In this week's Chef and Tell, we talked to Sheila Lucero, executive chef over the five Jax Fish House locations in Colorado and Missouri, about her commitment to sustainable seafood and about eating oysters. Lucero recently met with members of Congress in Washington D.C. to convince them to preserve the Magnuson-Stevens
Fisheries Conservation and Management Act to protect and improve the nation's fisheries and seafood populations. The chef realizes that if we want to continue to enjoy oysters (and other seafood), we need to protect the ecosystems where oyster farms exist, some of which she has visited herself.
"What’s the right way to eat an oyster? There’s no wrong way," she told us during the interview. "I eat them with cocktail sauces, with mignonette, naked, cooked. They’re delicious, and they’re good for you." Even if there's no wrong way, eating raw oysters can be intimidating for first-timers and confusing even for veterans, given the number of new varieties available and the many different ways in which they're served. Lucero makes sure the menus at Jax are clear and that the oyster shuckers know their stuff, to help share knowledge with customers. Here are five tips for navigating the often murky waters of enjoying good oysters.
1. Find Out Where the Oysters Are From
Where the mollusks were grown can make a big difference in flavor. Many oyster varieties are named for the geographical area where they're farmed, but some have names that don't necessarily indicate their place of origin. But the salinity of an oyster and other subtle flavors can change depending on whether they were grown in coastal ocean water or in less salty waters where rivers meet bays. The house oyster at Jax is the Emersum (as in "’em are some good oysters"), grown by Rappahanock River Oysters. Emersums are grown where the Rappahanock River meets the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia; they're low in salinity, allowing the sweetness of the oyster to come through. Lucero says Rappahanock River Oysters not only farms oysters for sale to restaurants, but the company is also actively involved in restoring the bay's oyster beds, decimated by decades of over-harvesting of wild oysters.
2. East Coast and West Coast Matter
Lucero points out that there are only five species of oysters used as food (even if there are dozens of varieties and brand names). East Coast oysters are almost all Crassostrea virginicas, including those Emersums at Jax. They're usually large, firm and briny, as opposed to smaller, plumper and more vegetal-tasting West Coast oysters, Crassostrea gigas. Even the most common West Coast oysters are transplants, though; "This species was brought to the U.S. in the early 1900s from Japan," the chef explains.
Other species common on menus are Kumamoto (or Crassostrea sikamea, another transplant from Japan) and Olympia (Ostrea lurida), a native species that is making a comeback after being victimized by pollution and over-harvesting. Rare in the U.S. are European Flats (Ostrea edulis), which have a distinctive scallop-like shell and bold flavor that's often too much for all but the most die-hard bivalve aficionados. Lucero says the farming of this oyster is extremely limited by law in this country, so you won't run into it often.
3. Don't Worry About the Time of Year
Lucero explains that farmed oysters (which make up the vast majority of oysters sold in restaurants) are sterile, so they don't follow the cycle of spawning during the warmer months. Spawning oysters are unpleasant to eat, which is one of the reasons that oysters traditionally have only been eaten in months containing the letter "r" (September through April). But since farmed oysters maintain their firmness and flavor throughout the year, and since modern refrigeration and shipping practices get oysters to Colorado restaurants while still fresh (even in hot weather), you can confidently eat oysters from May through August, too.
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4. Go Ahead and Chew!
You may have heard that you should just send your oyster straight down the hatch, preferably with a champagne or stout chaser. But that doesn't allow you to really taste what you're eating. Different varieties have different textures, and they're really not so unpleasant to chew, especially given the added flavor you'll experience.
5. Sample Lots of Oysters
If you have decided you like oysters but haven't eaten too many different kinds, try as many as you can to figure out which you like best. And like Lucero, try them dressed (or naked) in various sauces or with just a squirt of lemon. If you're up to the challenge, Jax now has a monthly all-you-can eat special on the first Friday of every month. For $35, you can slurp Emersums to your heart's content; the next special is coming up on November 3.