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Love on the rocks

The ocean has a menu all of its own says KATY DAVIDSON as she cooks oysters, scallops, mussels and lobsters on the barbecue

 BBQ Mag   Spring 2022

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As much as I love the deliriously delicious thought of high-quality cuts of meat on the BBQ and once went by the moniker of meatatarian; living by the beach has given me a great appreciation of the shellfish delights of seafood over fire.

Where humanity and oceans meet are where evolution and community flourished more than any other environment. The ease of plucking mussels and oysters from beaches and estuaries combined with their high protein and nutritional value meant easy wins for the strandlopers of the time. Where necessity has ceded to luxury and pleasure, the immediacy of beach food will always bring something vitally delectable to any BBQ.

One food in particular that lends itself surprisingly well to a fiery feast, is the Pacific, or rock oyster. As its name suggests, it is easy to find on the intertidal zone attached to rocks and each other. If you don’t find them yourself, they travel well and last a lot longer than folks might imagine, so mail order is a brilliant way of getting your hands on these bivalves.

Disproportionately famous for their rawness, they have only recently started to edge towards popularity in cooking. Even still, purists, with no sane basis for the opinion, will shout sacrilege if they see an oyster anything other than raw, or with more than one simple traditional addition such as a squeeze of lemon.

My, reasonably informed, opinion is that if you have access to plenty, why not experiment and get creative? The recipes and flavour combinations can be surprising for such an allegedly ‘marmite’ food.

Another beauty of barbecuing oysters is that they come ready in their own nature-made cooking kit, which doubles perfectly as a serving dish; what’s more, you can even discard the dish in the sea for a future as a square inch of sand one day, or a home for a new generation of oyster spat.

When you cook an oyster on the BBQ you want to wait until the coals are burned right down providing a steady medium heat. I’m often asked, how long? The thing with wood and charcoal barbecue, and oysters is that they aren’t entirely predictable. The oyster shell will vary greatly in size and thickness as will the meat-to-shell ratio and liquor volume.

Your best option is to engage your instincts and watch the process. You want the liquor or butter to gently bubble and the oyster itself to firm up slightly, signified by the slight wrinkling of the gills and the shift from raw opalescence to matt meat.

From years of experimentation, the only flavour I’ve tried that doesn’t go with oysters, is coffee – an optimistic experiment of trying to harness the invigoration of an espresso and oyster combined.

You can keep it simple, poaching in their own liquor, which creates a hot umami seafood broth that frankly is so delicious it makes me want to strain off a hundred oysters and use the liquid as a soup base.

You can create familiar flavour favourites like the ‘Roast Dinner in a Half Shell’ with garlic and rosemary butter – because butter makes everything better.

 

 

Then there’s the more exotic and adventurous creations like the ‘Aphrodisia’ oyster, flambéed dark chocolate, demerara sugar and rum, evoking memories of salted caramels, hot chocolate and brownies in one mouthful.

I’m going to say it: the world is your oyster with these salty, sweet, savoury superfoods. One last bonus of BBQ

oysters? If you can’t shuck, or you forgot your shucking knife, you can put them whole on your BBQ and they poach in their self-created pressure cooker before popping gently open. Unless you use too high a heat, then they can become flinty projectiles, so remember to go easy on the flames.

Although oysters for me are the star of the show in terms of versatility, there’s so much more bounty from our oceans that lends itself to fun over fire.

With bivalves winning in terms of practicality, scallops and mussels feature regularly in my classes and events. While scallops are similar to oysters with their ready-made dish, mussels, due to their size, don’t quite work in the same way.

I love the traditional mosaic of a French eclade de moule and using a small earthenware dish, we can recreate the tightly packed upended design while preserving the juices of the mussels.

Simply stow the mussels hinge up in a shallow flat dish and place on the BBQ; you can leave au naturel or add garlic butter to taste and aid the steaming process with a splash of white wine. A kind of moules mariniere meets eclade de moule over fire, with the dish holding the butter, wine and juices for soaking up with a good tear of crusty bread to finish.

To justify the hard work of bringing all the kit to the beach and firing up, it’s worth making a meal of it and in a seafood version of a mixed grill, I tend to bring together bivalves, crustacea and cephalopods.

The firm white meat of scallops and lobster are crowd pleasers for the more squeamish palates, but so too is well-prepared cuttlefish. A pure white piece of cuttlefish mantle, an inch thick and scored like a steak lends itself to seasoning and searing like a sirloin. Scoring helps prevent curling and ensures the flavours and buttery basting reaches in deep. While you won’t get the tenderness of flash-boiled cuttle, the substantial nature of the seared steak with accompanying crispy tentacles is a delicious choice.

My essential tip for beach food barbecuing is err on the side of under; that means, try not to overcook. Seafood is delicate and easily ruined by cooking it to rubber and singeing shells to a burnt bitterness.

If you are heading to the beach, prepare a variety of BBQ butters in advance to take with you; my favourites are garlic and rosemary for the oysters, blitzed nduja butter for the lobster, miso butter and lime zest for the scallops and smoked siracha with the cuttle. If you’re trying these at home, don’t miss the beach too much and enjoy your guaranteed sand-free seafood.

Katy Davidson is The Oyster Lady, working with shellfish in kitchens and at festivals and running masterclasses. She is the founder of The Oyster Academy and London Oyster Week.

Roast Dinner in a Half Shell

A simple yet enduring favourite inspired by my love of roast lamb with its fatty, salty flavour profile. This oyster dish simply brings in the traditional additions of rosemary and garlic to the salty meat of an oysters and uses butter to poach the oyster in all the flavours.

INGREDIENTS

  •             As many oysters as you can handle  (shucked and kept on the halfshell)
  •             Fresh rosemary sprigs, chopped
  •             Garlic, finely chopped
  •             Butter


METHOD

1. When shucking your oysters ensure you cut the adductor muscle in the bottom shell. I also flip the oyster as this releases the vacuum of the meat in the liquid and thus prevents a build up of pressure on the grill. This pressure can cause your oyster to shoot out of its shell into the sand, which would be devastating.

2. You can create a store of the garlic and rosemary butter as it goes with so many things, but in terms of this recipe, a small knob of butter with a sprinkling of chopped rosemary and garlic is all you need. Always complement the delicacy of your oysters rather than over power them.

3. The shells are the perfect cooking dish and hold the ingredients over the flames. You can keep them level in between wide gauge grills, use a purpose-built oyster grill or scrunch up some foil to squish them in.

4. Bake over a low to medium heat until the liquor starts to bubble, the butter melts completely and the oyster gills wrinkle a little.

5. Remove from the heat carefully and serve in the shell, preferably with a nicely chilled white.

 


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