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Recipes from 'A Geography of Oysters'

MOST OYSTER COOKERY is misguided. Why take a delicate, fleeting flavor and disrupt it with heat? True, a few minutes of cooking can firm up their flesh and make them more palatable to oyster skeptics, but the makeup of oysters is such that, if they are cooked for any significant amount of time, the proteins link up into a tough, chewy little mass. Sure, if you cook them for several hours they will start to soften up again, but the same could be said about tennis balls. A common thread through most successful oyster recipes I've tried is that the oysters are handled incredibly gently — warmed more than cooked.

I believe that any oyster recipe should face two screening processes before it makes it into your kitchen. First: Would the oysters be preferable raw? If so, toss the recipe. Second: Would the dish be better with something other than oysters? If clams, scallops, or even shrimp would be as good, or better, why not save the oysters for one of the roles for which they are uniquely suited? The following recipes are a few that I think do capture the gestalt of oysters, in very different ways. In all of them, the quality of the oysters is crucial. It may be tempting to use those pop-top tins of preshucked oysters sold in every supermarket, but they will ruin any dish with their tinny flavor and rubbery texture.


I was thirty-four years old when I discovered I'd been using the wrong part of the lemon my whole life. Lemon juice is fine to brighten a drink or a piece of fish with a shot of acidity, but everything that is floral and piquant about lemons is found in the zest — the grated peel, which contains the aromatic oil.

Virtually any dish that calls for lemon juice can be made better by adding lemon juice and zest. It's easy to do: First grate the colored peel using a very fine grater, being careful not to grate the bitter white pith that lies just underneath, then cut the wedge of peel-less lemon from the rest of the fruit and juice it. Many types of citrus can be used this way, though lemons, Meyer lemons, tangerines, oranges, and yuzu (a Japanese fruit with a lemon-line flavor) are best. Lime zest is not as fragrant as lemon. (If you will be using the zest, buy organic citrus, because conventional citrus is often dipped in wax.)

Mignonette — red-wine vinegar spiced with shallots and pepper — is the classic French sauce for oysters, but I find citrus superior. Because it has only half the acidity of vinegar, it is less overpowering, and it has sweet and floral touches that mingle with oyster flavors better than harsh vinegar does. A simple trickle of citrus juice on an oyster is good, but creating a mignonette of juice, zest, shallots, and pepper is superb.

Any acid will counteract saltiness (think malt vinegar on French fries), so citrus and mignonettes help to balance overly briny oysters. They also enliven a dull oyster. They do obliterate a certain amount of the fresh oyster flavor, so I prefer nothing on the best oysters. On the other hand, they alter full-bodied, high-umami oysters in a way that makes them much more successful with wine, particularly floral wines like Sauvignon Blanc. Providing a range of mignonettes, such as the following quartet, excites people to explore — always the sign of a good party.

Blood Orange Mignonette

Roger Tory Peterson describes a purple finch as "like a sparrow dipped in raspberry juice." Well, a blood orange is like a tangerine dipped in raspberry juice. The color and the flavor are clearly and distinctly raspberry. That makes for a delightful mignonette. You could puree actual raspberries with tangerine juice to achieve somewhat the same effect, but you wouldn't have the sharpness provided by blood oranges.

Juice of 2 blood oranges

1 shallot, peeled and minced

1 teaspoon (3 g) ground pepper

Mix all ingredients in a nonreactive bowl. Serve immediately.

Makes about 1/2 cup (125 ml)

Meyer Lemon Mignonette

Meyer lemons are crosses of mandarins (tangerines) and lemons, but somehow the cross created an herbal perfume missing from either parent. You can smell it right through the thin, orange-yellow skin — a scent like wandering thyme-carpeted paths in an orange grove — and it drives me wild. As you'd expect, it makes a spectacular mignonette.

Juice and zest of 2 Meyer lemons

1 shallot, peeled and minced

1 teaspoon (3 g) ground pepper

Mix all ingredients in a nonreactive bowl. Serve immediately.

Makes about 1/2 cup (125 ml)

Tarragon Vinegar Mignonette

The woodsy liquorish flavor of tarragon is terrific with oysters, and tarragon vinegar is widely available, making this mignonette a snap. You can reduce the harshness of the vinegar, and increase the complexity of the flavor, by cutting it with a tart white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis or Muscadet.

1/2 cup (125 ml) tarragon vinegar

1/2 cup (125 ml) dry white wine

1 shallot, peeled and minced

2 teaspoons (6 g) fresh ground pepper

Mix all ingredients in a nonreactive bowl. Serve immediately.

Makes 1 cup (250 ml)

Japanese Mignonette

The Japanese are serious oyster fans. I've combined some typical Japanese ingredients to create a mignonette that screams out to be paired with oysters and a glass of ice-cold sake. Virtually all the wasabi in the world is actually horseradish with green food coloring. Real wasabi is incredibly rare but vastly superior. It has less kick than faux wasabi, but a fascinating suite of fresh, green, peppery flavors. Outside of Japanese mountain streams, it is grown only in New Zealand and British Columbia. If you can find the fresh root, and pair it with equally fresh British Columbia oysters, you are in for a real treat.

1/2 cup (125 ml) rice wine vinegar or sake

A small dab of fresh ground wasabi root (optional)

1 tablespoon (15 g) ginger root, peeled and grated (optional)

Juice and zest of 2 yuzus, or 1 lemon and 1 lime

Mix all ingredients in a nonreactive bowl. Serve immediately.

Makes about 1 cup (250 ml)

Elliot's Iced Champagne Mignonette

When you plunk yourself down at the bar at Elliott's, on the Seattle waterfront, and order some oysters, you will be presented with a single sauce: their signature Iced Champagne Mignonette. Nothing else compares. By transforming a mignonette into a granita by carefully freezing it, you get a sauce that obediently stays atop its oyster. And the ice crystals serve as tiny flavor capsules, bursting in your mouth with lemony tartness.

1 ounce (30 g) shallots, peeled and finely minced

2/3 cup (150 ml) red wine vinegar

2/3 cup (150 ml) rice wine vinegar

1 1/2 cups (350ml) Mumm's Champagne

1 1/2 teaspoons (8 g) minced lemon zest

1 teaspoon (3 g) finely ground black pepper

1 teaspoon (3 g) finely ground mixed peppercorns

1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and place the mixture in a shallow pan so it is only 1 inch (2.5 cm) deep.

2. Place the pan in the freezer. Every half-hour, until it is completely frozen, agitate it by scraping with a fork to break up the ice crystals.

The final product should look like shaved ice. Keep covered until serving.

Makes 2 cups (500 ml)

Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. Copyright (c) 2007 by Rowan Jacobsen.

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Rowan Jacobsen