At this time of year, many people have a focus on some form of poultry or red meat as a centrepoint for meals.
However the festive season couldn’t be a better time for celebrating the great bounty of the seas that is available to the UK consumer – with many species of fish
and shellfish in prime condition and at the peak of their availability over the winter months.
Despite their modern image as a luxury food, oysters used to be a cheap ‘working class’ dish, traditionally used in British beef and oyster pie. Now commonly served raw with lemon and pepper or a dash of Tabasco sauce, oysters can certainly add a special pizzazz to a celebratory dining occasion.
Native oysters are available from September to April and the Pacific oyster, because it is farmed, is readily available all year round – and in the UK, the Pacific oyster is generally less expensive to purchase than the native variety. When buying oysters, only choose those which are tightly closed and have un-damaged shells. Opened or damaged oysters should be discarded, as the animal inside will no longer be alive.
All oysters should feel heavy for their size and be kept with the round ‘cupped’ part of the shell facing downwards to retain moisture.
To open an oyster – also known as ‘shucking’ – firstly scrub the outside shell as much as possible, as the shells are likely to be quite dirty. Remembering it will not be particularly easy at first, take a tea towel in one hand to help grip the oyster. Grasp the oyster firmly, making sure it lies flat side up in the palm of your hand. Insert the blade of a short, stout knife (or specialised oyster knife) into the hinge of the oyster and prise open. As you are separating the shells, slide in a sharp knife and cut the oyster free from the top and bottom of the shells. Take care to keep in the juice as well as removing any flakes of shell that may have fallen on top of the oyster. The oyster will now be ready to serve.
To serve, oysters may be arranged on a plate of crushed ice and accompanied by lemon wedges. Tabasco or chilli sauce and black or white pepper may also accompany oysters.
Oysters are more traditionally eaten raw but they are also delicious when steamed, poached, grilled or baked. Oysters can be steamed open like mussels, topped with everything from finely diced chorizo or pancetta or double cream and finely grated Parmesan cheese then grilled or baked – or the meat can be removed, coated in a light tempura-style batter and deep-fried. Lightly poaching in a wine sauce or adding to a risotto are another couple of mouthwatering ways to enjoy oysters. Smoked oysters are also increasingly readily available to consumers, either canned or vacuum-packed from fishmongers, many supermarkets or specialist delicatessens – and when for example, served on a small pancake-style blini, make for a great addition to a selection of canapes or as part of a finger buffet.
For more information about seafood visit www.seafish.org