Shucking oysters had been on my list of cooking-related things I wanted to learn or attempt. Of course, I'd seen it done many times. Still, I was sure that unless someone stood there and showed me exactly what to do, I would end up cutting off my thumb or something like that. Last week, I had my chance at the oyster class at Central Market Cooking School which I attended with a media pass. The class, taught by Scot Loranc, started with a lesson on shucking. We watched, learned, and then experimented. Scott explained his preference for a dull oyster knife with a slight bend at the tip of the blade. The bend makes it easier to get the knife into the hinge in the oyster shell, and it makes it less likely that you will hurt yourself if the blade slips. The oysters had already been scrubbed and placed on ice. A nice, cold oyster will be more relaxed and possibly easier to open. We each set an oyster on a folded towel with the cupped side of the oyster down and the flat side facing up. We each held our oyster in place and protected our hand with the towel. Then, it was time to pry open the shell. As the blade broke the hinge, Scot said to twist the knife "like you're riding a motorcycle." And, just like that, I learned to shuck an oyster with no damage whatsoever to my thumb.
The class attendees got some good practice while shucking several oysters, and then we enjoyed the fruits of our labor. By tasting the four different varieties we shucked raw and plain, side-by-side, the differences in taste and texture were clear. We learned that oysters from warmer waters tend to be saltier, and some have more body or heaviness than others. My favorite variety of the night was the Malpeque oysters from Canada. After shucking and tasting, it was time to cook.
First, we prepared a baked, scalloped oyster dish served in ramekins. We whipped up a Mornay sauce with Gruyere which was layered in each ramekin with raw oysters, cracker crumbs, and more shredded cheese on top before being baked. The dishes emerged browned on top and bubbly. This would be a great spring brunch dish, and it could be tweaked in all kinds of ways like by adding asparagus tips or other types of shellfish.
Next on the menu was Oysters Foch which is a classic dish from Antoine's in New Orleans. Needless to say, it's a rich dish with a serious sauce. It's called Colbert sauce which is a combination of two other sauces. First, a Hollandaise was made, and Chef Scot showed us his preferred technique for it. Rather than setting up a double-boiler, he whisks the egg yolks and lemon juice in a stainless steel bowl while repeatedly moving the bowl onto and then off of a burner with a low flame. Once it started to thicken, melted butter was slowly added while continuing to move the bowl on and off the heat. It's a quicker method than using a double-boiler, but you have to be sure the eggs don't get too hot at any point. The finished Hollandaise was added to a French-Creole tomato sauce that had been thickened with a roux, and sherry was added to the combined sauces. The last ingredient is one that, honestly, I would skip. Antoine's prefers to add some caramel coloring to deepen the brown of the sauce. The completed Colbert sauce was kept warm while oysters were fried and toast points were schmeared with pate. The dish was presented with the toast with pate topped with fried oysters and the sauce drizzled over them. It was a decadent taste of New Orleans to end the night. I left the class with a new appreciation for the folks who prep those clean and lovely-looking, perfectly shucked oysters on the half shell at restaurants and bars, but I also now have less fear of prepping a few for myself from time to time.