Raw or lightly fried, oysters are a Northwest epicure's delight

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 24, 2013 

Robert Fong

Robert Fong, the former co-owner of Pacific Cafe in Bellingham now teaches cooking classes.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

When it comes to eating raw oysters, there is no in-between: You love them or you hate them.

To me, slurping oysters out of the shell can make you sigh and swoon. Of course they must be in season, plump, briny cold, and looking sassy in their liquor.

Purists insist that oysters are best enjoyed au naturel. I prefer them with a squeeze of lemon or a splash of mignonette sauce and a pinch of fresh serrano. Paired with premier cru Chablis, Champagne, or chilled junmai ginjo sake, it's a party.

TIMING MATTERS

It was September 1965 at the American Numismatic Association's convention. A hotshot rare coin dealer and a callow youth, I was trying to impress my older, sophisticated New York City companions with my gastronomic acumen.

With bravado, I swallowed whole tepid, milky oysters at a fancy Miami Beach restaurant, and my culinary career nearly died before it started. I now remind myself to eat oysters only when the weather is cold and they are not spawning.

The old adage that they are best enjoyed during months with the letter "r" is not always helpful, because seasons can arrive early or late. Also, when it is summer here, it's winter in New Zealand.

PEARLS OF ADVICE

If you are a novice raw oyster eater and a wannabe gourmand, pay attention to the little things. Don't just gulp them down. Lift the shell to your lips, sip the liquor, and slide the oyster onto your tongue, using a finger if necessary. Chew a little. Enjoy the ocean flavors. Swallow sensuously, and smack your lips.

CREATIVE CREATIONS

Over the years, many iconic oyster dishes have been created by inventive cooks. I fondly remember Oysters Rockefeller, made famous in New Orleans; the California gold rush creation "Hangtown fry;' and the English invention "Angels on Horseback."

In Bellingham, sushi chef Steve Chong of Blue Fin Sushi does raw oyster gunkan sushi with vinegared rice shaped by toasted nori and accented with tobiko, ginger and ponzu sauce.

At The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, chef Blaine Wetzel makes delicate alder-scented oysters by cold-smoking them unopened on ice for two hours. His oyster in a half shell, marinated in Pinot Grigio, fried sage and fennel brown butter, is presented chilled on frozen beach pebbles. It's a whimsical sight.

IN SEASON

Here in Whatcom County it's peak oyster season, so drive down Chuckanut Drive to Taylor Shellfish Farm or to Blaus Oyster Co. for bags of live and shucked Pacific oysters. They often have Virginicas and Kumamotos, and, if you're lucky, the indigenous Olympics.

Or go to Seattle's Mutual Fish Co. for Quilcenes, Fanny Bays, Hamma Hammas and other local favorites.

While all of them are Pacific oysters, they vary in appearance, texture and flavor, because, like wine, it's all about terroir.

So eat at an oyster bar, shuck your own, or fry them using my time-honored "secret" recipe. It will make your friends and family smile.

SIMPLE, LIGHTLY FRIED OYSTERS

What to have:

1 to 2 dozen freshly shucked Pacific oysters

3 to 4 range-free eggs, whipped with pinches of sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

3 to 5 cups of fine bread crumbs

2 lemons, freshly sliced

Grapeseed, peanut or other high-temperature oil

What to do:

Drain oysters, dip in eggs, then toss and coat well in bread crumbs.

Coat a heavy skillet in one-fourth inch of oil and heat over medium-high heat to 375 degrees, just hot enough to make a pinch of dry bread crumbs sizzle instantly without burning.

Carefully slide the breaded oysters one at a time into the hot, but not smoking, oil. Cook six at a time for 30 to 45 seconds on each side.

When done, use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a plate lined with paper towels. Enjoy with lemons.

Robert Fong of Bellingham, the former co-owner of Pacific Café, teaches cooking classes and always eats well.

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