As soon as weather forecasters mention "frost on the pumpkin," I crave oysters.
By happy coincidence, the arrival of cool weather usually coincides with cooks convening in St. Mary's County, devising new ways to prepare Maryland's favorite mollusk. On a recent weekend, cooks at the National Oyster Cook-Off shared the stage of the St. Mary's County Fairgrounds with contestants in the National Oyster Shucking Championship.
William "Chopper" Young Jr. of Wellfleet, Mass., won the shucking contest, opening 24 oysters in an adjusted time of 2 minutes, 49 seconds, or 7 seconds per oyster.
Brendan Cahill, who lives in Lusby and is the chef and owner of the Old Field Inn in Prince Frederick, won the cooking contest with a dish called Oysters en Brochette.
Even if I employed my favorite oyster-opening trick - keeping the oysters in a warm oven until they pop open - I could not rival the speed of the champion shucker.
However, after looking over Cahill's winning recipe, I figured it was something I could tackle.
Basically, it consisted of seasoned oysters wrapped in bacon, skewered and cooked in butter, then dabbed with a spicy remoulade sauce.
The simplicity of the preparation appealed to me. That and the fact that I would eat almost anything - short of an oyster shell - if it were wrapped in bacon and cooked in butter.
"Oysters and bacon are a natural marriage," said Cahill when I spoke to him by phone at his restaurant. "Then I add some spices to heat the marriage up," he said. The dish, he said, would soon be on the restaurant's menu. "In Southern Maryland, the two dishes you have to have on your menu are crab imperial and oysters," he said.
The spices, Cahill added, were in a homemade Cajun seasoning. His mixture, he said, has "about 15 to 18 spices in it." The bottle of Cajun seasoning I bought at the grocery store had eight.
The Cajun seasoning was added both to the flour that coated the raw oysters and to the remoulade sauce that accompanied them at the dinner table.
The bacon Cahill used had been smoked over apple wood. I couldn't find that type in the grocery store, so I settled for the hickory-smoked variety. "Use the thin-sliced bacon," Cahill had told me. "Thick slices will overwhelm the oysters."
Giving the bacon a head start in cooking is a good idea, he said. Oysters cook faster than raw bacon, he said, and by precooking the bacon strips you even out the cooking times when they are together in the pan.
Having fetched the ingredients for this dish, I set to work in my kitchen. I drained a pint of Chesapeake Bay oysters. I dredged them in a mixture of 1 cup of flour and 3 tablespoons of Cajun spice.
Then I wrapped them in strips of bacon that were about two-thirds done.
I had never skewered an oyster before. They were slippery critters, but when confined by the bacon they were easier to nail with a skewer.
I had heated a couple of tablespoons of butter in a skillet and, if truth be told, I also had a little bit of bacon grease in there, left over from frying the bacon.
I cooked the skewered oysters quickly, over a medium fire. The skewers that held large oysters were cooked about three minutes a side. The skewers holding smaller oysters spent about two minutes per side in the pan.
"You don't want to overcook the oysters," Cahill had warned me. "They are done when the oysters shrivel up a bit and get plump."
The oysters and bacon splattered so much that I ended up putting a lid on the skillet. But I kept my eye on them, and when the oysters were shriveled at the edges and plump in the middle, I got them off the fire.
On my plate, the golden oysters, the russet bacon and the pale-yellow remoulade sauce looked like an edible autumnal painting.
In my mouth, they were stupendous. The rich meat of the oyster melded with crisp bacon, followed by the creamy and spicy flavors of the sauce.
A cold wind was blowing and the oyster-eating season was off to good start.