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Oysters ‘R’ good to eat anytime

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From left, Jason Kenner and EJ Erskine display trays of frozen oysters on the half shell at Cowart’s Seafood in Lottsburg. Photo by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi

by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi
My grandfather descended from a long line of Tangier Island watermen, all of whom harvested oysters long before there were growing cages, planting grounds or even refrigeration.

Because of that, I can still hear his voice echoing words of caution, “I wouldn’t eat oysters in months that don’t have an ‘R’.” As he got older, he softened to that old wives’ tale, saying, “Oh, you can eat them any time.”

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Indeed you can. The food-world adage about consuming oysters only in months containing the letter “R”—from September through April—can be dismissed now that farm-raised oysters are served in restaurants and supermarkets.

Of course there are pros and cons to eating oysters year around, especially if you choose to eat them raw.

Before refrigeration, it was generally a no-no to eat oysters except during colder weather months because they spoiled easily. Also, oysters spawn in the warmer summer months and spawning can cause them to become fatty, watery and less flavorful. Also, toxins multiply rapidly in summer months and can infect plankton that oysters and shellfish eat. However, commercial oyster and shellfish producers have safeguards in place to eliminate disease and now there are regulations in place requiring shellfish be maintained at a certain temperature until it reaches your plate.

Cowart Seafood Corp. in Lottsburg, along with Bevans Oyster Company in Kinsale, ensure that you can enjoy oysters year around with their product, frozen oysters on the half shell.

“A lot of places want to serve oysters on the half shell but don’t have a shucker or don’t want to risk injury by having someone shuck them,” said Jason Kenner, manager at Cowart Seafood.

Selecting FRESH FISH
Unless you grew it, hooked it or caught it in your own pot, it’s hard to know if seafood is fresh.

Knowing how to choose fresh fish and shellfish isn’t a skill, according to Gus Shelton of Bluewater Seafood in Kilmarnock.

“Fresh fish shouldn’t have any smell to it at all,” he said. “It’s all about smell and texture.”

Fish should smell fresh and mild, not fishy or sour. The flesh should be firm and spring back when pressed. Fish fillets shouldn’t be discolored, dark or dry around the edges.

If tuna is dark brown and bled out, then that’s a telltale sign it’s not fresh and could even be bad, said Shelton.

“It’s hard to disguise bad fish in a fish store,” said Shelton. “I have people who’ll ask, ‘Can I smell your fish?’ And I don’t mind at all.”

Shelton said it’s also easy to tell if fish have been frozen. They often show signs of frost or ice crystals, which could mean it’s been thawed and refrozen.

Shelton buys all his rockfish and flounder from local watermen but says his top-selling fish is salmon. He stocks farm-raised Scottish, farm-raised Canadian and wild-caught Alaskan Coho.

“I sell more salmon because of its health benefits and also you just can’t mess up salmon when you cook it,” he said.

As for shellfish, Shelton says never buy crabmeat that smells sweet. Crabmeat, like fish, should smell mild.

Also when buying clams, oysters and mussels, throw away ones with cracked or broken shells. Live clams, oysters and mussels also will close up when the shell is tapped. When buying live blue crabs and lobster, check for leg movement. Crabs spoil quickly when they die, so only steam live crabs.

Cowart Seafood, which has operated on the shores of the Coan River since 1949, runs its shucking operation year around. They started selling their frozen oyster product in the mid-90s. Now, producing the product in conjunction with Bevans, the two companies are the only ones producing the frozen half shell product on the East Coast. According to Kenner, there is another producer on the west coast of Florida, along with a few companies in Louisiana, Washington and Texas.

The oysters are shucked and immediately flash frozen at “minus 70 degrees,” said Kenner. “They are blast frozen, using CO2, before they lose any flavor.”

Although Cowart initially sold the product to distributors and for retail sale in grocery stores, it now primarily sells commercially to 20 different food service distribution companies. Those companies sell the product to restaurants to serve “really any way they want,” said Kenner. “They can thaw it and serve it raw, or use them for breaded oysters.”

Perhaps, most impressive is the frozen product’s shelf life of two years. Kenner promises it doesn’t lose its firmness or flavor.

And not every oyster passing through the shucking house makes the cut for the half shell product.

“They have to be a certain size, certain quality, have a heavy shell but with a small cup. It really has to be a certain grade of oyster.”

Owner Lake Cowart Jr. employs 80 full-time employees at the seafood plant at the end of Lake Landing Drive in Lottsburg. During the winter months, he has about 72 shuckers. Winter is key shucking season for the half shell product, according to Kenner.

Although the frozen products are primarily distributed only by food service companies to restaurants, the half shells are available at Bluewater Seafood in Kilmarnock.

And thanks to the frozen delicacies, you now can truly enjoy oysters in any month, ‘R’ or no ‘R’.

But if you’re still cautious, it is October, and you have six more months with the letter “R” to enjoy the tasty bivalve. So eat up!


Oyster Recipes
Mom’s Simple Oyster Stew
  • Fry eight slices of bacon, broken into pieces, or a 1/4 pound of pork fat meat, sliced thin, in a pan
  • Add a pint of undrained oysters
  • Add salt and pepper to taste

Cook until oyster edges begin to curl. Enjoy with saltines or oyster crackers.

Creamy oyster stew

  • 1 quart shucked oysters in their liquid
  • 8 cups milk
  • 8 tablespoons margarine, cut into pieces
  • Pinch of paprika
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oysters in their liquid until oyster edges begin to curl. Heat milk and margarine together in large saucepan just to boiling, add salt and pepper. Stir in oysters and their liquid. Heat but do not boil. Sprinkle with paprika and parsley.

Oyster Stew
Recipe from Bevans Oyster Company, Kinsale

  • 1 quart Bevans oysters with liquid
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
  • 3 green onions, chopped
  • 1 cup evaporated milk

Boil celery and onions in water for five minutes. Add oysters and cook until edges curl. Add milk, butter and dry ingredients. Heat well and serve with oyster crackers.

posted 10.28.2016

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