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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Fire & Ice

Although I spent most of my summers on the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia, years slipped by before I tasted raw oysters on the half shell.

Back in the day, wild oyster beds dotted the waters of Little Tom's Cove in the small town of Chincoteague, Virginia. Accessible by boat or by foot during low tide, the few oyster beds offered some of the finest oysters on the Eastern Shore. Fed by the Atlantic tides, the Chincoteague "Salts" were (and still are) prized for their high briny salinity. During our summers on the beaches of Maryland and Virginia, we were certified ameteur clammers and crabbers. Whether we were holed up in a tent on Pine Grove Campground or comfortably bundled up in a swanky Chincoteague house, we hunted and gathered clams and crabs to prepare for ourselves. We left the oystering to the big guns. Deep fried, broiled, baked, frittered, or stuffed, fresh Chincoteague oysters were restaurant treats reserved for special occasions. Even then, we never ate them on the half shell.

That all changed on one particularly hot day during one particular summer on the Eastern Shore.

We did our crabbing from the causeway that separated the oyster beds in Little Tom's Cove from the blue crabs in Swans Cove Pool. While we never gave the oysters beds much more than a passing glance as we baited our twisted strings with chicken necks, I always had my eyes on those mysterious bumps in the water. At high tide, they seemed to float like jagged beached whales. Hunched. Lifeless. Silhouettes against the quiet sea. Although I secretly yearned for the unknown adventure, I was stunned when my father announced, out of the blue, that he and I were going to hit the oyster beds at the next low tide. Still haunted by the unfortunate hook-in-my-scalp incident from a previous deep sea fishing escapade (again, his idea), I was filled with excruciating awe and dread.

Tides are funny things. On the beach side of the deal, not much changes with low/high tides. Sure, the beaches get thinner or wider, but they still stay fairly neutral. In the inland coves and waterways, the tides change everything. Low tides reveal the underbelly of the sea. Grayish green muck. Cracked shells. Dead crabs. Slimy kelp. Bubbling holes. Gurgling muck. Icky stuff. The underworld.

Oystering with my father. Yep, all in a days fun. Of course, we assumed it was low tide. It looked low. After parking on the sandy edge of the causeway, we grabbed a couple of buckets from the back of his orange GMC and headed into the underbelly. Scattered around the cove a few hundred yards from shore, the oyster beds appeared easily accessible.  That was hardly the case.  Every footstep seemed herculean as the muck swallowed my white sneakers and tiny legs like smelly decomposing quicksand. Although horrified, I embraced the plentiful enormous cracked shells of dead horeseshoe crabs and used them as stepping stones. When we finally reached the first of several oyster beds, we got down to business and zoned out.  Moving from bed to bed, like hens pecking into dirt, we plucked oyster after oyster from the craggy beds until our buckets were filled to the rim with what appeared to be nothing but oyster shaped rocks. We were so taken with ourselves that we didn't even notice that the tide had gently crept back into the cove. High tide. There we were, perched on a damn oyster bed hundreds of yards away from our tiny orange truck, stranded at sea. The only solution seemed simple enough. We had to walk/swim/wade/float/sludge back through the murky underbelly carrying our heavy oyster-filled buckets. My father was fine. I was a kid. I knew what lurked beneath the steel-blue water. Plodding through the lapping chin-high sea,  I tilted my head into the fiery sun to keep tidewater out of my mouth, eyes, ears, and soul. With my submerged water-logged bucket dangling from my forearm like a cheap plastic purse, I slowly squished through the muck with kelp-shackled ankles and  unseeable things swimming between my legs. Feigning bravado, I never gave up or abandoned my prized oysters. The young boy and the sea. When we finally reached the embankment that kept the cove waters at bay, we climbed the slippery slope, tossed our oysters into the truck, drove away, and left the conquered beds floating in our dust. At sunset, after the emotional dust settled, I tasted my first raw oysters straight from the sea. Splashed with Tobasco, I swallowed them whole, gulping one after another until I oystered myself out. Happy boy. Well played, Dad.

Oysters With Watermelon Granita and Grilled Watermelon.

Whether dressed to the nines with the clean acidity of a classic mignonette or chased back with the biting heat of a horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce, I'll take oysters any way I can. To embrace the heat and height of the season, I changed things up a bit and brought watermelon to the summer party.

After halving a gorgeous Lincoln County Sugar Baby watermelon, I sliced one half into small triangles (rind on) and chopped the other half into 1" cubes (rind removed). I tumbled 4 cups cubed watermelon pieces into a blender, added 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, and blended the watermelon into a ruby red puree. I poured the puree into a 9"x 13" glass dish, showered it with lime zest, slid it into the freezer, and used the tines of a fork to scrape the frozen granita every 30 minutes until it resembled vibrant watermelon snow.

Just like any grilled fruit, watermelon takes on deep smoky sweet flavors when grilled.  I lit the coals on one side of a charcoal grill, let the flames reduce to glowing embers, and spread the coals around the grill. For kicks, I brushed the watermelon slices with jalapeno pepper jelly before sliding them onto the hot grill along with a few halved lemons and limes. When kissed by the heat, the natural sugars in the watermelon and pepper jelly caramelized the sweet flesh of the watermelon. When they started to char, I pulled them from the heat, diced a few into tiny pieces, and set them aside.

Oysters on the half shell.
I had a dozen or so Blue Point oysters sitting on ice that I'd picked up from The Lexington Seafood Market. Working very carefully, I cupped each
oyster with a dish towel and used an oyster knife to pry open the hinged end of the oyster shell before slicing through the muscle on the top half of the shell to release the oyster.  After cleaning the shells with a dish towel, I used the oyster knife to slice the oysters from the bottom shells
before nestling them into crushed ice.

I spooned the perky granita onto the oysters, tumbled a few grilled watermelon bites into the shells, and scattered thinly sliced serrano  peppers over the granita before finishing with Harmony Hill organic pea microgreens.

Tucked beneath the granita, the plump oysters popped with a soft brininess that countered the icy sweet/tart crunch of the frozen lime-spiked watermelon, the fiery heat of the peppers, and the crisp freshness of the microgreens. Spicy. Sweet. Salty. Tart. Wet messy business.

Summer on the half shell.

Ride the tide.