Whether you’re after something light and nonfilling or a more substantial pre-dinner snack, oysters make the ideal Thanksgiving appetizer – and besides, they’re traditional, and we like that.

In the world of oyster connoisseurship, Maine oysters are particularly prized, and the bivalves fetch a pretty price in white tablecloth restaurants all along the East Coast and points west. “I tell my customers that Maine oysters are the Burgundy of oysters,” says the owner of Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar in Manhattan.

Indeed, an entire oyster-descriptive vocabulary has evolved, with terms like clean, crisp, briny, creamy, buttery, flinty and sweet bandied about to delineate differences in flavor.

With about 20 growers licensed in the state, Maine’s boutique oyster farming business has been doing well. Each farmer coddles and cares for his “crop,” moving the oysters about during their life cycle to produce the best results. “It’s like polishing the vintage,” says a spokesperson for the Maine Aquaculture Association.

Oysters are named for the bay or other body of water in which they’re raised, and every location imparts its own particular flavor, depending on the salinity and nutrients in the water. Some of Maine’s best oysters are Pemaquids, Winter Points, Spinney Creeks, Bagaduce and Flying Points.

TO SHUCK OYSTERS

Wear gloves or pad your hand with a folded kitchen towel.

Some recommend freezing the oysters for about 15 minutes to relax them.

Hold the oyster with its hinge toward you, rounded side down.

Use a specially designed oyster knife with a strong blade, sometimes bent at the end. Insert the point into the hinge and turn the knife to pry open the shell.

Use the point of a knife to scrape the meat attached to the top shell into the bottom shell. Take care to keep as much of the liquid as possible in the shell.

Cut the oyster from the bottom shell.

Pick out any bits of shell that have fallen into the flesh.

Nestle the oysters in a bed of crushed ice or rock salt to keep them from tipping over.

NUDE OYSTERS AND SOME SAUCES

Yes, it can be challenging, but oyster opening is the sort of activity that can be fun during that pre-Thanksgiving dinner waiting period. A selection of simple sauces gives people a way to personalize their toppings.

Servings: 4

About 3 dozen fresh raw oysters

Horseradish, either freshly grated or from a fresh bottle of prepared horseradish

Ketchup

Lemon wedges

Tabasco sauce or other liquid hot pepper sauce

Mignonette Sauce (recipes follow)

Either have the oysters shucked at the fish market or shuck them yourself. Arrange on a large platter on crushed ice. Place the horseradish, ketchup, lemon wedges and/or Mignonette Sauce in small bowls, and leave the hot pepper sauce in the bottle. Suggest that guests dress their oysters as they desire. Slurp and eat.

MIGNONETTE SAUCE SAMPLER

Classic mignonette is 1 tablespoon minced shallots stirred into 1/3 cup white wine or champagne vinegar, with cracked black pepper added to taste.

VARIATIONS:

Mango Mignonette – Add about 1 tablespoon of finely chopped fresh mango or papaya.

Cranberry Mignonette – Add 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cranberries and a pinch of sugar.

Herb Mignonette – Add 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro, parsley or tarragon.

Jalapeno Mignonette – Add about 2 teaspoons chopped jalapeno or other fresh hot pepper

Ginger Mignonette – Add about 2 teaspoons minced or grated fresh ginger root

J’S OYSTERS MORNAY

These oysters are one of the most popular appetizers at J’s Oyster Bar in Portland – and no wonder, for this marriage of briny oysters cloaked with a cheese-rich, sherry-laced Mornay sauce is inspired. The oysters roast briefly in a hot oven until just barely cooked, and are then finished under the broiler so the sauce is bubbly and flecked with brown. To open the oysters, see above or ask the fish market to perform the chore.

Servings: 4 (6 oysters each)

1 cup shredded Swiss cheese

1/3 cup dry sherry

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 tablespoon softened butter

1 tablespoon flour

1 cup half-and-half

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

24 raw oysters on the half shell

Parsley branches for garnish

Combine the cheese and sherry in a medium-sized, heavy saucepan. Cook over low heat whisking almost constantly, until the cheese melts. (The mixture will smooth out as the cheese melts.) Stir in the parsley.

Meanwhile, work the butter and flour together with a fork or your fingers to make a cohesive paste. Add small chunks at a time to the cheese mixture, whisking over medium heat until thick and bubbly. Add half-and-half, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, whisking constantly, until smooth, thickened and reduced, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made up to a day ahead and refrigerated.)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Arrange oysters on a baking sheet and spoon a scant tablespoon of sauce over each oyster. Roast in the preheated oven until sauce is bubbly, 8 to 10 minutes. Finish by running close to the element under a preheated broiler until flecked with dark brown, about 1 minute.

Serve garnished with parsley.

 

Brooke Dojny is author or co-author of more than a dozen cookbooks, most recently “Dishing Up Maine” (Storey Publishing 2006) and “The New England Clam Shack Cookbook” (Storey 2008). She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula.