Les huîtres d’Ostende furent apportées, mignonnes et grasses, semblables à de petites oreilles enfermées en des coquilles, et fondant entre le palais et la langue ainsi que des bonbons salésGuy de Maupassant, Bel-Ami (1885)
Several kinds of oysters are consumed by humans and are considered to be a real delicacy both raw and cooked. The citation above is from Guy the Maupassant’s novel Bel-Ami (1885) when the narrator describes Ostend oysters served at a dinner as “dainty and fat” and “like tiny ears encased in shells” that “melted between palate and tongue like salty bonbons/candies” (95). Melty, salty bonbons? Sounds like a perfectly delicious description and analogy for a rather perfect little bite of seafood.
In Maupassant’s novel, and as is the case in a lot of literature and cinema, nourishment is presented as a source of pleasure and there often is a direct association and comparison between descriptions of certain foods, love, and even the erotic. Since Valentine’s day is coming up later this week, the general association of nourishment with love and the particular analogy of oysters and bonbons, or candies, seems even more of a perfect fit. While I believe many might be expecting flowers, or chocolates for Valentine’s day, I think snacking on some oysters, either as an appetizer to a multi-course meal, or as a little snack with some drinks, is rather romantic as well. Who is with me?
For real oyster-lovers there is only one way to truly enjoy oysters: freshly shucked and totally raw with perhaps only some drops of lemon juice, of course. Indeed, oysters don’t really need a lot and can simply be slurped from their shells together with their own natural juice. This liquid, officially called the oyster’s liquor, keeps the oysters alive once they’re out of the water (until us humans get to them…) and it provides most of that exquisite briny flavor so cherished by those that eat them. But raw oysters may be an acquired taste and not everybody is as equally charmed by slurping briny snot off a bumpy shell.
For those people that are put off by raw oysters and those oyster-lovers looking for a change, the recipe below is a perfect way to enjoy oysters. The oysters are quickly baked, or broiled in the oven until they are just cooked and slightly heated while being protected from drying out by a layer of briny, creamy sauce (made with cream, shallot and the oyster’s liquor). A sprinkle of crispy panko breadcrumbs on top provides a nice contrast and different texture to the velvety cream sauce and soft, slightly chewy oyster (I know, oysters shouldn’t be really chewy, but they do need to be chewed. I’ve seen people hastily swallowing oysters whole without chewing and enjoying their flavors fully… don’t do that).
Because of the short baking time and the use of some of the oyster liquor in the sauce, which preserves some of the brininess of raw oyster, I believe this recipe for baked oysters au gratin will please both the people that enjoy raw oysters and those that prefer something a bit more cooked. The recipe below is written as a substantial appetizer for two (6 oysters per person), but of course the recipe can easily be doubled to make a great first course, or to serve more people.
Tip: Want to make this dish even more elegant and luxurious? Replace the 3 tablespoons of oyster liquor with the same amount of Champagne and follow the recipe as is.
Baked Oysters in the Shell with Cream Sauce and Bread Crumbs (Oysters au gratin)
- 12 oysters
- 1 shallot
- 200ml cream
- 25g Butter, for frying
- Few sprigs of flat leaf parsley
- 2 - 3 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs (about 12g)
- Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
- Needed: coarse rock salt, or aluminum foil to create a stable base for the oysters
- Preheat the oven to 200°C and place a wire rack just above the middle of the oven, or closer to the top if your oven is very large.
- With an oyster knife and a thick cloth, shuck the oysters by wiggling an oyster knife into the hinge of the oyster and twisting it open. Catch and reserve all the oyster liquid (liquor) in a small bowl. Pour the oyster liquor through a fine mesh sieve, or cheesecloth to remove all impurities and set aside to use later.
- Carefully remove the oysters from their shells, quickly rinse them under some cold running water to remove any impurities and place them into the bowl with the oyster liquor to keep them hydrated while you prepare the other elements.
- Rinse the round sides of the shells under cold running water and scrub the outsides to remove any pieces of broken shell, or dirt. Set aside for later use.
- To make the cream sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan on medium heat. Meanwhile, very finely chop the shallot. When the butter has melted, sauté the shallot in the buttered pan until translucent and slightly brown. When the shallot starts to brown, deglaze the pan with 3 tablespoons of the oyster liquor and let the liquid evaporate slightly. Add the cream to the pan and simmer for about 4 - 5 minutes while stirring occasionally until the sauce reduces and thickens. Add freshly cracked pepper to taste. You probably won’t need to add any salt, as the reduced oyster liquor is already quite salty, but have a taste and add salt according to preference. Take sauce off the heat and set aside.
- Prepare a stable base for the oysters by filling an oven dish, or baking tray with coarse rock salt, or scrunched up aluminum foil (see photographs in post).
- To assemble the oysters, place the oysters back into the cleaned, rounded part of their shells and place them on top of the aluminum foil, or rock salt making sure they will not fall over. Spoon about a tablespoon of the cream sauce over each of the oysters and continue to divide the sauce over the oysters until all of them are well covered; the amount of sauce needed will obviously depend on the size of your oysters.
- Very finely chop some sprigs of flat leaf parsley and mix through the panko breadcrumbs. Sprinkle the panko breadcrumbs and parsley mixture over the sauce-covered oysters and carefully press the crumbs into the sauce a little to make sure they stick.
- Place the tray with the oysters into the preheated oven for 5 - 6 minutes until the breadcrumbs start to brown.
- When the breadcrumbs have turned golden-brown, remove oysters from the oven and serve immediately.