— Jenny Neill

Caution: Shucking May Lead to Frying

“You guys need to be having fun back there!” Those were our eating orders straight from the mouth of Penny De Los Santos, food photographer and instructor. I first met Becky Selengut, the sassy chef known on Twitter as @ChefReinvented, in person in May. It was cold and rainy. We huddled under a blue awning over a picnic table with a hole in the middle.

Jenny Neill and Becky Selengut at Oyster Roast Shoot for Penny De Los Santos Food Photography Workshop on Creative Live. May 15, 2011

Becky Selengut and me at the Oyster Roast Shoot

Inexperienced with Oysters
Despite living in the Pacific Northwest for over 15 years, I’m still a relative novice when it comes to knowing what to do with oysters. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio where you risked food poisoning any time you tried eating shellfish. No matter whether it was farmed or wild, oysters had to be driven long distances to get to us. It took more than 9 hours to get them from the closest sources at Chesapeake Bay or Long Island.

For truly fresh fish, we had to eat what came from the lakes and rivers near us. Eating walleye and trout from the banks of Lake Erie or the tributaries of the Cuyahoga in the 1970s came with a whole different set of worries. Remember the REM song about the fabled “burning river”? Yeah. That’s why I didn’t eat much fresh fish or seafood as a kid.

Learning to Shuck
It wasn’t smoke from a river that got in my eyes on that wet May morning. Jon Rowley, a familiar face in the restaurant and foodie scene in Seattle, was tending the wood fire grill roasting oysters for Penny’s Creative Live workshop on Food Photography. I was one of the volunteer models who gathered around that weathered table so six emerging food photographers could get field experience under her tutelage. That day new records were set for rainfall and I learned to shuck oysters in front of a global audience while Penny’s photo workshop streamed live to thousands of viewers online.

As we waited for the roasted bivalves to arrive, I confessed my lack of experience in opening them to Becky while we commiserated over the chilly temperature. Fortunately for me, she’s a great coach. You can see for yourself by watching the instructional video she posted as an adjunct to her book, Good Fish.

Penny thought the unplanned tutorial Becky gave me was good material for Kathleen Walsh, one of the photographer students. She encouraged Kathleen to push in on us. “So, I’m seeing this picture right here. …these two have a little bit of color. She’s showing her how to shuck an oyster, which is kind of sweet. That’s a great moment. That’s what you want.”

Jenny Neill and Becky Selengut as captured by Kathleen Walsh. May 15, 2011

Jenny Neill and Becky Selengut as captured by Kathleen Walsh

My Modified Hangtown Fry
A number of months later, a neighbor gave me 18 already-shucked Pacifics. (He had eaten his fill while foraging with his family and didn’t want to see them go to waste.) I’d already begun working my way through the recipes in Becky’s cookbook, so I took this opportunity to give the Hangtown Fry recipe a try.

I followed Becky’s recipe with some modifications: I didn’t bake the bacon as she describes and I substituted a few other ingredients to save myself a trip to the grocery store.

Here’s her recipe (used here with the author’s permission) including a few notes from me about what I did differently. For example, I cooked the bacon on the stovetop instead of in the oven. My other changes appear in italics in the context of the original recipe.

8 strips thick-cut bacon
½ pint preshucked fresh oysters, preferably “small,” or 1 dozen medium-sized oysters in the shell, shucked
Pacific oysters are large. I lengthened the cooking time accordingly.
1 cup buttermilk
I used whole milk.
8 eggs
1 ½ cups roughly chopped arugula
½ teaspoon Tabasco
¼ cup half-and-half
Salt and freshly ground pepper
½ cup panko or bread crumbs
I crushed about a cup’s worth of salted crackers as a substitute. In hindsight, getting panko would have been the better choice.
1 tablespoon high-heat vegetable oil
4 slices good crusty bread, toasted
4 lemon wedges, for garnish

Crushed crackers and eggs

Crushed crackers and eggs

Lay the bacon on an aluminum-foil baking sheet. Place in the cold oven, then turn the oven on to 400°F and set the timer for 20 minutes. Soak the oysters in the buttermilk for 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

In the meantime, melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium-low heat. Whisk the eggs with the arugula, Tabasco, and half-and-half. Season with salt and pepper and then pour the mixture into the pan. Grab a wooden spoon and start stirring. You will be tempted to turn the heat up, but don’t. If you keep stirring the eggs at a medium-low temperature they will produce the creamiest, most delicious eggs you’ve ever had. She’s right. This technique reminds me of the eggs my Grandma Neill used to make. It should take 8 to 10 minutes to set into small curds, but they will still have lots of moisture. Look for creamy, barely set eggs. When the eggs are done, place them at the back of the stove to keep warm.

When the bacon has finished cooking, remove it from the oven and set aside to drain on a paper-towel-lined plate. Drain the oysters and discard the buttermilk. Place the panko on a plate and dredge the oysters, coating them well on both sides.

In a fresh sauté pan over high heat, add the vegetable oil. Pan-fry the oysters until they brown on one side, 1 to 2 minutes. Then flip them and cook just 30 seconds more on the other side.

Pacific oysters, all fried up

Pacific oysters, all fried up

Serve each person a piece of toast and top with eggs, 2 slices of bacon, and a fried oyster or two. Garnish with a lemon wedge.

I have no quibbles with the wine pairing recommendations of a white burgundy or an Oregon Chardonnay. I went a different route, though. I paired a sparkling rosé from the Loire with this dish, which amplified (in a good way) the sensation of tasting the sea in each bite.

I said something to Becky during the food photography workshop that warrants repeating here. This time, though, it’s for the cooking advice in her book not the assist she gave me with prying open an unyielding oyster. Thanks, “…you made it easy for me!”

Oyster Roast photos reused with permission, courtesy of Creative Live. © 2011. Recipe by Becky Selengut reused with author’s permission.
Full disclosure: Food was provided at no charge for models in the oyster roast shoot, including me.