve listened to my waiters and been amply rewarded. We’d had plenty of oysters–fried, roasted, and otherwise–already and weren’t feeling the draw of the “wood-fired oysters” last night. Our server bullied us into getting them because, as she put it “I don’t want to miss the best things,” which was considerate. The fat oysters were laden with chile-butter so delicious that once the oysters were gone we picked up the shells and drank the butter.

None of this–or even the hot links with creamy grits–were the highlight for me. One word: catdaddy. It’s a nutmeg moonshine I will spend the rest of my days hunting down.

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Pork was served

I’m in Healdsburg, CA at an event called “pigs and pinot.” Last night was the “dine around” event–350 people, 6 wine bars (each with about 10 different Pinot Noirs), and 5 food stations. I’ve been to a lot of these type of things, and this one was superbly organized. There was enough food, the food was good, and there were enough places to sit down to eat. You’d think those would be pretty basic features of big food events, but you’d be wrong.

But, like all of these events, one ends up with an odd dinner that never quite feels like dinner. I saw someone with a plate of spent oyster shells almost as soon as I walked in, so I made a beeline to the raw bar. (The raw bar, of course, was located in the far corner–why are they always trying to hide the raw bar? Perhaps it’s a way to encourage flow by pulling people to the raw bar? Sometimes I feel like I spend half my evenings out searching for the oysters).

Next stop: grilling station. I enjoyed my fair share of tender ribs and juicy fennel sausage swathed with a sour and piquant mustard before going back for someone else’s share. I then tasted a carnitas taco that needed much more salt so, since there wasn’t a disposal vessel in sight, I left my plate and the partially-eaten taco behind as I moved on to a spot of pork adobo that lacked a certain amount of adobo-ness and thus met a fate similar to the taco. I passed on pork-n-pineapple mini burgers and pork satay in favor of more ribs and sausage. I’m no fool. Several tastes of lovely lovely pinot were interspersed in all this, but the sight of all the late middle-aged folks in their fancy dress getting shit-faced kept me from really exploiting the vast pinot-tasting possibilities (this wasn’t a spitting kind of event). So, dodging more chit-chat with the p.r. ladies,  I grabbed a handful of macaroons and headed back to my room. Oh yeah, I’m staying in the very fancy hotel where the event is.

And that’s the dirty secret of lifestyle writing. In the face of declining readership and ad sales, print media and its writers can’t afford to pay to check out new places and attend events. Public relation firms and their clients, however, can afford to give the press things for free. Press dinners and media trips and comped meals and fancy hotel rooms are how the whole system works. So I’m at this event as a guest of the event. They hope I write a story about it; I hope I find a story to write.

Funny thing is, I usually find something to write about. It’s just rarely what they hope I will. I meet someone else–a cheesemaker or vineyard owner, for example–to profile, or a dish to write up, or think of a completely new story in the quiet of my luxury hotel room.
Tonight: The Gala.

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