Few people realize that there are 14,000 acres of oyster reefs just off the Mississippi Coast.
The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources manages 17 natural reefs, with the largest being Pass Marianne, Telegraph and Pass Christian Reef.
It takes 18 to 24 months for an oyster to grow to legal and marketable size. Oysters are grouped into three sizes, from small to large, and are called spat, seed and sack. Oysters have no legs and cannot walk away to a better environment if the salinity drops too much or the water temperature is not just right. So the conditions under which oysters live drastically effect how delicious they may become. The best time of the year to harvest and eat oysters is winter and early spring.
Finally, there are three ways to harvest oysters. In deep water they are dredged by a mechanical device. In more shallow water they can be harvested by tonging. Walking in shallow water and picking up oysters by hand is called cooning, or stealing an oyster away as a raccoon might.
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Some people are put off by the slippery texture of raw oysters, but those people know not what they are missing. People have been eating oysters for thousands of years, as is evidenced by the middens, archaic piles of oyster shells, that can be found on our own Coast. A history that long of oysters being enjoyed by people is testament to the deliciousness of this fine mollusk.
Now that you know more about Mississippi oysters, the only thing left is how best to eat this divine mollusk.
This really isn't much of a recipe, it is so simple, but here are a few pointers. Make sure you are buying fresh oysters, still on ice or oysters that have been opened and sealed in plastic jars, along with plenty of oyster liquor. The worst mistake you can make is to disguise the subtle, salty flavor of a great oyster with too much, or too strong a garnish. A few drops of fresh-squeezed lemon juice or hot sauce, but just a few, is all it takes. Make sure to serve oysters to your guests still in the shell, or you can substitute large spoons if you like, but on a bed or ice or rock salt. Both will hold the shells or spoons in place. Always make sure to serve oysters chilled, never, never at room temperature.
SIMPLE OYSTERS ROCKEFELLER
This may be the classic oyster recipe, created in New Orleans in 1899 at the famous Antoine's Restaurant and named after the ultra-rich John D. Rockefeller. The name is supposed to highlight the richness of the dish.
2-3 dozen oysters in the shell
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 stick best-quality butter
1 package fresh spinach
1 cup finely grated Romano cheese
1-2 pinches freshly grated white pepper
Shuck the oysters, retaining the liquor and shells of course, and set aside. In a large sauté pan melt the butter and sauté the onions until tender, but not browned. Add the spinach, along with1/4 cup of the liquor, and toss over medium heat until wilted. Add the cheese, a tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice and a pinch or two of the pepper. Spread the salt in a hotel pan, nestle in the shells, add a raw oyster to each and top with plentiful amount of the spinach mixture. Bake at 450 f for 6-8 minutes. Serve at once. Serve with a nice French Chablis.
The trick to this recipe is having a grill hot enough to make the oysters flare up when a little of the butter mixture spills over. Be careful when you do it, and make sure your guests are close by to see the action.
Dozen raw, on the half shell oysters
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons finely grated garlic
Juice from 1-2 lemons
1 small bunch fresh basil
1 stick butter
1-2 pinches red pepper flakes
Melt the butter, then add the garlic, stir, but do not let the garlic take on color. Remove from heat and add the cheese, stirring to incorporate well. Add the juice from one lemon, the basil and red pepper flakes. Taste and re-season as necessary. Add a dollop of the mixture to top each oyster, using tongs, and being careful, place the oysters one by one on the grill, close and bake until the cheese is melted and bubbly. Serve at once. Serve with a dry, delicious, cold Riesling.
OYSTERS AU GRATIN
For more servings, just double the recipe.
1 pint shucked oysters
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon flour
1 diced clove of garlic
1/2 cup milk
Splash of white wine
1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Additional butter as needed
Drain the oysters, then cook over medium heat in a little melted butter. When the edges curl remove and set aside. Melt a tablespoon of butter in a sauté pan, add the flour and give it a good stir. Whisk in the milk and simmer to thicken. Add the wine, basil, stirring to mix again. Add the oysters and the sauce to a buttered casserole pan. Melt 2 more tablespoons of butter, add the breadcrumbs and stir to coat evenly. Top the casserole with the bread crumbs, add the Parmesan and bake at 400 f for 10 minutes.
Julian Brunt, who comes from a family with deep Southern roots, writes the Coast Cooking column that appears in Wednesday's Sun Herald and for a blog at sunherald.com. He is a food writer and photographer with regular columns also in magazines.