Oysters taste better as the weather gets colder. A Chesapeake Bay waterman told me that once, and I have since accepted it as gospel. I believe almost anything that the guys who catch oysters tell me about the mollusks.
I believe, for instance, that oysters "plump up after a good frost." That the "r" months, ones with the letter "r" in their names, are the prime time to feed on oysters. That you don't want to eat oysters and ice cream at the same meal, because the ice cream will turn the oysters into stone in your stomach.
And so every year I try to hold off eating local oysters until the third weekend in October. Then I eat them by the plateful.
By happy coincidence that weekend is when I am one of the judges of the National Oyster Cook-Off. This is an annual oyster cooking contest in Leonardtown, sponsored by Maryland's Seafood Marketing Program, the Lexington Park Rotary Club, St. Mary's County Department of Economic Development and the Baltimore Spice Co.
And so last Saturday I ate wave after wave of oyster hors d'oeuvres, oyster soups, oyster entrees and oyster salads. These were dishes that contestants from around the United States made in the kitchen of the local high school as they vied for the top $1,000 prize of the cook-off.
A Floridian walked away with the title. Wolfgang Hanau, general manager of Unicorn Village, a natural food restaurant in North Miami Beach, Fla., won the cooking contest with a cress and spinach salad topped with sauteed oysters and covered with a cabernet vinaigrette.
Hanau, the oyster cook, claimed his victory with superbly sauteed oysters. He dipped them in frothy egg whites, rolled them in seasoned bread crumbs and sauteed them in olive oil. Then he put his perfectly cooked oysters atop the salad.
Other winning treatments of oysters were a spicy oyster gazpacho, first in the soup category, made by Pat Labarre of Glen Burnie; Amish oyster fritters, first in hors d'oeuvres, whipped up by Marty Hyson of Gambrills; and oysters in velvet cream sauce, first in entrees, cooked by Sandra Macon of Parkville.
I had help with the eating. Also judging were Fred Tidwell, chef and owner of the Bon Appetit Restaurant in Seaford, Del.; Jim Hughes, a chef and instructor at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore department of hotel and restaurant management; Anne MacKenzie, food editor of the Aegis in Harford County; and William Taylor, a Hollywood, Md., caterer.
When the contest was over, Taylor gave me a trunkload of other oyster dishes. And so back in Baltimore after eating oysters all day in St. Mary's County, I had Taylor's skewered oysters flavored with Irish whiskey, a magnificent oyster stew, a surprisingly refreshing tomato stuffed with oyster and my old friend, an oyster loaf sandwich.
It was a lot of oysters. But it was an "r" month. And I didn't eat ice cream for dessert.
Cress and spinach salad with sauteed oysters
This is the recipe that won first prize for Wolfgang Hanau.
20 fresh oysters
1/2 bag of fresh spinach
1/2 head of romaine lettuce
1 bunch watercress
4 large mushroom caps, thinly sliced
4 scallions, sliced into thin rounds
2 egg whites lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups seasoned Italian style bread crumbs
1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil
4 strips lean bacon, cooked crunchy, then crumbled
Wash and clean the three greens and tear into large pieces. Place equal amount of mixed greens onto 4 chilled plates. Clean and slice mushrooms and arrange on top and around greens. Dip oysters into frothy egg whites and roll in bread crumbs. Saute in hot olive oil until golden brown on outside, turning once. Remove oysters and pat dry on paper towels. Place on top of the salad. Pour on vinaigrette and sprinkle with green and white scallion rounds. Top with bacon crumbs, serve immediately.
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons cabernet sauvignon wine
6 ounces extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon sour cream
salt, pepper, cayenne and sugar to taste
In a food processor or blender, blend all ingredients, except seasonings, until emulsified. Add seasonings to taste.