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Oyster Stew: Four Ways To Warm Up Cool Nights

When eating out, I slurp oysters raw, as shooters or on the half-shell with mignonette sauce. I love them dusted with cornmeal or panko breadcrumbs, and fried. At home, though, I prefer to whip up a simple, satisfying oyster stew.

I fell for the stew at the Italian Mamma Zu, our favorite restaurant in my hometown of Richmond, Va. My family and I shared a bowlful, fighting over spoonfuls of plump oysters bathing in spicy, definitively porky, cream. Did we taste pancetta or maybe chorizo? Actually, country ham and smoked hog jowl, I later learned. I had to re-create it.

MFK Fisher's "A Supper to Sleep On" essay in Consider the Oyster became my guide. Although it seems all you do is heat shucked oysters with butter, milk and cream, Fisher reminds us that chefs have long quibbled over how to assemble these constant ingredients. Do you frizzle the oysters in butter until they curl, only then adding them to the hot milk? Boil the oysters in their own juice? Add them raw to the steaming broth?

Then there's the question of seasoning. You want to accentuate but not overpower an oyster's subtle, mineral character. Recommended spices include celery salt, cayenne pepper, paprika, Worcestershire sauce — even nutmeg or old-fashioned blades of mace. And don't discount the power of salt and pepper.

Regardless of method, these stews are deemed by Fisher to be "mildly potent, quietly sustaining, warm as love and welcome in winter." Yes, winter. So gather ye oysters while ye may, through April. Tradition tells us to shun the mollusks in R-less summer months. The idea was to let oysters spawn in peace, when the water temperature warms to 70 degrees.

Sure, it's possible — and more importantly, safe — to eat oysters year-round from commercial farms, particularly colder-water Pacific varieties. But I won't crave oyster stew come July. As with tomatoes and strawberries, it's better to indulge in peak season, then abstain and await that first bite of delayed gratification.

An Oyster Experiment

I was eager to cook other stews before this season passed. I wanted to try ethnic variations. I also had different oysters to work with. Back East, I ate mostly larger, mild specimens from tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Now I live in Oregon, known for its own Yaquina Bay and Coos Bay bivalves.

Unfortunately, reports of illness just prompted Oregon Oyster Farms, one of our biggest suppliers, to recall its shucked and still-in-the-shell products. My seafood shop, however, carries only Willapa Bays from Washington.

I first tackled a Japanese stew, based on a popular appetizer of sweet oysters broiled in foil with enoki mushrooms at Greenwich Village's Tomoe Sushi. A friend who works there couldn't divulge the recipe, but confirmed the broth is a blend of dashi, rice wine, soy sauce and butter. Dashi, a seaweed consomme as integral to Japanese cuisine as our chicken stock, is surprisingly easy to make.

For Valentine's Day, I made my husband a stew of oysters and artichokes, both purportedly aphrodisiacs. We enjoyed my version's spring green puree, but it didn't quite meld with the oyster flavor.

Turning To Mexico

I tried one more preparation, a Mexican-style stew that was our clear favorite. While I skipped questionable-looking oysters in the beach town of Puerto Escondido, I grew up loving ostiones de Mazatlan, the tangy Mexican oyster dish my father bakes every Christmas. He learned to make the cheddar cheese-topped casserole while working at Harvard Square's late Casa Mexico restaurant during college.

Over the phone, Dad and I invented a soup version of the recipe. The green chilies, the dried ancho pepper, the crumbled tortillas to thicken the broth were his suggestions. He thought of spiking the chowder with sake. I decided to keep it Mexican, considering beer before settling on tequila.

Whatever recipe you use, it's worth splurging on extra-small oysters. The big ones can be chopped into bite-size morsels, less appetizing than the intact frilly petites. When swallowing oysters raw, still my favorite mode of consumption, I like them meatier, but only if they're ultrafresh.

Why not have your oyster and eat it, too? Chase a bowl of steaming stew with one perfect, fresh oyster on the half-shell. I recently tried this divine combination from the century-old Dan & Louis Oyster Bar in Portland. A milky stew dotted with pearls of butter and a raw oyster, briny and cold. That's my idea of a supper to sleep on.

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