What it is: Oysters are bivalve mollusks, with a briny, salty taste. They come in hundreds of varieties, in different sizes, shapes and unique flavors and textures. “What I love about oysters is the different nuances of each species,” says Chef James Papadopoulos of Sam & Harry’s Steakhouse in Schaumburg, which features many types. He recommends that those new to raw oysters try out varieties such as Kumamoto, Kusshi, Imperial Eagle and Island Creek.
Where it comes from: People have been eating oysters since prehistoric days. Oysters grow on the shores of most of the oceans of the world, both wild and in farms, although wild varieties are increasingly endangered by pollution and over-fishing.
Oyster season varies by type and place of origin. Traditionally they’re said to be at their best during months containing the letter ‘R’ — a precaution dating from the days before refrigeration — but they can be found year-round.
What to do with it: Oysters are often eaten raw, on the half shell, with a squeeze of lemon or a dollop of zesty cocktail sauce or tart mignonette sauce or a few drops of hot sauce. If you aren’t certain you’ll care for the slippery texture of raw oysters, try smaller, firmer types first. Oysters can also be breaded and fried, smoked, roasted or stewed.
It is imperative, Papadopoulos notes, that the shellfish are extremely fresh and always kept iced, never stored in standing water. Restaurants such as Sam & Harry’s fly in the perishable seafood fresh daily.
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Oyster events: Shaw’s Crab House in River North and Schaumburg hosts its 22nd annual “Royster with the Oyster Festival” with 25¢ raw oysters on Monday, Oct. 11, at both locations (and throughout the week in Schaumburg), and nightly oyster specials and an oyster slurping contest at 6 p.m. Oct. 11–15, in the Oyster Bar at both locations. At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14, Shaw’s in Chicago will host a multi-course Oyster Hall of Fame Dinner to honor Frank Randol, proprietor of Randol’s Restaurant and Seafood Co. in Lafayette, La., presenting dishes like BBQ oysters from Randol’s menu, $79, reservations required. The fest concludes with a tent party in Chicago from 3 to 10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15, outside Shaw’s Chicago location, featuring oysters, beer and wine, and music from John Kattke, Linsey Alexander and Special 20’s.
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Oysters on the half-shell
Chef James Papadopoulos, Sam & Harry’s
Papadopoulos offers these tips for preparing oysters at home.
Check to make sure each oyster is alive (the shell should be tightly closed).
While holding the oyster under running water, scrub with a stiff brush to remove debris.
Hold the oyster in your hand with a towel, cup-side down, so the flatter side faces up. Work over a bowl to catch all juices.
Insert an oyster knife between the shells near the hinge.
Twist the knife so that the muscles detach, and remove the top shell.
Carefully scrape the meat from the top shell into the bottom.
Serve meat in the half shell with a horseradish cocktail sauce and shavings of frozen mignonette sauce.