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Texas Oysters

Talking Texas Oysters

by David Bulla

While I tend to write a lot about Texas Beef, there is another local product that is near and dear to my palate, and that is the wonderful, versatile, briny-sweet Texas Oyster. I think it was Stephen F. Austin that once said "Give Me Texas Oysters or Give Me Death." (I may be mistaken on that quote.)

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote, "He was a bold man that first eat an oyster." Well, that may be true, but thank god someone was the first! That phrase has additional meaning today. The utterance of the word oyster seems to cause tension in the air of many professional kitchens. I know chefs that decide to steer clear of oysters because they don't want to deal with any potential liability issues. I have to say that, while the fear stems from genuine concerns, it is unnecessarily exaggerated. The end result is absence of a wonderful product on menus everywhere.

Someone must be eating the little pearl packages. According to Texasoysters.org, over 3.4 million pounds of oyster meat was produced in Texas in 1998. Texas is firmly the second largest oyster producer in the country. Those figures tell me that people want oysters.

Eating Oysters

There are those out there that think the only way to enjoy oysters is to slide them out of the half shell raw with a little lemon and a dollop of hot sauce. This is a surefire way to enjoy oysters, so for those folks, I will describe how to be as safe as possible in the practice of eating raw oysters later in this article. For everyone else, there is one absolutely sure way to prevent getting sick from the half shell, and that is very simply to COOK YOUR OYSTERS! Steamed, fried, baked, stewed, smoked or sauted, oysters cook up wonderfully. Don't tell anyone, but I actually like them better when they are cooked!

I have to be honest here, the first time I tried an oyster it was fried. I grew up watching my parents eating oysters on the half shell from time to time, and I thought it was pretty nasty. (I didn't make the connection to the romantic evening until later on in life.) Such is the folly of youth. To think of all the missed oyster opportunities! That first bite into the crunchy fried oyster opened my eyes! I saw the light! While I can't credit this dining experience with changing the direction of my life, it may have been the first step toward my career in the culinary arts. "If this is out there, think of what else is out there," I remember thinking to myself.

A Guide to Safely Enjoy Raw Oysters

Let me get a little technical for a minute. All of the following information was gathered from several sources, including the USFDA, the Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and several universities.

While there is no risk from properly cooked oysters, in the past we have heard news about people dying from eating raw oysters. The problem comes from a specific bacterium called vibrio vulnificus. This bacterium tends to be present in shellfish. In warmer climates, it can be more abundant. Like any other bacteria, you can take steps to help minimize your exposure. In small doses, you body will take care of itself. In larger concentrations, you could be in trouble. The only way to know if your oyster has elevated levels of this bacterium is to do laboratory testing. That is obviously not a practical solution. There are steps that producers take to minimize the risk posed by these bacteria, such as refrigeration. There are also steps that the consumer needs to take to minimize their risk from eating raw shellfish. If you fit into a specific category of people that have immune system liver or kidney problems, you really do need to stay away from raw oysters. Major groups of people that fit into this category include anyone with a major disease like diabetes, alcoholism, or people that are HIV positive. Any questions you may have about your specific health situation need to be directed to your doctor before eating raw shellfish.

Knowing where your oyster comes from is very important if you plan on eating it raw. Don't be afraid to ask! It needs to be certified, and the people serving it should understand how to handle raw oysters safely, most importantly keeping the temperature cold. If your oysters aren't chilled when you get them on the half shell, it may be an indication that they have not been handled properly by the kitchen or the servers.

One final precaution that can be taken is to eat raw oysters that have only been taken from cold water and refrigerated immediately. During the winter months, the vibrio vulnificus bacterium is almost non-existent in Texas Oysters. Although modern harvest methods produce safe raw oysters year round, the safest bet is between November and April for oysters that come from the Gulf of Mexico.

To simplify:

  1. Healthy Body with a good immune system
  2. Happy Oyster from good source
  3. Cold Weather - nature's refrigerator
If any of the above does not apply, enjoy a fried oyster po-boy instead of raw oysters.

Oyster Recipes

So, let me show you what else is out there for cooking with Texas Oysters. Here are a few recipes that work for me.

Scalloped Oysters

All I can say about this dish is WOW! As part of a feast, a guaranteed hit at a potluck, or as a main course, this is sure to please even the most demanding seafood scrutinizer. I have yet to find an oyster lover who doesn't like this dish, and many people who proclaim to dislike oysters have one of those eye opening moments when trying this dish.
  • 3 each 10-ounce containers of shucked Texas Oysters
  • 2 cups Oyster Crackers
  • 8 ounces Mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 Texas 1015 onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ¼ Cup Butter
  • ¼ Cup Flour
  • 1 Cup Milk
  • 1-½ teaspoon Salt
  • ¼ teaspoon Pepper
  • 2 teaspoons Lemon Juice
  • 2 teaspoons Lemon Zest
  • 1 dash nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Parsley
  • 2/3 Cup Fresh Bread Crumbs
Drain the oysters, reserving the liquid. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and then add the onions and mushrooms, cook until tender. Add the garlic and cook another 2 minutes. Add the flour and cook another 2 minutes, making sure the flour is well combined. Add the reserved oyster liquid and milk, stir with a whisk until all the flour is worked into the liquid and a smooth, thick sauce is formed. Cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Add the remaining ingredients, except bread crumbs. Place in a casserole dish and top with the fresh bread crumbs. Bake at 350F degrees for 25 minutes.

Smoked Oysters and Texas Caviar with Ancho Chili Lime Aioli

Ever wonder what to do with those little cans of smoked oysters? Here is an excellent, easy to prepare appetizer. Make the Texas Caviar a few days in advance to give the flavors time to meld. To prepare the appetizer, place a small amount of the aioli on a cracker or tortilla chip, spoon some of the beans on top, add a smoked oyster, and top with a small dollop of the aioli. A garnish could be a leaf of fresh cilantro.

The best thing to use for a base would be a tortilla "cup" that will hold the beans. If you want an easier to eat version that works well with crackers, process the beans in a food processor by "pulsing" them until partially pureed. You don't want a paste. This will create enough binder to keep the beans together when biting into them on a cracker. If you do this, omit putting the aioli on the bottom layer.

Texas Caviar (Marinated Black-Eyed Peas)

  • 1 15-ounce can Black Eyed Peas, drained
  • 2 tablespoons Olive oil
  • ½ Medium Red Onion, diced small
  • 1 Jalapeno, seeded and diced small
  • 1 small carrot, diced small
  • ¼ Red Bell Pepper, diced small
  • ¼ Yellow Bell Pepper, diced small
  • 1 Shallot, minced
  • 1 teaspoon Dried Oregano
  • 1/3 cup Red Wine Vinegar
  • ¼ Cup water or oyster liquid
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Fresh Chopped Parsley
  • 2 teaspoons Hot Pepper Sauce
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
In a medium pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat and sweat the onion, jalapeño, carrot, bell pepper, oregano and shallot until they are soft, about 5 minutes. Do not brown. Remove from heat, add remaining ingredients and combine. Store the beans in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Ancho Chili Lime Aioli

  • 2 dried Ancho chilies
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled
  • 1 clove garlic, rough chopped
Using gloves, split the ancho chili in half and remove the seeds and stem. In a dry small saucepan over medium heat, toast the chili flesh, skin side down, until you can smell them. Add enough water to cover and add the carrot and the garlic. Simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes or until hydrated and very soft. Drain, reserving the liquid.

In a blender or food processor, add the drained chilies, carrot, and garlic clove with the following ingredients:

  • Juice of 3 limes
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
Puree the mixture until smooth, adding the reserved water, as necessary, to make a paste the consistency of a thick sauce.

Mix in a ratio of 1 part chili puree to 2 parts mayonnaise. You can add more lime juice to make a tangier aioli. This makes a great substitute for tartar sauce on baked or fried seafood.

Enjoy those Texas Oysters!

David Bulla is a chef living in Austin, Texas.

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