Marvelous Mollusks
By Gary Hayes
Published: 12/05/2009
Photo by Gary Hayes

Pacific oysters are a winter delicacy in the Northwest, plump fresh and ready to be served raw or in your favorite recipe.

For oyster lovers, the Northwest coast is the place to be and there is no better time than the dead of winter to tantalize your palate with this unique flavor from the sea. The cold and clean coastal bay waters of Washington and Oregon produce some of the world's most sought after oysters. Willapa Bay on the south coast of Washington produces about one-sixth of the oysters commercially grown in the United States, a continuous major industry since the 1850s.

The colder months of the year are traditionally known for offering oysters at their peak. The old saying, "only eat oysters during months with an 'R' in them," isn't a hard and fast rule anymore, as modern cultivation methods have made fresh oysters available year-round. Still, winter always assures firm, fresh and flavorful oysters at seafood counters all along the coast.

For me, like many purists, it's hard to beat the complex, briny, sweet, metallic and minerally flavor of fresh raw oysters. Look for the subtle hints of melon and cucumber flavors for which Northwest oysters are known. Shuck them and eat them or place oysters in the shell on the grill just until they open up and serve immediately. Serve them with a drop of lemon, cocktail sauce or a mignonette of shallots, wine and vinegar.

Oyster are also versatile for many prepared dishes. They're a delight pan-fried with many choices of breading and dipping accompaniments. They're commonly used in stuffings, smoked or are featured as the main ingredient in rich creamy stews.

They can be baked in simple recipes like oysters Rockefeller, with bread crumbs, butter, scallions and Pernod, or included in a wide variety of casserole dishes. Oysters can also be quickly sauteed with wine, butter, green onion and herbs. When sauteing, only cook long enough for the oysters to curl at the edges.

Oysters are for breakfast too. They can be served pan-fried with eggs or stuffed in an omelet with bacon, a classic dish known as Hangtown Fry.

Choosing a wine to accompany oysters is a true art. Think crisp, clean, white wines that cleanse the palate, but let the taste of the sea linger. Young white wines, typically vinified in steel rather than oak, that sport a significant level of acidity are preferred. You might find this in a Pinot Gris, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc or an un-oaked Chardonnay

Like all shellfish, oysters are best eaten fresh and have a short shelf life. Fresh live oysters in the shell will last a few days. They are best stored on ice covered with a damp cloth in the refrigerator, but should never be sealed in an air tight container. Live oysters must breathe!

When selecting fresh live oysters, shells should be tightly closed or should close promptly when tapped. If shells are loose or open, discard them. Shucked oysters can be stored in their own nectar for two days, but should always be used as quickly as you can. Canned oysters are pasteurized and suffer a loss of flavor, so should be considered for cooked dishes only. Never freeze cooked oysters unless you need a new hockey puck.

Pan Fried Oysters with Creamed Spinach and Bacon
(Courtesy of Pelicano Restaurant in Ilwaco)

24 extra small oysters, live, in the shell
3 bunches spinach, stems removed
1 cup white wine
1 cup heavy cream
4 strips bacon
1 egg, lightly beaten
Panko crumbs
Olive oil
Salt, pepper
Pinch of nutmeg

Steamed Oysters

Wash oysters and place in a large stockpot, adding an inch of water. Cook, covered, on high. After 10 minutes, carefully remove the cover, watching out for the released steam. Check to see if the oysters are beginning to crack open at the end opposite the hinge. As soon as they begin to open, dump them into a large colander in the sink and run cold water on them to stop the cooking. Shuck them when cool, using an oyster knife and sturdy gloves. Rinse them well and store in the refrigerator. Steamed oysters will keep for 3-4 days.

Creamed Spinach

Blanch spinach in boiling salted water. Stir for one minute and then remove to cold water to cool quickly. Drain and squeeze out excess water.

Heat white wine in a saucepan and reduce by half. Add heavy cream and again reduce to half the volume. Add the spinach and season with salt, pepper and perhaps a little nutmeg to taste.

Cut bacon into small pieces and cook until lightly crisp. Drain off the fat and add the bacon to the creamed spinach.

Pan-Fried Oysters

Set up 3 small bowls with a little flour in one, one egg lightly beaten in another and one cup of panko in the third. Dredge the oysters a few at a time in the flour, then the egg and then the panko. Repeat until all oysters are nicely coated.

Heat a wide saute pan and add a little olive oil and a little butter. When the butter is melted and foamy, add the oysters. Do not crowd them in the pan. Fry until golden brown and then turn them over and fry the other side. Serve hot on top of hot creamed spinach with bacon.

Hangtown Fry
(Compliments of Bridgewater Bistro in Astoria)

According to Chef Lynne "Red" Pelletier, this recipe came from Placerville, California during the Gold Rush, when a prospector who'd hit it big walked into a restaurant and asked for the best meal money could buy. The cook cleverly came up with this recipe, named Hangtown Fry for the harsh justice handed out in the town.

Serves One

3-4 shelled oysters, patted dry
1/4 cup flour
3 eggs, beaten
1-2 Tablespoons milk
Salt and pepper to taste
2 rashers bacon, fried crisp
Oil or butter for frying

Toss the oysters with flour, shake off excess and set aside. In a bowl, beat eggs with milk, salt and pepper. Heat oil or butter over medium heat in skillet. Fry oysters for about 30 seconds on each side and push them to one side of the skillet. Pour egg mixture into skillet with the oysters and cook until firm, lifting the edges to allow any uncooked eggs to run to the edges and cook. Lay the two pieces of bacon on opposite side of the skillet from the oysters. Fold the omelet over, remove to a plate and serve.

Variations: 1) The bacon can be crumbled and stirred into the eggs. 2) Sometimes the oysters are dipped in egg and then in bread crumbs or cracker crumbs before frying. 3) Using rice flour enables those with gluten allergies to enjoy this omelet.

Pan Fried Oysters With Roasted Garlic Aioli
(Courtesy of The Depot Restaurant in Seaview)

Aioli Dipping Sauce

15 Whole Cloves of Garlic
1-Cup Light Olive Oil
1-Cup Mayonnaise
1/4 Cup Lemon Juice
1 Tsp Kosher Salt
1 Tsp White Pepper

In small pan, heat olive oil and whole garlic cloves until golden brown. Remove whole cloves from oil. Save oil for frying oysters. After cloves cool, process in blender until smooth, then add mayonnaise, salt, lemon juice and pepper.


2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1/4 Cup Granulated (dried) Garlic
2 Tbsp Kosher Salt
1 Tsp Cayenne Pepper
6-8 Small Oysters
1/2 Cup Light Olive Oil

Mix all dry ingredients together. Drain oysters, and then toss into dry ingredients. Place oysters in hot pan with portion of garlic olive oil made during preparation of aioli above. Heat until brown. Remove and drain on paper towel. Present aioli with oysters as dipping sauce.
Marvelous Mollusks