Want some local flavor? Try an oyster

Baked Fishers Island Oysters
Baked Fishers Island Oysters

Thirty years ago there were 10 or less varieties of oysters. Today there are more than 100 due to the proliferation of new oyster farms all along the East Coast. The interest in consuming these delicacies of the sea has grown proportionately.

Oyster tastings are taking on the popularity of wine and beer tastings as people's palates come to appreciate their unique flavors and textures. Steve Malinowski, who, for 35 years, has owned and operated the Fishers Island Oyster Farm with his wife Sarah, even refers to their oysters as "micro-brewed bivalves."

"Every oyster grown on the East Coast has a different flavor, even though they're all the same species," says Malinowski. "Regional flavor differences can be dramatic. If you take one of ours, and, for example, one grown in Mystic, only three miles away, there are subtle but definite differences."

Besides being a great source of protein, Malinoswki loves the flavor of oysters and recommends that their oysters be eaten "raw and naked."

"I cringe when people but a big dollop of cocktail sauce on oysters because then it's impossible to taste the differences between them," he says.

Malinowski, who has his PhD. in marine ecology, became interested in shellfish agriculture while he was a graduate student at University of Connecticut.

Malinowski, who is originally from Westbrook, says he and his wife moved to Fisher's Island without a clue of what they would do for a living, and then decided to start the oyster farm. They work out of their house and have the hatchery and packing facility on their property.

"When we started it, we had five little kids, who grew up working on the farm in our backyard. It was essentially a lifestyle choice when we decided to settle here," he says.

In addition to providing oysters to restaurants, Fishers Island Oyster farm provides millions of seed oysters to dozens of other growers in the Northeast.

The Malinowskis were pioneers in growing environmentally-friendly, sustainably-farmed oysters."Oysters have been 'farmed' since the middle 1800s and that farming is what is typically now called extensive oyster farming - the oysters aren't actually held in any kind of structure," Malinowski explains. " In most of Long Island Sound, it's done using dredge boats and degrades the bottom. The way we do it is with a hatchery and various kinds of nets (in which) we grow the oysters so they're in captivity 100 percent of the time."

This, he says, is much more friendly to the environment because they have no footprint on the bottom.

"All sorts of diverse communities live on the bottom, so we don't in any way effect those bodies of organisms. I don't think a lot of people (realize) that the agriculture in the world is at a tremendous cost to the environment." Malinowski says. "An analogy is if you were somehow able to figure out how to grow crops above the canopy of the forest without actually degrading the forest at all."

Malinowski's biggest tip for consumers purchasing oysters is to demand to see the tag.

"Every box of oysters we ship is required to include a tag that has on it where it was harvested and the date," he says. "All oysters harvested and sold - as long as everybody's on the up and up - come from water that's certified by the state to be clean water. You can make your own personal decision whether you think you'd like to eat oysters from a particular water body. The date will tell you how fresh they are…I would only buy oysters that have been out of the water five days or less."

OYSTERS AT THE BAR OR TABLE

James Wayman, chef at the Oyster Club in Mystic, estimates that the restaurant goes through a couple thousand oysters a week; more during the summer. He says his favorite oysters by far are the ones that come from the Northeast and cold water.

"One of the things that makes them the best for me is how soon they've been harvested out of the ocean," he says. "The great thing about working with Steve and Sarah is that the same day they harvest, we get them, which is wonderful. One thing about oysters is they really pick up where they came from. The Fishers Island Oysters have an amazing super brininess - they almost taste like sea water."

Noank Oysters also are served at the Oyster Club.

"They grow in brackish water and you get a sweeter, earthier flavor balanced with saltiness from the ocean," Wayman points out.

Wayman, like Malinowski, prefers his raw oysters naked, with, if anything, a squeeze of lemon, but he offers sauces to people who like to put them on their raw shellfish.

"We serve a homemade cocktail sauce, our own prepared horseradish sauce - brined and pureed, and Mignonette - a classic French oyster sauce with red wine vinegar, black pepper, and shallots," Wayman says.

The Oyster Club typically has four oysters to choose from that all come from suppliers that they know and work with: Fishers Island Oysters, Noank Oysters, Ninigret Nectars (from Charlestown, R.I.), and Watch Hill Oysters.

He notes that the restaurant has a daily happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m. when one oyster is featured for $1 a piece.

The restaurant also serves cooked oysters in a variety of ways.

"I love classic baked oysters, like Oysters Rockefeller," Wayman says. "I love fried oysters with a little cornmeal and flour and our own seasoned salt - it's delicious. Or just throw them on the wood fire until they barely open up with this pork butter we make that's amazing on oysters.

"I've always been a huge fan of the oyster po' boy," Wayman adds, "but since being at the Oyster Club the last three-and-a-half years, I've gotten a lot more familiar with oysters.

"They're such a pure expression of how nature can make something so perfect," he says.

BAKED FISHERS ISLAND OYSTERS

James Wayman, chef at the Oyster Club in Mystic, describes this oyster recipe as a riff on a dish he's been serving since the beginning of the winter at the restaurant. He says it is a little heartier, richer for the cold weather, satisfying and warm.

Serves 4

16 Fishers Island oysters

3 tbsp melted butter

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 beet

1 tablespoon prepared horseradish

1 cup brioche or other quality bread cut into 1/8' cubes

Chopped parsley for garnish

Up to a day before, at 450 degrees, wrap the beet in foil and cook approximately 45 minutes until easily pierced through with a toothpick.

Bring cream to a boil, and then add lemon juice, horseradish, and salt. Simmer for three minutes and turn off.

Melt butter and mix evenly with brioche.

Peel beet, cut into 1/8-inch cubes, and mix an even amount with buttery bread

To finish, preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Arrange oysters on a bed of kosher salt on a sheet tray, after they have been opened.

Put a small spoon of lemon cream on each and then cover each with the beet-bread mixture.

Place in oven and bake 8 to 10 minutes until evenly browned.

Right before serving, squeeze a bit of lemon on each oyster and garnish with chopped parsley.

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