Oysters taste like the water they were grown in — more specifically, the food they grew up eating.
If you were to apply this as a metaphor to people, I would probably taste like a Rudy’s hot Italian sub and an Iron City beer. My palate has become slightly more refined and my nutritional habits have evolved, but Rudy’s is still the standard by which I measure subs. And now I have a standard by which to measure oysters.
The Pacific Northwest has always spoiled me for seafood, but this past New Year’s trip to Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula destroyed me for oysters. There is a strong possibility that it was the oyster procurer that enhanced the experience, but that takes nothing away from the quality of the seafood.
The waters of the Willapa Bay estuary are the cleanest in the U.S., and the oysters that grow in it are meaty and firm from a rich diet of algae and plankton. While an oyster must be treated with care until it reaches a marketable size — depending upon the quantity and quality of its food sources, an average of 2-3 years — it also matters how oysters are harvested. Hand gathering is both more difficult and more delicate work than dredging, but the oysters are a better quality for eating — they stay undamaged and cleaner, free of grit that can be forced into them by trawling. Hand gathering also happens to be healthier for the bay’s fragile ecosystem.
Oysterville Sea Farms from the bay
Oysterville Sea Farms is the only oyster farm in its eponymous home town. Its proprietor, Oyster Man Dan Driscoll, hand picks oysters at every possible low tide to deliver an unparalleled, artisanal seafood experience. Dan is a rarity in an industry that thrives best on quantity production. He’s simply passionate about oysters – eating them, growing them, and picking them. He loves to walk on the bottom of the ocean and play with seashells.
To get a peerless OSF oyster, you either have to go to Oysterville, or have Oysterville come to you. So when Dan rather impulsively decided to make a late January visit to LA bearing seafood, I intelligently agreed. Wishing to capitalize on his short stay and still be able to see as many LA friends as possible, Dan suggested we throw a party. A SEAFOOD party. He would supply the fresh oysters and clams and fixings — well, let’s just say he had me at hello, but the oysters were a nice kicker.
OMD arrived Sunday morning with one carryon and one valuable piece of checked baggage – a cooler packed with 20 lbs. of oysters and 20 lbs. of Manila clams, plucked from the Willapa Bay Saturday morning. There were also bags of Ekone smoked oysters – their habanero hots are crazily addictive – quarts of cracked out crab for crab cakes, Dan’s Willabay breading for fried oysters, and roasted garlic butter for the clams.
This was the first significant party I’ve (co) hosted in almost two years, and boy, was I hungry. Guests arrived promptly, knowing the oysters would go fast, and wound down their weekends with cold Prosecco and colder martinis.
I have an under-utliized set of vintage cocktail glasses that are the ideal size for a martini. They’re just short enough that the drink stays chilled till the last sip, and sizable enough to give a nice jump start to a leisurely evening. A proper gin martini was the perfect accompaniment to the oyster shooters that teased our appetites for the bounty to follow.
A charismatic front-of-house man, Dan was able to socialize while shucking fat, briny Pacifics and buttery Kumamotos over the sink as our guests and I hovered around like lazy seagulls, slipping as many of the sweet delicacies into our mouths as we could before the platters reached the table.
Besides the fresh and smoked oysters, pickled herring and oyster shooters, I’d rounded out the appetizer course with tuna tartare on sesame wonton crisps, Diane Rossen Worthington’s Roasted Shrimp Cocktail with Mango Cocktail Sauce, and baked Panko-crusted crab cakes with roasted red pepper aioli.
The tuna tartare is a friend’s recipe, which I like to serve on sesame wonton chips, which are a great go-to for parties. They’re insanely easy to make, and are also excellent topped with a sliver of smoked salmon, a dollop of creme fraiche, and a sprig of dill.
Tuna tartare with Sesame Wonton Chips
1 lb. sushi-grade ahi tuna, diced
1-2 TB. soy sauce
1 TB. sesame oil
1 TB. lime juice
1 TB. minced chives
1/2 a diced avocado
Zest from 1/2 a lemon
Gently blend all ingredients and let sit for at least 1/2 hour (refrigerated) to blend flavors.
Sesame Wonton Chips
Diagonally cut square wonton wrappers and brush them lightly on each side with sesame oil. Sprinkle with a bit of salt, and bake for about 8 minutes at 375°.
Seriously Simple Parties. It was a deliciously different twist on the traditional shrimp cocktail, with the roasting giving the shrimp a meatier, less soggy texture than a boiled shrimp. These were great in a pasta salad even days later.
The crabcakes are an old recipe from Sunset magazine that are a failsafe for me, and since they’re baked, they’re easier at party time than dealing with a pan of hot oil. If that sounds too healthy, they are topped with a scrummy roasted red pepper aioli that would also be good with fish or grilled vegetables (not to mention cold leftover crabcakes).
Shucking oysters, making crab cakes
The “main course” was an enormous bowl of steamed Manila clams. I initially had all sorts of suggestions for broths and recipes — cook them over white wine! Guy Fieri’s Clams with chorizo and cilantro! Dan’s recipe? Stick them in the pot, steam them over a coffee cupful of water, serve them with bowls of garlic butter and clam liquor for dipping. I don’t question Dan on seafood and he was, as usual, right as rain in the Pacific Northwest.
We gathered with our guests around the table, dunking morsels of clam and mouthfuls of bread in rich, melted garlic butter. Standing around the table breaking bread with dear old friends and new acquaintances was joyful and satisfying.
The gathering was a deliciously lingering affair, and the afterglow remained long after the last guest departed.
I’d not bothered to shop for meals for the rest of Dan’s stay and the leftovers held us well. We started our days with clam omelets, toasted pumpernickel and fried oysters for breakfast, and finished them with dinners of crusted tuna, shooters, the last of the sweet Kumos, champagne and cookies.
The party was more than just a social gathering for me. It was a re-emergence into a phase of joyful nurturing — of others, but also, of myself. It’s not something I would have done on my own; the catalyst was a partner who provided an abundance of good food and good spirits — and not the kind you drink.
I started the year eating oysters at midnight and ended the month eating oysters for breakfast. But it’s not just about the oysters, or the water they were born in, it’s about how sweetly they are treated.
Oysters for breakfast.
SEAFOOD PARTY MENU
Freshly shucked Pacific and Kumamoto oysters with bloody mary granita
Smoked and Habanero oysters and pickled herring with crackers and flatbreads
Baked Panko-crusted crabcakes
Roasted Shrimp Cocktail with mango cocktail sauce
Tuna tartare with sesame wonton crisps
Spinach dip with crudités
Caramelized Onion & Feta Pastry Kisses
Steamed clams with roasted garlic butter
Julia’s homemade bread and focaccia
Orzo salad with feta, tomatoes and kalamata olives in a lemon-dill dressing
Julia’s Kale Salad
Prosecco and champage
Martini bar with selections of gins and vodkas
Salted chocolate chunk cookies