Thursday, November 9, 2017

Mexican Oyster Cocktail

Oysters have a special place in Maryland and Virginia, one that goes back hundreds of years.  When John Smith navigated the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, he wrote down his observations of everything he saw, including the wildlife.  Smith made two trips in 1608 from Jamestown, Virginia into the Bay.   His notes documented the tremendous diversity of life in the bay: including "sturgeon, grampus, porpoise, seals, stingrays, ... brits, mullets, white salmon (rockfish), trouts, soles, and perch of three sorts ...."  When it came to the Chesapeake Bay oysters, Smith remarked that they "lay as thick as stones." 

A lot has happened over the following four centuries, but it is safe to say that the oysters do not "lay as thick as stones" today in the Bay.  Overfishing, disease, pollution and, yes, maybe even climate change, have contributed to the downfall of oyster stocks in the Bay. According to Sea Grant Maryland, a study by the University of Maryland found that the oyster population is just 0.3% of what it was in the 1800s.  Yet, there are rays of hope in the Delmarva.  Those oyster stocks have stabilized and have even shown the promise of increasing, especially in Maryland.

One of the factors behind the success has been the increase in aquaculture of oysters.  Virginia took the lead in this effort, but Maryland is catching up when it comes to promoting the farming of these important bivalves.  One example of the effort in Maryland is Harris Seafood Company, which is the last packinghouse in Kent Narrows and the last shucking house in the State of Maryland.  Harris has an aquaculture program that enables the grower to plant millions of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay on ground that it leases.  This video provides a very brief explanation of the oyster aquaculture process:


That is just one example.  When it is multiplied by the growing number of aquaculture farms in Maryland and Virginia, the product is the promise that the Chesapeake oyster population can continue to rebound.  And, to state the obvious, that means more oysters for people like me, who love to eat them.

Usually, I buy oysters and shuck them, using skills I learned as a cook in a seafood restaurant while I was in college.  Shucking oysters takes time, because, despite my cooking experience, I lack the true expert skills of a shucker in a shucking house.  When pressed for time, I will purchase a pint of pre-shucked oysters.  Given I have had little time in recent days and weeks, I recently purchased a pint of pre-shucked Maryland oysters from Harris Seafood Company.

When I bought those oysters, I already had a recipe in mind ... a Mexican Oyster Cocktail.  The recipe comes from one of Mario Batali's cookbooks, America Farm To Table, which has a whole chapter dedicated to oysters.  I love all of the recipes, but this cocktail recipe caught my attention.  The reason is that I found it while I was writing the blog post for Oyster Shooters with Tomatoes, Lime and Chiles.  The oyster shooter recipe still stands as the best recipe ever invented, but, l was looking for challengers.

This recipe brings together a lot of ingredients -- tomatoes, scallions, celery, shallots, and chiles -- that provide a good base for an oyster shooter.  All of those ingredients work well together, especially when the lime juice and zest are added.  If there was any issue, it was the relative lack of liquid in the cocktail.  The lime juice does not provide enough liquid for the cocktail.  I strained the oyster liqueur from the pre-shucked oysters and added it to the cocktail, but it was still not enough.  Maybe the next time I make this recipe, I will add some water or, maybe because it is a Mexican oyster cocktail, I will add some tequila.  


MEXICAN OYSTER COCKTAIL
Recipe from Permaquid Oyster Company
Printed in Mario Batali, America Farm to Table, page 61
Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients:
4 ripe plum tomatoes
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 ribs celery, sliced paper thin
2 shallots, finely minced
Zest and juice of 3 limes
2 serrano chiles, finely chopped
24 fresh oysters, scrubbed
Kosher salt

Directions:
1.  Prepare the cocktail.  Halve the tomatoes and squeeze the seeds into a bowl..  Chop the tomatoes into 1/4 inch dice and toss them into a bowl.  Add the scallions, cilantro, olive oil, cumin, celery, shallots, lime zest, lime juice, and chiles and mix well, then cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

2.  Finish the dish.  Shuck the oysters over a strainer set over a small bowl to collect their liquid.  Toss the oysters with their liquor into the mixture and stir gently.  Check for seasoning, it may or may not need salt.  Serve in clear glasses or seafood cocktail servers.

ENJOY!

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