Oysters Poached in Cider Infused with Lemongrass
"The poorer a place is the greater call there seems for oysters. Look here, Sir, here's a oyster stall to every half dozen houses -- the street's lined with 'em. Blessed if I don't think that when a man's very poor, he rushes out of his lodgings and eats oysters in regular desperation."
Charles Dickens (1836)
Oysters are available on the market stall all year round so there is never really a particular season to be writing recipes for them or, better still, eating them. Moreover, there really is very little mileage in recipes for raw oysters - the time is better spent learning about the various virtues of different species and origins of the oysters (a subject ever on my to-do list).
But the subject of cooked oysters has not been one that has interested me particularly until comparatively recently. The first cooked oyster dish I ever made was Tempura Oysters around about the time I started the blog and it was something of a game-changer. Taking more notice of cooked oyster dishes, as I have ever since, it is pleasing, though barely surprising for an ingredient mostly eaten raw, that they invariably expose the oyster to the most minimal of cooking. That said, a traditional Victorian dish that has seen something of a trendy renaissance of late, is a beef, oyster and stout stew (or pie). Like with so many old fashioned recipes, its history is founded in reason, and in this case that reason is that there was a time (see this Evening Standard article, for example) when oysters were so cheap and plentiful they were used by the least affluent to bulk up the protein content of an otherwise unaffordable beef stew to keep the cost down. That beef stew would typically also include stout for all the nutritional contribution it was believed to make.
Back to the present, Tim Maddams is a chef I genuinely admire. Clearly accomplished as a chef he has the ability to depart from the rule book and produce simple, imaginative and innovative recipes which, although off the beaten track, just make sense and are delicious. This recipe is based on one of his, "Steamed oysters, soy, ginger and cider", in which the fragrance of south east Asia meets the robustness of the West Country. Apples/cider are quite partial to fragrant spice (think mulled cider, or cinnamon in your crumble), gentle poaching of an oyster, sweet cider replacing rice wine and palm sugar - it's simple, imaginative, innovative, it all makes sense and it's delicious. Once again!
I think this makes for an excellent starter likely to be enjoyed by even those who may not care for raw oysters. Light, fresh and fragrant it contains the types of flavours that just make you hungry - so you'll be eager for your main course and have plenty of room in which to put it!
Tim Maddams's original recipe cooks the unshelled oysters in the cider first and then directs for them to be opened. I'm only guessing but I suspect that is to make the opening of the oysters that much easier. No such luxury in my version. My feeling is that the benefit gained from easier-accessed oysters comes at the cost of grittier broth.
In fact, for any but the most adept of shuckers, grit is always going to be a bit of a concern here so I have suggested that the oysters be opened into a sieve such that the largest shards of shell can be caught and the meats wiped of any residual grit with kitchen paper as necessary. If there happens to be some handy, muslin is the ideal way of filtering out unwanted bits.
Whichever way you go about making a dish like this, the cooking time is very short, so I instead choose to propose that the oysters be shucked just before cooking starts and cook the shucked meats in the broth. Because oysters cooked this way require the most minimal of cooking it is important to give the broth a chance at the beginning to build up its flavour.
This dish is easy to cook for numbers (well, as easy as you find shucking oysters) and the ingredient quantities can be multiplied up as required.
Oysters Poached in Cider Infused with Lemongrass
Ingredients (Serves 2)
250ml cider, medium or sweet according to taste
1 lemon grass stick, outer layer removed, core bashed and cut into 3 pieces
½ star anise
1 garlic clove, finely sliced
½" piece of ginger, julienned
1 tsp light soy sauce, or quantity to taste
1-2 spring onions, finely sliced slightly on the diagonal
1 mild red chilli, deseeded and very finely sliced (optional or quantity to taste)
Sesame oil (optional, or rapeseed oil), a few drops
Shuck open the oysters, tipping the meat and juice into a sieve set over a bowl to catch the filtered juice. Remove the oysters from the sieve and relieve them of any residual grit with a piece of kitchen paper (if you can be bothered).
Heat the cider with the lemon grass, garlic and ginger in a saucepan. When it comes to the boil, simmer it gently for 5 minutes then remove the lemongrass pieces.
Stir in the juice from the oysters and taste the broth for saltiness. Add the soy sauce accordingly and then add the oyster meats. Poach very gently for only a minute, then turn off the heat.
Divide the oysters among shallow soup bowls, distribute the broth into the bowls and garnish with the spring onion and red chilli. Drizzle a few drops of sesame (or rapeseed) oil, if using, over the top and serve straight away.