Since we are in the thick of the "R months" - September through April - my biological clock tells me it is time to eat oysters.
I like them raw, fried or steamed. The other night I discovered that I also like them when they are "saltimbocca."
Saltimbocca is a traditional Italian cooking treatment that means "jumps in the mouth." It involves stuffing an entree - usually veal but sometimes ham or chicken - with a mixture of sage and prosciutto.
I never thought of applying this treatment to oysters but, thankfully, Lisa Grant did.
Grant won the 2007 National Oyster Cook-Off in Leonardtown recently with this dish. She came up with idea, she said, while experimenting in her Cherry Hill, N.J., kitchen.
"I have a lot of sage growing in my backyard," Grant told me in a telephone interview. "And I usually have prosciutto in the fridge because my husband likes it. One day I just put them together."
Grant, who said she regularly enters cooking contests, paused before entering the oyster cook-off. Her husband, John, and 5-year-old son, Eddie, don't care for mollusks, she said. But her 9-year-old daughter, Nicole, is one of those kids who will eat anything, Grant said. So Nicole served as a "taste tester" as her mom perfected the oyster dish.
(Grant's winning oyster recipe, along with those of other 2007 contestants, has been published in a $6 booklet available in limited supplies by writing the National Oyster Cook-Off Contest Cookbook, P.O. Box 653, Leonardtown, Md. 20650.)
I tried the recipe at home and was delighted with the results. I, too, had plenty of sage on hand, but I had to go shopping to fetch the prosciutto and the oyster shells.
The shells are required because they are the serving vessels for the seasoned mix and the oyster meat.
I suppose if I were a native Marylander, as opposed to a "come-here," I would have a supply of oyster shells, washed and ready to be stuffed, in my kitchen cupboard. I did not, so I sought out an oyster monger.
I found one at the fish counter of a supermarket (the Whole Foods in Mount Washington). I bought a dozen Chesapeake oysters, and the oyster monger shucked them, leaving their meat in their newly opened shells. Again, I felt that if I were a real Marylander I would have shucked the oysters myself. But I consoled myself with the thought that, judging from my prior shucking experience, the process would have taken much longer and the results would have been much bloodier had I taken up the oyster knife.
Making the stuffing was a quick and aromatic process. The diced prosciutto and sage filled the kitchen with comforting aromas as they sizzled with a little olive oil and a crushed garlic clove in a skillet. This brief stint in the skillet also gave the prosciutto and the sage a crisp texture.
I pulled the garlic clove out of the skillet, then combined the prosciutto and sage with a mixture of crushed crackers, wine, grated parmesan, lemon juice and lemon zest.
The oysters were resting regally in a salt-lined baking dish. I crowned each one with a spoonful or two of the stuffing, then popped them in a preheated, 450-degree oven.
The recipe said the oysters were supposed to cook for about 7 minutes, until the edges of the oysters curl. It took my oysters about 12 minutes to curl.
In the meantime, I made a sauce, blending a quarter cup of butter, a tablespoon of chopped sage, a dash of hot pepper and the juice of a lemon. I used a very large lemon and the sauce was too lemony. I should have used either a small lemon or half of a large one. Still, when the sauce was poured over the cooked oysters, it gave them a citrus lift.
My wife and I polished off a dozen of these oysters in no time. The crisp texture and hearty flavors of the prosciutto and sage were a nice match with salty oysters. True to their name, these saltimbocca oysters were jumping with flavor.
Now I have another favorite "R-month" dish, provided I don't have to do any shucking.
Oysters Saltimbocca With Lemon-Butter-and-Sage Sauce
Serves 6 as an appetizer
1 dozen Maryland oysters with shells
rock salt (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 thin slices prosciutto (1 or 2 ounces), chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped
8 round buttery crackers, finely crushed
2 tablespoons white wine
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
black pepper to taste
1/4 cup butter
1 tablespoon fresh chopped sage
dash of hot sauce
black pepper to taste
juice of 1 small lemon
fresh lemon slices
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Scrub the oysters with cold water. Shuck the oysters, keeping the oyster meat in the deep part of the shell. Arrange the oysters in a baking dish on a bed of rock salt or other coarse salt. The salt is optional, but it keeps the oysters from slipping in the baking dish.
Heat the oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the prosciutto, garlic and sage. Cook for 1 to 3 minutes or until prosciutto is slightly crisp; stirring often. Place the prosciutto mixture, cracker crumbs, wine, lemon juice, zest and cheese in a small bowl.
Add pepper to taste and mix well. Top each oyster with some prosciutto mixture. Bake until edges of oysters begin to curl, anywhere from 7 to 12 minutes, depending on size of oysters and the characteristics of the oven.
To make sauce, melt butter in a small pan. Add sage, hot sauce and pepper to taste. Add the lemon juice slowly, tasting as you go. Serve the oysters with the sauce and garnish with lemon slices and sage, if desired.
Courtesy of Lisa Grant, winner of the 2007 National Oyster Cook-Off
Per serving: 226 calories, 4 grams protein, 21 grams fat, 9 grams saturated fat, 6 grams carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 40 milligrams cholesterol, 293 milligrams sodium