Cold night at grill gets best of oysters and their cook

HAPPY EATER

January 11, 1995|By ROB KASPER

There is more than one way to shuck an oyster. The other night I experimented with a new oyster-opening technique. I plopped half a dozen of them on the barbecue grill.

The results were mixed. They did open their shells. But not widely. And rather than flavorful oysters, swimming in their juices, I ended up with cooked oysters, sizzling in their dry shells.

This was partly my fault, and partly the fault of the oysters.

Let's start with the oysters. They were shy. When the fire heated them up, they did not throw their shells open in dramatic style. They did not announce that they were ready to come out their shells. Instead, these shy guys merely nudged their shells apart a fraction of an inch. Who could tell they were ready to come to the party? Not me.

It was hard to see such discreet shell movement in the back yard. It was dark. It gets that way around here at night. During the winter it also gets cold at night. Some folks might say that any one who cooks outside at night in the wintertime is not a very bright bulb. That may be. But we dim bulbs do eat well. Nothing can replicate the flavor of seafood cooked over hot coals. So we fire up the barbecue grill, all the year 'round.

Besides, sending the menfolk out to the back-yard barbecue grill on Saturday nights keeps the womenfolk happy. First it gets the guys out of the house, a situation that both genders find agreeable, especially after spending long days together working household projects.

Second, it means that guys, whose mealtime responsibilities are often limited to shoveling down the grub, are suddenly responsible for putting a meal on the table.

The other night, as soon as I announced the family menu, "grilled oysters, stuffed with ham," there were complaints. My wife announced that she and the children did not want oysters for supper. I was taken aback. I tried appealing to their sense of regional pride. This was Maryland, I said, a state known for its oysters, a neck of the woods where we call the bivalves supper.

Oysters may be regionally correct cuisine, my wife replied, but the kids still won't eat them. As for herself, my wife said she preferred oysters that were either swimming in a savory stew or fried and served in a crunchy oyster loaf.

That's the trouble with cooking supper for your family. What you want to cook always ends up playing second fiddle to what your family is willing to eat. The other night a compromise was struck. Grilled oysters for me, a piece of grilled rockfish for the rest of the tribe.

Following the procedures outlined by Mark Bittman in his book "Fish" (Macmillan $27.50), I put the oysters on the grill with the rounded side of their shells about four inches away from the glowing coals. Then I stood around the grill watching the oyster shells, waiting for them to give me some sign that they were ready to rise up. I saw nothing. All was quiet among the crustaceans.

The night, however, was angry. A fierce, rattling wind kicked up. It tried to scare me and the mollusks. It worked on me. I took shelter inside the house. It was warm and there were glasses of wine, a Chablis, in there as well. I abandoned the half dozen oysters on the grill.

By the time I made it back outside, the oysters had cooked too long. Oysters don't need much time to cook, maybe about five minutes. I had left these on the fire for about 15. I was cold, so I figured the oysters were, too.

They weren't. Wearing an insulated glove, I picked them off the grill. I could see tiny openings between their top and bottom shells. I stuck a knife in these openings and pried the shells apart. Most of the wonderful salty, liquid that should have been in those shells had bubbled out. Of the six oysters I cooked, only two had a bit of the liquid left in the shell with their meat. Those two tasted terrific. The others, served with a wedge of leftover New Year's ham, had good flavor but were dry.

This was not an oyster dish that compared with the salty delights of eating the raw oysters served in Baltimore markets. Nor did it have the creamy ride of one of the greatest oyster dishes on the globe, Oysters Pauline at Marconi's restaurant. But it was a start.

On some future dark and windy winter night I'll return to the back yard. Once again I'll put the oysters on the grill. But this time I will wear a coat to keep me warm and I'll carry a flashlight to keep tabs on the shy oysters.

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