Oysters star in cook-off that feels like a county fair

October 27, 2004|By ROB KASPER

WHEN THE weather has a bit of "brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr" in it, it is time to eat oysters. Two weekends ago, as temperatures dipped and cold winds shook the trees, I traveled down to Leonardtown in Southern Maryland to devour bivalves.

The occasion was the National Oyster Cook-Off, an event held in conjunction with the National Oyster Shucking Contest at the St. Mary's County Fairgrounds. Both events have the down-home feel of a county fair. The contestants, some hailing from Maryland and some from distant states, tend to return to Leonardtown each year, giving the festival the tone of a family reunion.

Oysters fried, steamed, stewed and bottled were sold at the fairgrounds concession stands. Along the midway, buildings bulging with knickknacks drew a steady stream of customers, myself among them. Swept away by the entrepreneurial spirit, I bought a Christmas tree ornament fashioned from oyster shells that looked like an angel, sort of.

Oysters were in the news as well, with reports saying the oyster harvest was down, decimated by disease and overfishing. Maryland officials have said they are considering introducing a species of Asian oyster into the Chesapeake Bay to revive the industry.

Some scientists, worried that the Asian oyster might harbor diseases or parasites that would kill off the remaining native species, have called for more study. State officials have said they will make a decision by February whether to introduce the Asian oyster to the bay.

The oysters in the cook-off were natives, plump and juicy but not gigantic. They appeared as hors d'oeuvres, in soups and stews and main dishes.

The $1,000 top prize went to a soup, called Creamy Oyster-Jalapeno, made by Tom Forman of Carrollton, Texas.

Forman, who is 79 and a retired chief financial officer of Tracy-Locke advertising agency in Dallas, said the winning dish is the result of family competition. Each year, he said, members of his family work up recipes and submit them to the oyster cook-off.

His sister, Jackie Horridge of Nashville, Tenn., won the cook-off last year and his sister-in-law, Susie H. Forman of McLean, Va., garnered an honorable mention this year.

"We use this contest as a form of family reunion," Forman told me a few days after the contest. "It is an opportunity to get together, to cheer each other on."

After being notified earlier this year that his soup recipe had earned him a spot in the cook-off finals, Forman began refining it.

"My wife, Melinda, and I invited a few other couples over for dinner for a trial run," Forman said. "They told me I had a winner, but I didn't know if I could believe them. After all, they were getting a free meal," he said.

In Leonardtown, Forman and other finalists prepared their dishes in kitchens set up on the fairgrounds. The dishes were tasted and ranked by a panel of judges, myself among them.

While Forman's oyster soup calls for three jalapeno peppers, it is not fiery. "We like jalapenos in Texas," said Forman, "but these blend in with the soup and cream."

Other cook-off winners were Shirley DeSantis of Bethlehem, Pa., for her oyster with pancetta and gorgonzola cheese hors d'oeuvre, and Candy McMenamin of Lexington, S.C., for her main dish of pecan-encrusted oysters with asiago grits. Scott Stiles of San Antonio, Texas, won the oyster-shucking contest. It was his fourth title.

Tom Forman's Creamy Oyster-Jalapeno Soup

Serves 4

6 tablespoons butter (divided use)

3 tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 cups chicken broth

2 cups half-and-half

1 cup onion, minced

1 cup carrots, minced

1 cup red bell pepper, minced

3 fresh jalapeno peppers, seeded and finely diced

1 large clove garlic, crushed

1 cup Swiss cheese, grated

1 cup sharp cheddar, grated

1/4 teaspoon hot sauce

1 pint oysters

Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large saucepan over low heat. Add flour and salt and stir 3 minutes. Mix in chicken broth and half-and-half.

Increase heat and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in heavy skillet melt 2 tablespoons of butter over low heat. Add onion, carrots, red bell pepper, jalapenos and garlic. Cook until soft, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Add both cheeses and hot sauce to the cream mixture and stir until cheese melts. Stir in the vegetables and simmer for 5 minutes.

Pat the oysters dry and saute in the final tablespoon of butter, cooking just until the edges curl. Add to the soup and simmer for 2 minutes.

Per serving: 703 calories; 33 grams protein; 52 grams fat; 30 grams saturated fat; 29 grams carbohydrate; 3 grams fiber; 210 milligrams cholesterol; 1,587 milligrams sodium

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