Resting safe below the tumultuous surf, nestled among the starfish and pier pilings, dwell sumptuous bivalves just waiting to be harvested.
Starting out in infancy no bigger than a pinpoint, "spats," or baby oysters, grow up to become one of the world's most relished species of shellfish. From French Marenne to Blue Point, Chincoteague to Canadian Golden Mantle, oysters by any other name would taste as sweet.
Oysters inspire not only the palate but the mind's fancy. Creole legend has it that errant husbands, sidetracked in their wanderings and tardy in returning home for the evening, could placate irate wives with a gift of oysters.
A Creole dish of split and toasted French bread, drizzled with butter and smothered in fried oysters, was often used as a peace offering to avert scoldings. Once called la mediatrice, or peacemaker, this New Orleans dish is now commonly known as "oyster loaf."
Perhaps Diamond Jim Brady, the infamous New York gambler, was thinking of the folk belief that oysters are an aphrodisiac when he polished off a hundred of the critters at one sitting.
Oysters have commonly been thought to be a high-cholesterol shellfish -- and cholesterol is one of the building blocks of sex hormones. Yet recent research has revealed that oysters harbor much less cholesterol than previously thought. (Diamond Jim probably ended up with a low-cholesterol bellyache instead of bedroom eyes.)
Oyster lovers need to keep a few dos and don'ts in mind. First, remember that fresh oysters must be just that: fresh. If you buy oysters that have been sitting too long, you run the risk of food poisoning.
Oyster season runs through the winter months, when the shellfish are brimming with glycogen (cellular sugar) that makes the flesh sweet and firm. This is the best time to buy them at the fish market. Oysters should smell fresh, and shells should be tightly closed.
The next step is to wrest oysters from their shells without risking lacerations. Scrub the shells in cold running water and break off the thin end of the shells with a hammer. Force a knife point between the shell halves at the broken end, twisting the knife and forcing open the shell. Cut at the muscle to separate the oyster from its shell.
Canned or frozen shucked oysters are a safe bet if you are unsure of the quality of "fresh" oysters. To defrost oysters in the microwave, place 12 ounces of frozen oysters in a 1-quart microwave-safe baking dish. Cover and microwave at low/defrost (30 percent power setting) 3 to 5 minutes, breaking up and rearranging as necessary during thawing. Let stand 5 minutes to complete thawing.
The recipe here is tested in 625- to 700-watt microwave ovens.
Micro-tip of the week: To open oysters in the microwave, place 6 oysters at a time, hinges facing out, on a paper-towel-lined plate. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and microwave on high (100 percent), until shells open slightly after heating 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Remove the oysters as they start to open (discard any that do not open). Holding oysters with hinge toward you, insert knife between shells near hinge, twisting the knife to open the oyster. Cut muscle to remove meat from shell. Serve on the half-shell.
Microwave oysters Rockefeller
Yields 1 to 2 servings. Preparation time: 5 to 10 minutes. Cooking time: 7 to 9 1/2 minutes. Oven setting: medium (50 percent power); high (100 percent power); medium-high (70 percent power).
1 (10-ounce) package frozen creamed spinach
6 fresh, unshucked oysters
hot pepper sauce
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
2 tablespoons seasoned dry bread crumbs
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
lemon wedges (optional)
Place spinach in 1-quart microwave-safe casserole. Cover and microwave at medium setting 4 to 5 minutes, or until thawed. Set aside.
Scrub oysters well under running tap water. Arrange oysters in a circle in 9- or 10-inch glass pie plate, hinges pointing toward outside of dish. Cover tightly with plastic wrap.
Microwave at high setting 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, or until shells open (remove oysters as they open to prevent overcooking). Discard any oysters that do not open. Cut oysters at muscle to separate from shells; remove from shells.
Place an oyster in each top rounded shell and pierce each with a fork. Arrange on serving plate with pointed end toward inside. Sprinkle each oyster with 1 to 2 drops hot pepper sauce. Fill each shell with defrosted creamed spinach (reserve remaining spinach for another use).
Place butter or margarine in small microwave-safe bowl. Microwave at high setting 30 seconds, or until melted. Add bread crumbs, Parmesan and paprika; stir to moisten. Sprinkle buttered bread crumb mixture evenly over oysters. Microwave at medium-high setting 1 to 2 minutes, or until heated through. Garnish with lemon wedges, if desired.