The Local Food Report: full strength sea

Did you know that not all Wellfleet oysters are created equal?

This oyster, the wild banana oyster, is the one that shuckers preferred years ago. They were selling oysters by the jar, and this long, thin banana oyster had a whole lot of meat inside. It's from Chipman's Cove and it grows in the mud, just far enough down that it has to stretch to get up and out of it for air, and so it's constantly growing skinny, up. It used to be this biomass banana people picked.

But then, the game changed. Wellfleet made a name for itself—people in the midwest wrote letters cross country about those sweet jars of Wellfleets they found on their supermarket shelves—and the raw bar market sprang up. Tourists and locals wanted their meat served on the half shell, and the deep cupped West Side and the manicured grant oysters with their round, shapely figures jumped in.

The West Sides grow on sugar sand bottoms, places where there's deep water and rough sediment and every time the tide turns any sharp, thin edges get chipped off. A grant owner creates this same look by pulling their oysters out, knocking off the beaks and coaxing them into wide, deep shells.

The funny thing is, they all taste the same. The flavor of an oyster is determined by the water, and in Wellfleet, we are full strength sea salt. Most people, myself included, would take our raw thirty-three parts per million over a southern oyster—those flat-tasting warm water creatures from Virginia and Florida—any day, whatever the shape.

If you get those deep-cupped West Sides or a nice, wide grant shell, though, you almost have to try Oysters Rockefeller. The greens and the herbs and the sherry and the cheese—they just fit. The wide, deep cup holds the juice and the meat and the flavor all at once, and if you're any good at shucking, they take hardly a quarter hour to make. They're elegant and dressy and just sophisticated enough, and the way they feel on your tongue is like pure luxury slipping down.

We ate six last night—six West Sides Rockefeller with two glasses of white wine and my grandmother's tiny silver oyster forks. While we sat the radio signal went silent and the dark crept up the windows, and we decided instead of turning on the lights to simply tuck in, leave the dishes, and go to bed. I can't say if it was the oysters or the quiet or the wine, but it all felt very extravagant.

Wherever you live, and whatever sorts of oysters you have (please don't tell me, please don't, that you have none at all), I highly recommend you pick up a bag this afternoon. Look for the ones with the deep cups, the tall sides, the wide, holding shells, and make sure you have a shucking knife. Crack them open over a bowl, and save the juice, then sauté up your best spring greens with some sherry and herbs. Turn on the broiler and just as the air begins to chill, arrange the meats in their shells with a frock of green and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan or pecorino on top. Pull them out just as the cheese begins to sizzle and brown, and eat them as the sun goes down.


This recipe is somewhat adapted from one a very talented former Mac's Shack chef passed along, but mostly, it is made up. The chef's recipe had an incredibly daunting number of steps and soaks and sautés—the sort of undertakings that would be okay for a whole night of service at a nice restaurant, but absolutely ridiculous for a half dozen oysters at home—so I took a rough inventory his ingredients and technique and reinvented it on my own. The result was delicious, simple, and so long as your oyster shucking technique does not involve a garden glove, a layer of dish towels, and a lot of fear, also very fast.

6 oysters
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 shallot, thinly sliced
2 ounces spinach, chopped into small pieces
2 ounces Swiss chard, chopped into small pieces
salt to taste
1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped dill
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
2 tablespoons sherry
1/2 tablespoon butter
2 ounces grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese

Shuck the oysters, reserving the liquid and meats in a small bowl. Scrub the bottom shells clean and set them aside; throw the tops in the compost.

Heat up the olive oil in a large sauté pan over high heat. Add the shallot and sauté for about 30 seconds, or until it just starts to brown. Throw in the spinach and Swiss chard, and sauté, stirring vigorously, for about a minute. Add the herbs and continue sautéing for another minute or two, or until the greens are completely wilted.

Pour the sherry around the edges of the pan to deglaze; it should sizzle and almost instantly disappear. Pour in the oyster liquid, taking care not to let any oysters slip in. Stir in the butter and continue cooking for another minute, or until the oyster liquid is reduced by half, all the alcohol in the sherry has cooked off, and the butter is absorbed. Turn off the heat and set the greens aside.

Preheat your oven broiler and arrange the six bottom oyster shells on a baking sheet. Place an oyster meat in each one. Divide the sautéed greens evenly between the six shells, gently layering a spoonful on top of each of the oysters. Top the greens with the grated cheese, and broil the oysters for 2 minutes, or until the cheese turns golden brown. Devour at once.


andrea said...

It was the oysters. wink.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure about following the recipe, but I am following your suggestion to gather a sack full of oysters today - Good idea!

Alexandra said...

This sounds amazing!!

Elspeth said...

oh andrea — oops ! what a phrase.

and anonymous, i hope you did. they are so, so good right now.

alexandra, let me know if you give it a try! i would like to come up with a few more variations, so send any and all suggestions along.

hope everyone is enjoying this beautiful day. our fava beans are just peeking out...

all the best,


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.