Talking Texas Oystersby 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.
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 OystersLet 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.
Oyster RecipesSo, let me show you what else is out there for cooking with Texas Oysters. Here are a few recipes that work for me.
Scalloped OystersAll 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.
Smoked Oysters and Texas Caviar with Ancho Chili Lime AioliEver 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)
Ancho Chili Lime Aioli
In a blender or food processor, add the drained chilies, carrot, and garlic clove with the following ingredients:
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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