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"Come for an oyster tasting." (include related article on how to open the oyster) (recipes)

"Come for an oyster tasting" If you exult in the freshness of an ocean breeze, you know the flavor of oysters on the half-shell. Perhaps no other food captures the essence of the sea so well. And oyster lovers have reason to rejoice: the half-shell market is improving, with better quality, variety, and availability.

But outside of restaurants, where oysters arrive magically chilled and shucked, this shellfish may seem more intimidating than enticing. For starters, why do oysters have so many different names? Which kinds taste best? How do you get an oyster open? Once they're open, how do you keep them cold and level so they hold their juices? If you use ice, how do you deal with the melt?

We offer a guide to selecting, storing, and serving one of the world's grand celebration foods. We'll show you how to shuck and serve oysters with ease, and suggest simple sauces to accent their flavor.

How many kinds?

How many names?

A glance at an oyster bar's menu might make you think there are dozens of oysters. In fact, just four primary species are sold in this country: Pacific, Eastern, Olympia, and European flat. A fifth species, from Chile, has limited availability.

The proliferation of names arises because Pacifics and Easterns--the most widely grown oysters--are usually labeled according to the area they're from, rather than by species. For example, Yaquina Bay (Oregon) and Quilcene (Washington) oysters are both Pacifics.

Geographic nomenclature has merit because oysters, being filter-feeders, pick up different flavors depending on the amount of salt and other nutrients in the water, and on the types of food the oysters eat. One area might give oysters a more vegetative flavor, while another might impart a brinier taste. These factors also affect flesh color. Seasonal changes like rainfall influence both flavor and texture.

Within the same species, some variations are consistent from one geographic area to another, but others aren't. If you want to experience distinct differences, include more than one species in your tasting.

Species not only taste different but look different, as you'll notice in the picture below. Following is a thumbnail guide to the different species; they're listed in order of availability.

Pacific oysters, the commonest species in the West, have a distinct, full, briny flavor. Their shells are deeply ridged and may be nearly black to purple, green, or oyster gray. Flesh is usually gray-white to tan, with a mantle (the ruffled-looking edge of the meat) that is beige-gray to black. Seed originally came to the U.S. from Japan, and this oyster is now grown from California to Alaska (as well as in New Zealand and Australia). Production has doubled in the last few years to 25 percent of the nation's total oysters.

Most Pacifics are farm-raised; small, plump, milder ones are chosen for half-shell consumption. Some Pacifics grow to the astonishing length of 12 inches.

The Kumamoto, a Pacific variety, tastes similar to other Pacifics but is sweeter. A fairly small oyster with an especially deep-ridged cup, it is farm-raised in California, Oregon, and Washington.

Eastern oysters, native to the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, have a mild flavor. Their tan-colored, flat shells may be oblong to rounded. Meat is usually gray to tan, with a light-colored mantle. Growing areas stretch from northern Canada to Texas, with Louisiana the greatest producer. (You may see the term "blue point" used generically for Eastern oysters, although it originally applied to those from Blue Point, New York.)

Oysters from the Eastern U.S. are flown to the West and available at many fish stores and supermarkets here. Some are farm-raised, others from wild beds.

In recent years, problems with pollution, diseases, and overharvesting have somewhat limited supplies of Eastern oysters, especially from the Chesapeake Bay area. Various regulatory controls also restrict the number harvested. In 1988, though, the Gulf of Mexico region still produced 51 percent of this country's oysters.

Olympia oysters, the only ones native to the West coast, are prized for their sweet flavor, distinct metallic aftertaste, and tiny greenish shells. Meat ranges from tan to copper-purple; the mantle can be beige to black. Originally found from Los Angeles to northern British Columbia, Olympias nearly died out in the 1920s from pollution and overharvesting.

With greater interest in oysters, the little Olympia is enjoying a revival in the waters of southern Puget Sound and, on a very small basis, in northern California as well. Most of the harvest still comes from wild beds, though aquaculturists are working on farm production. Olympias are slow-growing--sometimes taking five years to reach the size of a quarter.

European flat oysters have a mild, slightly sweet, metallic flavor. Shells are round and flat and may be white or tan to greenish; flesh is usually tan with a tan mantle. This oyster is often incorrectly called Belon after an oyster-growing area in France. Most of the "European" oysters you'll find in America are actually raised in small quantities on the East and West coasts.

Chilean oysters, new to the West in 1989, look like large Olympia oysters and taste like a cross between Olympias and European flats. Shells are gray-green; flesh is pale. So far, only restaurants offer these South American imports.

How to choose and store oysters

Your selection may be based on availability as well as on your preference for milder, sweeter, or more full-flavored species. You should also observe the following precautions as you buy and store oysters (for more safety tips, see page 160).

Buy from approved sources. To be certified, shellfish growers and processors must meet state standards for cleanliness and safety. Every box of oysters that goes to a retailer should have a tag with a certification.

Buy oysters from a store you trust, where shellfish is kept clean and cold. Oysters should have tightly closed shells and feel heavy for their size. They should smell clean, not sulfurous. Ones that close when tapped are all right to eat, but they may be dry.

Oysters in their shells are alive; they need air, moisture, and a cool environment. If you buy them in a plastic bag, open it as soon as you get home. Store oysters cup side down, to retain juices, and topped with damp towels.

Keep oysters chilled (below 40[degrees]), and don't store more than a few days. Raw oysters contain some bacteria, which cool temperatures keep in check. If oysters are held above 40[degrees] for more than a few hours, the bacteria can quickly multiply to harmful levels. Even when stored at ideal temperatures, oysters deteriorate with time, so buy them close to when you plan to use them. And once the oysters are shucked, eat them within a few hours.

When preparing oysters, keep hands, tools, and work surfaces clean to avoid contamination from any other sources.

Planning an

oyster-tasting party

Enjoying oysters at home needn't be a daunting prospect. The biggest job is getting them shucked. Your first few may go slowly, so practice a little ahead of time, following the drawings at left. For a party, you may want to shuck all the oysters in advance, starting a few hours ahead, or just open a couple of dozen and do the rest after guests arrive.

Another option is to hire a professional shucker from a restaurant or a catering company that serves a lot of oysters. One shucker can open about 200 oysters an hour. Cost for this service can vary greatly, from perhaps as low as $15 an hour for shucking only (you provide the oysters) to a $300 flat rate including set-up, oysters, and a minimum time period.

Crushed ice (not cubes) works best for keeping shucked oysters cold and steady. One method we like for capturing melting ice is to place small cans (of equal height) in a deep roasting pan, then top them with a piece of stiff, foil-covered cardboard that is slightly smaller in dimensions than the pan. Place crushed ice on top of the cardboard to make a solid oyster bed; the pan will gather drips. You can drape fabric around the pan to dress it up.

To steady oysters on plates, rest them on crushed ice or crumpled napkins.

Plan on about a dozen oysters per person. Depending on market availability, consider offering at least two species, and perhaps Pacifics from a couple of different areas, so you can compare flavors.

Simple accompaniments show off oysters best. Offer one or both of the following sauces, as well as lemons, buttered pumpernickel bread to clear the palate, and very dry champagne or a white wine such as a dry Sauvignon Blanc. You'll also need forks, napkins, small plates, and a container for empty shells.

Per 1/4-ounce shucked small Pacific oyster: 5.8 cal.; 0.7 g protein; 0.2 g fat; 0.4 mg carbo.; 7.8 mg sodium; 3.9 mg chol. (estimated)

Mignonette Sauce for Oysters

1/2 cup white wine vinegar 1/4 cup water 1-1/2 tablespoons minced shallot 3/4 teaspoon coarse-ground pepper

In a small bowl, mix vinegar, water, shallot, and pepper. If made ahead, cover and chill up to 3 hours. Makes about 3/4 cup, enough for 72 oysters (1/2 teaspoon each).

Per 1/2 teaspoon: 0 cal.; 0 g protein; 0 g fat; 0.1 g carbo.; 0 mg sodium; 0 mg chol.

Tart Chili-Cucumber Salsa

1/2 cup peeled, seeded, and finely diced cucumber 2 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar (or use 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon sugar) 1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro (coriander) 1 tablespoon minced red or green jalapeno chili

In a small bowl, mix cucumber, vinegar, cilantro, and chili. If made ahead, cover and chill up to 3 hours. Makes 2/3 cup, enough for 64 oysters (1/2 teaspoon each).

Per 1/2 teaspoon: 0.7 cal.; 0 g protein; 0 g fat; 0.2 g carbo.; 0.1 mg sodium; 0 mg chol.
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Date:Feb 1, 1990
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