THE OYSTERS ARE small but flavorful this year. That is my short report on the condition of Maryland's favorite mollusk. I make this statement after only one day of gustatory research. But what a day it was.
I ate a delicate oyster soup served in a bowl made of out of a hollowed-out roll. I ate broiled oysters on the half shell stuffed with hazelnuts and sage. I ate baked oysters stuffed with crab meat and cheese. I ate poached oysters mixed with capers and served on endive.
In all, as a judge at the 20th annual Oyster Cook-Off, I ate a dozen oyster dishes during a four-hour Saturday afternoon tasting session. The dishes made it to the finals of the cook-off, an annual contest held Oct. 16-17 in conjunction with the Oyster Festival at the St. Mary's County Fairgrounds in Leonardtown.
This Southern Maryland festival was a weekend devoted to bivalve pleasures. On Saturday, cooks from around the nation vied for top prize in the recipe contest. On Sunday, shuckers competed for the title of the nation's fastest oyster opener.
Marjorie Fortier, a retired home-economics teachers living in West Redding, Conn., was the cook-off's grand-prize winner. She made an oyster soup, flavored with mushrooms, chopped peppers, bacon bits and a dash of nutmeg, and served it in roll bowls. After polishing off the soup, I ate the bowl.
Fortier said the winning dish was similar to one she has been feeding her family of four children and four grandchildren for years. A difference is that the winning recipe calls for a jar of alfredo sauce. When making the dish at home, Fortier usually makes the sauce herself. "Getting the sauce from the jar is easier," she said. "And these days, easier is better."
The soup also has three small but equal amounts of nutmeg, garlic powder and black pepper. The trio works well together, she said, creating flavors in a subtle way.
Besides, her chief recipe taster, her husband, Robert, is a major fan of nutmeg. "He is always saying, 'Add some nutmeg,' " she said.
On the oyster-opening front, the nation's top shucker this year was none other than Baltimore's own George A. Hastings. Hastings defeated all the male shuckers, then bested Clementine Macon of Urbanna, Va., winner of the women's division. Hastings opened 24 oysters in 3 minutes 29 seconds.
Hastings said he "grew up in Violetville, now lives in Severn, with a stop in Irvington." An occasional shucker at Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood in Baltimore's Cross Street Market, Hastings describes his technique as "your basic Chesapeake stabber. I shoot for the liip, get [the knife] in, and cut the bottom muscle, then discard the bottom shell, and cut the top muscle."
In prior years, the winner of the contest automatically represented the United States in an international shucking contest held in September in Galway, Ireland. But this year, early word from Galway is that Guinness Import Co., a sponsor of the event, will designate the American contestant.
Hastings said he hopes he will get the chance to compete in Ireland. The shells on this year's crop of Maryland oysters have been unusually brittle, he says, just like the oysters in Ireland.
Marjorie Fortier's Oyster Bowl
1 quart shucked oysters
6 large, round, crusty rolls
2 eggs, slightly beaten
2/3 cup milk
2 teaspoons oil
1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/2 cup chopped green pepper
1/2 cup chopped onions
1 cup chopped fresh mushrooms
2 tablespoons cooked bacon bits
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
16-ounce jar of alfredo sauce
6 cherry tomatoes
Put oysters in saucepan, cook in their own liquor over medium heat, 3 to 4 minutes until firm. Drain, coarsely chop any large ones, set aside. Cut top 1/4 off each roll; remove soft crumbs leaving 1/2 inch wall. In a medium bowl, combine eggs and milk. Dip hollowed-out rolls and top in egg mixture, coating all sides. Place on lightly greased baking sheet. Bake in a preheated, 400-degree oven 10 minutes or until dry and slightly crisp, remove and keep warm.
Pour oil in large saucepan, heat to medium-high temperature. Add red and green peppers; stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes. Add onion, stir-fry for 2 minutes. Stir in mushrooms, bacon, garlic, nutmeg, black pepper and cayenne, if using. Cook, stirring frequently until vegetables are tender-crisp and no liquid remains, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Stir in the jar of alfredo sauce and the oysters. Heat, stirring constantly until bubbly. Arrange lettuce over a platter, place prepared bread "bowls" on lettuce, fill with oyster mixture, dividing equally. Secure tomatoes in center of tops with toothpicks. Arrange covers over bowls.
Arrange lettuce over a platter, place prepared bread "bowls" on lettuce, fill with oyster mixture, dividing equally.
Secure tomatoes in center of tops with toothpicks. Arrange covers over bowls.