Matt and I spent a few rainy days up near Tomales Bay, an estuary in western Marin County (as far west as you can go, actually) that’s famous for its thriving oyster aquacultures. Despite the blustery weather, our timing was spot-on, as the storied bivalve hits its peak in the winter: flinty, cold and sparkling-fresh. Once we got the hang of our shucking technique, we slurped the little Pacific “sweet waters” down raw (they didn’t ask for lemon or mignonette, just a sip of icy Mersault to wash them down) and prepped the larger Kumamotos for grilling.
Barbecued oysters are a regional specialty in those parts, often served with a tangy BBQ sauce or splash of Tapatio. (When in Rome, yes?) They’re a terrific way to introduce the briny pleasures of the oyster to those who might be otherwise averse, and a special treat in those months lacking an “R”. (Oysters are perfectly safe to eat year-round, but they spawn in the summer months, giving their meat a cloudy, creamy texture that’s considered inferior on the raw bar but fantastic when barbecued. Kumamotos and some Atlantic varieties are tasty all year, raw or cooked.)
In this preparation, crispy bits of breadcrumbs and grated cheese added a pleasant textural contrast, and a garlicky-butter sauce supplied a gutsy oomph to the oysters’ graceful minerality. These reminded me a bit of Oysters Rockefeller, or maybe Mornay-style, and rather than overpower the oysters, the deeply savory elements flattered the clean, briny sweetness of the shellfish. They were proof that everything does indeed taste better outside (even if my Wellies and umbrella got a workout), especially when they’re a stone’s throw from the sea.
Barbecued Oysters with Garlic Butter & Breadcrumbs
adapted from Oyster Culture by Gwendolyn Meyer, 2011; makes 24 oysters
- 24 medium oysters (Kumamotos, etc.)
- 3/4 C (6 oz) butter
- 3 Tbsp garlic, minced
- 2 tsp dried parsley
- the juice of one small lemon
- generous 1/4 C Pecorino-Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or other hard cheese
- 1/2 C seasoned breadcrumbs
Preheat the grill. In a small saucepan, melt the butter; add the garlic and cook, stirring, about 1-2 minutes. Add the lemon juice and parsley; take off the heat.
Meanwhile, scrub the oysters well under cold water to remove any grit. Shuck the oysters, keeping as much of their liquid as possible, and set aside on the half shell over ice. When the grill is ready, line up the oysters on a rimmed baking sheet. Spoon a teaspoon or so of the garlic butter over each. Sprinkle a bit of cheese and breadcrumbs over each. Transfer to the grill, cover and cook until the sauce starts to bubble, about 2-3 minutes at most. Use tongs to remove to a serving platter.
Note: you can line the baking sheet and your serving platter with rock salt to create little nests for each oyster shell, if you like. Shucked raw oysters will keep, kept over ice, for up to two hours.