Our shells clacked on the plates. My tongue was a filling estuary, My palate hung with starlight: As I tasted the salty Pleiades Orion dipped his foot into the water. Alive and violated They lay on their beds of ice: Bivalves: the split bulb And philandering sigh of ocean. Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered. We had driven to that coast Through flowers and limestone And there we were, toasting friendship, Laying down a perfect memory In the cool of thatch and crockery.
Excerpt from ‘Oysters’ by Seamus Heaney
We don’t know a lot about that first harvest celebration in 1621. We know that the Pilgrims shared their first harvest bounty with the Wampanoag Indians and Governor William Bradford was present at the feast. We know they ate deer and wildfowl, probably including wild turkeys. But we are certain that they were shown by the Native Americans how to eat clams, mussels, eel and, especially, oysters.
Skipping ahead about 200 years, we also know there was a time during the Victorian era when no Thanksgiving meal in America was complete without oysters. Oysters on the half-shell, oyster stew, oyster chowder, oyster stuffing and deviled oysters are all found on menus at the beginning of the 20th century.
Here are some recipes from our past and present:
Cut 1 loaf of country-style white bread into cubes, leaving the crusts on. Line a sheet pan with foil and spray it with no-stick. Place the bread cubes on the pan and then in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat a large sauté pan and add 2 ounces of diced pancetta. Let it cook at medium heat for about 5 minutes and remove. Add 3 tablespoons butter to the pan. When it melts, add 12 fresh sage leaves and cook at medium heat another 5 minutes. Remove the sage and set aside.
Add to the pan 1 chopped onion, 4 stalks of celery, chopped, and 1 tablespoon minced garlic. As the vegetables soften, stir in the reserved pancetta, the sage leaves (chopped), 2 teaspoons thyme, 1 teaspoon dried sage, 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1 teaspoon ground pepper.
Place the toasted bread cubes in a large bowl and pour the onion mixture over them.
Shuck 12 oysters, reserving the liquor. Chop the oysters and add them to the bread cubes along with the strained liquor. Stir in 1/2 cup chopped parsley, 2 cups chicken stock and 4 chopped anchovies.
Spray a casserole with no-stick and add the stuffing mixture. Cover with foil and place in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. Uncover and continue cooking for another 20 minutes.
Serve with turkey or roasted chicken.
Purchase 1 pint of shucked oysters and drain them through a sieve placed over a bowl, saving the oyster liquor. Dice 4 slices of bacon and cook in a soup pot until almost crisp and remove with a slotted spoon.
Add 1 tablespoon butter to the bacon fat along with 1 diced onion and 1/2 cup each of diced carrots, celery and green pepper. Cook until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes at low heat.
In a separate sauté pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter and add the oysters. Cook at high heat just until the edges curl and remove.
Combine the oyster liquor and milk to make 2 cups and add it to the sauté pan along with 1 cup heavy cream. Bring this to a simmer and add it to the vegetable mixture. Add back the diced bacon, the oysters and 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
PANKO-BREADED OYSTERS WITH AVOCADO WASABI SAUCE
Purchase 1 pint of shucked oysters. Prepare a breading station by placing 2 cups flour in a shallow pan seasoned with 2 teaspoons coarse salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. In another shallow pan put 3 cups panko crumbs. Break 2 eggs in a bowl and whisk in 1 cup milk.
Dust each oyster in flour, then in the egg wash, then press into the panko. Place the breaded oysters on a foil-lined sheet pan and refrigerate.
Split 2 ripe avocados in half and remove the pits. Scoop out the flesh and add it to the bowl of a food processor. Dissolve 2 tablespoons wasabi powder in 1/4 cup water and add to the processor. Add the zest and juice of 1 lemon along with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Process until smooth and taste for seasoning. It should be mildly spicy with a smooth texture.
Heat a large sauté pan and add 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Cook the breaded oysters at medium-high heat until golden, and turn. Total cooking time should be less than 5 minutes. Cook in batches, being careful not to crowd. As you remove each oyster, place it on a paper towel-lined plate.
Serve the oysters with the avocado sauce and wedges of lemon.
DEVILED OYSTERS AND SCALLOPS
Purchase 1/2 pint of shucked oysters and 1/2 pint of Peconic Bay scallops.
Cook 2 eggs until hard-cooked and set aside.
Heat a large sauté pan and add 3 tablespoons unsalted butter. When it foams, add the oysters and cook until the edges curl, and remove. Add the scallops to the same pan and cook quickly at high heat and remove.
Add to the pan 1/2 cup minced shallots, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1/2 cup finely diced green pepper and 1/4 cup chopped parsley.
Chop the hard-boiled eggs and add them to the pan along with 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper and 1 teaspoon salt.
Add back the cooked oysters and scallops and thicken the mixture by stirring in 1 cup (or more) of crushed oyster crackers. (It should be thick but not dry.)
Divide between individual ramekins or place in a shallow casserole. Garnish with some crushed oyster crackers and a teaspoon of paprika. Bake in the oven at 375 degrees for 15 minutes before serving.
Note: Oysters are a great thing to serve at Thanksgiving dinner before serving the turkey. Serving them on the half-shell is always popular, but if you like them cooked, purchasing shucked fresh oysters is a good idea. They usually come already shucked from Chesapeake Bay and are available at our local fish markets.