Oysters: Considered and Adored

Platter of raw oysters on the half shell
Platter of oysters on the half shell

Four other  Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more–
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

—“The Walrus and The Carpenter”
from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872

I wasn’t an adventurous eater as a kid. But my first oyster roast in Atlanta on a brisk February day changed that as we huddled around tables in a parking lot, shucking and slurping the briny delights, the warmth of the charcoal roasters filling the air with a heady aroma. Pitchers of beer were passed to wash down the delectable bivalves we savored for a good cause: a fundraiser for the humane society. After this discovery my mother and I bonded over oysters, treating ourselves to a dozen on the half shell or a basket of fried lovelies when my father was away at work (he not being one for oysters), or on occasion the most decadent treat of all: oyster stew. In its simplest, classic form, it is not much more than a pot of cream heated gently, seasoned only with a few shakes of sherry, Tabasco, and Worcestershire (depending on the mood) and the oysters slipped into the pot for a brief simmer.

 My mother would reminisce over the oyster roasts of her childhood in Charleston, a February birthday tradition for her. My grandfather would buy a croker sack of oysters from a little island in the marshes on the way out to Folly Beach. They would be roasted in the backyard just until the heat bubbles enough to pop them open and served simply with melted butter and saltines. For her, it was a chance to roll up blue jeans and get a little messy in the celebration.

 Proclaimed as an aphrodisiac and even a brain food, oyster cultivation and admiration dates back centuries. One of my favorite treatments is found in the words of MFK Fisher’s Consider the Oyster, passages perfect for reading aloud to guests dipping into the luxurious delicacies and sipping bubbles or gin. Have them broiled, on the half shell, or fried, drizzled with a creamy buttermilk dressing, stuffed into a po’ boy so that when you bite through the crunchy, crisp coating, a burst of sweet sea hits your mouth, transporting you to an elegant jazz bar all the way down in New Orleans.

 “The flavor of an oyster depends on several things. First, if it is fresh and sweet and healthy it will taste good, quite simply… good, that is, if the taster like oyster.  Then, it will taste like a Chincoteague or a blue point or a mild oyster from the Louisiana bayous or perhaps a metallic tiny Olympia from the Western coast.” —MFK Fisher, Consider the Oyster

But the future of oysters hangs in the balance. Oysters were once so abundant in the Chesapeake Bay that their reefs defined waterways, and what is a luxury today was considered a meal for the poor. Today, after decades of overfishing and environmental damage, the population is down to 1% of what it once was. The future of the Bay is tied to the future of oysters. Oysters filter the algae, sediment, and other pollutants but depend on clean water with a stable shelf and oxygen to grow. Oyster farmers are working to replenish the population and clean the waterways with techniques such as shell recycling programs. According to NPR, oyster farms “offer a lot of the same ecological benefits that come from wild oyster reefs. They filter water and provide habitat for fish, crabs and other creatures.”

Growing oysters in cages does not cause the environmental harm associated with the older method of dredging. According to the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch database, “Most oyster farming operations are very well managed and produce a sustainable product.” Farmed oysters are said to make up 95% of total oyster consumption.

Local oysters are rightfully reclaiming their place in the DC culinary scene. Oyster bars pair them with fantastic cocktails at some of the hottest dining rooms in town including Rappahannock Oyster Bar at Union Market (also supplying other establishments), Pearl Dive Oyster Palace on 14th Street, Shaw’s Eat the Rich, and the three locations of Hank’s Oyster Bar. Two more establishments harken back to the history of this native shellfish: Old Ebbitt Grill (dating back to 1856) and Senart’s Oyster and Chop House, which pays tribute to the original Senart’s (c. 1913) in the milk painting on the side.

It’s just as easy to treat yourself at home with your own bushel and some crackers from the seafood market. Mix a batch of martinis with DC’s own Green Hat gin, a perfect pair in sophistication, elegance and history. However you enjoy them, remember, our part is easy. Revere them for the luxury they are, support local oyster farmers with your purchase, and help restorative efforts by putting your dollars back into the system… for the Bay and your palate.

Recipes

The Classic by New Columbia Distillers

Ingredients

  • Green Hat gin, 2 1/2 oz
  • dry vermouth, 1/4 oz
  • green olive
  • twist of lemon peel
  • ice cubes

Toss a handful of ice cubes into a mixing glass, then pour in the gin and the vermouth. Stir well. Strain and pour into a martini glass. To finish, either drop a green olive into the bottom of the martini glass or arrange a twist of lemon peel on the edge of the martini glass.

Oysters on the Half Shell with Classic Mignotte
Preparation
Arrange shucked oysters on a bed of rock salt.
Stir 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 1 minced shallot, a pinch of sugar and a few twists of freshly cracked black pepper in a small bowl.
Drizzle over shucked oysters

To Be Bold and Learn New Things

My resolution for the new year is to be bold and learn new things. This is also my hope for my students. One of the joys of cooking is that there is always more to learn and master.  For me personally this will include improving in food photography, dedicating time to writing, and baking more, like the amazing Baked Alaska I made in December. It also means pushing myself to continue live authentically and believe in life’s potential.

This is a reflective time of year thinking about where I have been and what lies ahead.  Taking stock to know our foundation before moving ahead, lead me to thinking about what I believe.

I believe in eating whole foods, including animal fats. France can not be wrong about butter. I eat meat but hold respect for the animals that gave it. Everyone has to find what is right for them. Dining should be a pleasure that brings reverence, not out  of an emotion beset with guilt.

I believe in shopping where I can meet the farmers and producers more than at stores that charge a premium for shipping in exotic and ordinary produce from half a world away and having no connection to the people who tended to your food. I understand this is a privilege not afforded to all. I believe in voting with my fork  even though I cave for avocados. I acknowledge that the realities of life make this challenging and all we can do is try our best, a little everyday.

I believe that the company can make or break a meal and there is no substitute for the connection found in the kitchen and at the table. I know nothing better than a summer tomato eaten straight from the vine with just a pinch of salt.

We must make food choices we are comfortable with and fit with in our means. I hope to expand what that means for people.

Tomorrow is Food Tank’s first Food Tank Summit. I am excited to be challenged by new thoughts and inspired for the advancement of good, clean, fair food (to borrow from Slow Food). Some of the speakers answered the question

“What is the most important thing we can all do to help change the food system?” in 140 characters. My reflections are in my response:

  Cook at home with friends & family using local ingredients. Know your food origins, take pleasure in it & enjoy the adventure.
Add yours to the growing list at #FoodTank.

Chef Jose Andres, @chefjoseandres: “To eat today is a political statement. We vote with the food we choose to eat, and this is a power we need to use wisely and efficiently.”

Mike Curtin, DC Central Kitchen, @mikecurtindcck, @dcck: “Use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities.”

Barbara Ekwall, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, @UNFAO: “I would highlight governance as most important issue, meaning inclusive participation, empowerment, rule of law, transparency and accountability.”

Che Axum, University of the District of Columbia, @udc_edu: “Stop expanding agriculture’s footprint, close crop yield gaps, use resources much more efficiently, shift diets away from meat, reduce food waste and move toward a ‘networked food system’.”

Laurie Benson, 1% for Women, @TossTheStone: “Through education and building awareness, we can help women find their voices and access the same resources available to their fathers, brothers and husbands, creating a better future for all.”

Jonathan Bloom, Author, American Wasteland, @wastedfood: “Connect with your food. Becoming a more educated eater tends to convert us into food activists (and make it much harder to waste food).”

Steve Brescia, Groundswell International, @groundswellint: “Support family farmers to spread agroecological farming, strengthen local food economies, and create enabling policies.”

Haley Burns, GWU Student, @GWTweets: “Walk the talk. If the story behind your food scares you, find something else to eat.”

Sarah Buzogany, City of Baltimore: “Build unlikely partnerships. Collaborate across the food system. Change agents can exist everywhere if you help cultivate them.”

Jahi Chappell, The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, @MJahi, @IATP: “We all have multiple backgrounds & identities; serve your community, but also be & build bridges between different local communities!”

Tiny Kitchens Welcome

People often say to me, “My kitchen is too small to cook in.” I’d like to help all of you tiny kitchen dwellers out there re-frame this thought. Most restaurant kitchens are tiny and they are producing a lot more food than you will ever need to. Space is valuable and good location rent is high. restaurateurs want all possible square footage to go to an extra seat in the dining room not elbow room for the cooks. But there are also advantages to cooking in smaller spaces. with good design then each movement is an efficient one. When you are cooking for 300, extra steps between the stove and the counter add up fast. Having what you need within reach can make all the difference.  The same principle applies to home kitchens.

Shelves and hanging pans in tiny kitchen
Tiny House Kitchen Efficiency

A great example of the joy and innovation that can be found in a tiny kitchen is Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, one of my all time favorite stories.

The “Food Fantasies” episode of PRI’s Selected Shorts is such a treat. It’s a rebroadcast that includes Colwin’s “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” and the story of perhaps the most outrageous recipe ever imagined.

For more inspiration check out DC’s Boneyard Studio’s Tiny Community or Apartment Therapy. Or just have Taste of Place come cook with you! We can fit, I promise!

http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/categories/kitchen

Scallion Kale Pancake

Adapted from classic Chinese scallion pancake recipes, adding extra veggies pack vitamins into these tasty treats. 

Serves 6 as a side or appetizer

Dough:
1 ½ cups of flour, plus more as needed and for rolling
½ cup of warm water

Pancakes:
Sesame oil
4 scallions, thinly sliced
Kale 6-8 leaves, chopped  remove end stems and save for another use, like adding to stir fry (any leafy green can be used try tatsoi for variety)
Kosher Salt
Vegetable or canola oil for cooking

In a large bowl mix flour and water together to form a smooth dough. Add flour as needed if the dough is sticky. Knead dough for 5 minutes. Let dough rest for 30 minutes in an oiled bowl, covered with a towel.

Divide the dough in half. On a floured surface, roll out one half into an inch-thick cylinder. Cut the dough rope into 2-inch sections. Then with a rollingpin roll out into a thin disk.

Lightly brush each circle with sesame oil. Sprinkle on the scallions, kale, and salt. Roll up the circles and then coil like a snail. Then with a rolling pin roll flat again. At this stage you may freeze them for future use, just layer with parchment paper.

Heat 2 tbsps of oil in a skillet. Cook the pancakes over medium high heat, about 3 minutes on each side until golden brown.

Serve warm with soy sauce or chili sauce for dipping.

 

Three Sisters Clams

Braised Chesapeake Clams with Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash)

corn, birds egg beans, and baby zucchini
corn, birds egg beans, and baby zucchini

The Three Sisters were the three main agricultural crops of various Native American groups in North America: squash, corn, and climbing beans. In one technique known as companion planting, the three crops are planted close together. The three crops benefit from each other. The corn provides a structure for the beans to climb, eliminating the need for poles. The beans provide the nitrogen to the soil that the other plants utilize, and the squash spreads along the ground, blocking the sunlight, helping prevent establishment of weeds. The squash leaves also act as a “living mulch”, creating a microclimate to retain moisture in the soil, and the prickly hairs of the vine deter pests. Corn lacks nutrients found in the beans, which the human body needs to make proteins and niacin, therefore corn and beans together provide a balanced diet.

I love this one pot dish and it showcases little neck clams which are native to the Chesapeake Bay. Clams are also a sustainable seafood choice approved by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch as a Best Choice if farmed.


pairing suggestion:
local Belgian-style beer such as Port City Optimal Wit or DC Brau Citizen

Serves 2

Ingredients

16-20 Littleneck Clams

3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 ear of corn, shucked and scrubbed and cut off the cob

1 zucchini, small diced

2-4 tbsps olive oil

½ cup of white wine, beer, or dry vermouth

⅓ cup cooked shell beans such as Cranberry or Bird’s Egg beans (If they are fresh they only need to cook for about 20-30 minutes until tender. If dried soak overnight before cooking.) Drain.

1 pat of butter, optional

2 tsps chopped parsley

corn, zucchini, and beans cooking
3 sisters in the pot


Directions

  1. Soak the clams in cold water with a pinch of cornmeal or pepper for 20 mins so that they spit out the grit, scrub and rinse under cold water.
  2. Heat olive oil in in a deep pan over medium-high heat.  Add garlic corn, and zucchini. Saute stirring occasionally until vegetables are tender.
  3. Add liquid to deglaze scraping bits stuck to the bottom of the pan.
  4. Stir in the beans and clams. Cook until the clams open and the beans are heated through. Discard any clams that don’t open.
  5. Add more liquid if necessary depending on how much sauce you like. Stir in a pat of butter to finish. Taste and pepper. You most likely don’t need to add salt since the clams add their own salinity of the sea.
  6. Serve warm in bowls, garnish with parsley. Serve with crusty bread for dipping and a bright vinegary salad.
clams cooking with veggies, ready to serve.
Finished one-pot dish!

Why? The Pleasure & Joy of Local Tastes

Going to the farmer’s market is one of my favorite things to do. I like being able to chat with people who have the strength and skill to grow food. My home attempts at gardening make  me even more appreciative of what it takes to nourish results from a seed.

colorful radishes
Bright Bunches of Radishes

Wandering among the tables laden with produce of all shapes and sizes, the flavors commingle in my mind as I imagine the possibilities for the feasts I will create. Friendly faces offer samples of sheep and goat cheeses offering up briney  piquant.  The colors pop and inspiration requires little more than wanting to showcase the fruits at the height of ripeness.  In our digital world the tactility of food shines through as one of the few remaining things in which we engage all of our senses. There is always something new to discover, heirloom varieties  to play with.

 

crate of Blue Italian Plums
Crate of Blue Italian Plums

I enjoy getting to chat with the people who put their love, care, strengths and skills into producing the food I prepare for myself and my loved ones. the market is a place of community that can be hard to find. I take satisfaction in supporting the local economy , not worrying about industrial food recalls, chemicals in processed foods, and the choices that aren’t harmful to the environment locally or globally. But the joy comes from the plate. The joy is increased by sharing these experiences and I want to share them with you.

Fresh Pastries
Irresistible Pastries

Behind the Kitchen Door: Tour & Demo at Union Kitchen

Be the first to get a behind the scenes tour of Union Kitchen, DC’s first kitchen incubator where dozens of food entrepreneurs launch their businesses! We will get a chance to see many of them in action including the delightful Chris Johnson of Cured DC. Chris will lead a private demo of his marvelous charcuterie products. In addition to tasting what we make you will get a chance to purchase goodies to take home with you.   We have the possibility of further explore the neighborhood following the tour.

Get your tickets today! 

Union KitchenCured DC

This price is a special offer for our partners of Slow Food DC. We are   slowfooddc_justlogo(2)honored to support this organization and hope you will too.

Slow Food DC has been a big part of my life here in DC. I have had wonderful experiences and made great friends. I am proud to continue to support their work in this new capacity.  The non-profit chapter supporting good, clean, fair food, has an exciting year planned with these initiatives:

1) Ark of Taste/education – building an Ark of Taste garden and leading educational activities at Wangari Gardens and with partner school gardens.

2) Volunteer opportunities – more regular involvement with area nonprofits and schools.

3) Supporting Snail winners – periodic events and promotion of the good, clean, fair food they offer.

Culinary Adventures: Exploring local tastes to preserve food heritage and regional traditions.