Long before we could get fresh seafood flown in from coastal areas within hours of a catch, Kentuckians enjoyed oysters with their Christmas meals.
Cookbooks from the early 1800s have plenty of recipes for oysters — stewed, scalloped or fried — that Kentucky settlers enjoyed at elegant dinners. Back in the day, they arrived in the landlocked commonwealth by stagecoach or railroad.
Chuck Dedman, a proprietor of the historical Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, knows the story.
"I understood those of our forefathers who migrated to Kentucky and beyond from the East Coast area were familiar and very fond of fresh oysters," he said. "Once the railroad system was developed to move trade items westward, fresh oysters shipped in barrels packed with crushed ice and wraps, and became a luxury holiday item to those who could afford the price. Traditions were established that still stand today."
Today, we can buy oysters year round, but many of us follow the old adage of not eating oysters during months that don't contain the letter R. It's not as important as it used to be, when storage was more of a problem. But many oysters do spawn in months whose names lack Rs, and that spawning makes their meat mushy and less appetizing, according to Cook's Illustrated.
Americans consume more than 100 million pounds of oysters a year, according to the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board. Safety of oysters is a concern for some people with compromised immune systems. Raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters, might contain Vibrio bacteria, which naturally occur in marine waters. Shellfish from the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic are especially vulnerable to these bacteria in warmer weather, according to Safeoysters.org. Infections from this strain of Vibrio do not usually pose a threat to the general population.
The staff at America's Test Kitchen recommends buying the freshest oysters possible from a reputable source. How do you know the oysters are fresh? Oysters, like other mollusks, are monitored by state agencies under the Federal Shellfish Sanitation Program. Every bag of oysters — and clams and mussels — that is harvested commercially must be tagged by the grower. The retailer — or restaurateur — is required to keep the tag attached to the original container (usually a net bag) until that container is empty, then to keep the tag on file for 90 days thereafter. If you have any doubts about freshness, the seller should be able to show you the tag. The date should be recent.
At Lexington Seafood in Chevy Chase, co-owner Michael Yessin has "every tag on file since we opened.
"I have a responsibility to my customers to ensure all my shellfish are fresh and have come from a certified oysterman."
Yessin sells oysters year round and will answer questions about safety and preparation. The staff at Lexington Seafood also will cook the oysters for you.
Here are recipes from Yessin.
1/4 cup butter, plus extra
1 pint oysters in liquor (liquid)
11/2 cups milk
Flour to thicken
Salt and pepper to taste
Paprika to taste
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup evaporated milk
Melt 1/4 cup butter in a large pot. Pour oysters and liquor in the pot, and cook until the oysters' edges begin to curl. Add milk, thickened with a little flour, and salt, pepper, paprika, Worcestershire, evaporated milk and a little more butter. Stir well and cook until hot, about 10 minutes. Do not boil.
2 sleeves Ritz crackers, crushed
1 cup dry bread crumbs
3/4 cup butter, melted
2 pints fresh oysters in liquor
1 cup cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Nutmeg to taste
1/4 teaspoon celery salt, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a casserole dish. In a large bowl, mix crackers, bread crumbs and melted butter, stirring by hand. Place a thin layer of the crumbs in the bottom of the casserole dish, spreading evenly.
Place 1 pint oysters on top of the crumbs. In a small bowl, mix cream with salt, pepper, nutmeg and celery salt. Pour half the cream mixture over the oysters. Add a layer of crumbs (about 3/4 of remaining crumbs). Layer the other pint of oysters over the crumbs. Pour the remaining cream mixture over the oysters. Sprinkle the remaining crumbs over the oysters. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until medium brown.
This scalloped oysters recipe is from the Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg.
1 quart fresh oysters
9 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
11/2 generous cups saltine cracker crumbs
1 cup whole milk
Go over oysters by hand to remove pieces of shell. Season oysters and broth (liquor) with salt and pepper. (Dustless or coarse ground pepper is best for mixing.)
Grease a round 9-by 2-inch pan with 1 tablespoon melted butter. Alternate 3 layers of ½ cup cracker crumbs with two layers of 1 pint of seasoned oysters, 4 tablespoons of melted butter and ½ cup of milk. Layers will run crackers, oysters-butter-milk, crackers, oysters-butter-milk, crackers. Let stand for about 30 minutes in refrigerator to soak through. Place in preheated oven at 400 degrees for about 45 to 60 minutes. Remove when mixture gently solidifies and lightly browns on top. Let stand 15 to 20 minutes before serving.
During the holidays, oysters play a major role at Holly Hill Inn in Midway. The oyster tart is one of Ouita's favorite recipes for the holiday season. It's on the Holly Hill Inn dinner menu through Dec. 30.
Holly Hill Inn's oyster tart with creamy leeks, spinach and bacon
1 pound cream cheese pastry dough (recipe below) or frozen puff pastry dough
1 dozen fresh-shucked oysters, about 1 pint depending on size, drained
For the creamy leeks:
2 cups sliced leeks
1 tablespoon butter
¼ cup chardonnay
½ cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon dried thyme or 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
¼ teaspoon white pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
Optional: dash of hot sauce
For the sautéed spinach:
1 pound fresh spinach cleaned and stemmed, or 1 box frozen, chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
1 shallot, minced or 1 tablespoon minced onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 ounce Pernod or a similar anise-flavored liquor
6 strips bacon
½ cup grated Parmesan or other hard cheese
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Roll the pastry into two long rectangles, about 6 inches long and 2 inches wide, with enough room to lay out six oysters side by side with a little space between.
Score the pastry (poke holes in it with a little fork) and bake in the oven until light golden brown. Reserve the shells.
For the leeks: Clean and slice the leeks into half-moons. Cut the leeks first, and then rinse in cold water to make sure all the sand is out. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a sauté pan and add the leeks. When wilted, add the wine, and simmer until mostly gone. Add the cream and thyme, and then simmer until reduced by half. Season with salt and pepper. You can complete this step a few days ahead.
For the spinach: Melt 1 tablespoon of butter or use olive oil and add the shallot and garlic. Cook for 2 minutes, until wilted. Add the spinach and cook for about 5 minutes, until all the liquid has evaporated. Add the Pernod and a little salt and pepper, if needed. This step can be completed a few days ahead. Cook the bacon until crisp; drain and chop.
To assemble the tart: Lay the two crusts on a cookie sheet. Spread the spinach out on the pastry dough. Lay six oysters on top of the spinach, side by side down the length of the tart. If your oysters are huge, you might want to cut them down the middle and use ½ oyster. Top each oyster with the leek mixture. Sprinkle on the bacon and the Parmesan cheese.
Bake for about 10 to 12 minutes until bubbly. Remove from the oven and cut between each oyster.
Cream cheese pastry dough
1 cup flour
¼ teaspoon salt
4 ounces (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter
4½ ounces cream cheese
Combine flour and salt in a medium bowl. Cut in butter and cream cheese with a pastry blender, or work it in lightly with the tips of your fingers, to form dough. The mixture might seem crumbly at first, but there is enough moisture in the butter and cream cheese to form cohesive dough. Press dough into a flat disk, wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate.