The idea of eating oysters at home, outside the comforting brass and marble confines of a swanky oyster bar is, I admit, a slightly daunting prospect. But if you like a challenge – as well as a look of awe (or is that trepidation?) in your friends’ faces as you welcome them to your home for supper – then you have come to the right place.
An oyster party is really a proper celebration meal, as it requires a grill, copious amounts of ice, and a festive sort of spirit. To be honest, a positive attitude and kitchen safety are all you really need for most dinner parties, but these elements are particularly useful for the oyster type.
In this spirit, invite your greatest friends, and don’t worry too much about whether or not they are known oyster-enjoyers. You must remember first and foremost that a dinner party invitation is a precious thing, and dinner itself a joyful communion between souls and stomachs and spirits! Plus, your friends surely already know and love your wild, free ways and admire your chic party skills.
Next up: find your best oyster supplier! If you're me, this involves speaking to surly Fischladen guys in German and pretending to be very discerning while feeling quietly hysterical. It may not be a walk in the park, and you might cry just a tiny bit, but know these are the simply the trials of party giving and that you're doing a really good job.
Oysters aside, here’s a more or less complete list of all the things you’ll need:
- a special oyster shucking tool (they're inexpensive, will save you and your friends from injury, and you'll look almost professional). Of course, a bad, old knife you want to torture could also work, but in either scenario, be sure to use a glove or dish towel and maybe have a spotter, just in case. Or conveniently have a friend who is an ancient Cape Codder at heart/in reality and will have a knife in his sea-roughened hand at all times, for this very purpose (Barbara had this luck once - maybe you will, too?).
- a grill
- crushed ice in quantity – I mean it. You’ll need ice to chill all those beverages, keep the oysters happy, and to serve them.
- wide and deep platters or shallow bowls for filling with the crushed ice and serving oysters
- your favorite bread, cut into long diagonal slices – plus butter or olive oil, fresh herbs of any type, and a rosemary sprig to brush it all on with, if you’re swish.
- champagne, and/or cold cold cold white wine
- mignonette sauces (you don't need both, but why not?):
- classic mignonette
- ¼ cup red wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp. finely-diced shallot
- very freshly ground black pepper
- tarragon mignonette
- ¼ cup champagne vinegar
- 1 tbsp. finely-diced shallot
- a lot of fresh tarragon, finely chopped
- classic mignonette
- hot sauce
- more freshly ground black pepper
- buy a million lemons and cut most of them in half, and wrap the cut sides in squares of muslin, and feel superior to even Martha Stewart. If you can’t find muslin, just cut the lemons into fat wedges and embrace the rusticity and still feel like you're nailing it.
If oysters are the main attraction at dinner, you’ll want to have about 10-12 per person. If you are just trying this whole thing out and want an escape hatch, consider serving fewer oysters with drinks at the start of your party and then moving on to a Bouillabaisse for a main course, or a massive, insanely fresh California-type mixed salad in the biggest white bowl you can find, served under a groaning, ancient tree in some European backyard. Consider a salad anyway, even if you’re planning to stuff everyone with dozens of bivalves. And whether you go the rustic Provençal route or the classy Alice Waters-inspired salad one, if you're choosing to have oysters just to start, you’ll want between 2-4 oysters per person, though maybe 6 for your greediest friend, who is probably me.
Obviously, buy the oysters only on the day of your party, and follow all of the instructions you are given to a letter, no matter how surly the delivery. Failing all understanding, or just for security's sake, this brilliant post by O.G. (Oyster Genius) Julie Qiu of In A Half Shell gives great tips on how to buy oysters (taste them! pick the heavier ones!), how to store them (cup side down in the fridge, with a damp towel over!), and excellent visual tips on shucking – delivered with the kind of straightforward, calm reassurance I could never muster.
Without exception, have big platters of giant slices of grilled bread at the table for the oysters and everything else. Chilled, salted butter pressed into tiny ceramic ramekins is an enviable plus. If you can, find a big bucket or—my dream—a giant old silver basin from some storied hotel, and fill it with crushed ice and sprigs of wilting flowers for the wine and champagne bottles (and beers, maybe they’ve just been brought from the corner store by a dude you love). Fill an equally giant bowl full of lemons for the table and, for the mignonette sauces, use little mismatched cups—tea cups, egg cups, glass bowls, whatever you’ve got.
Now, there are endless modes for having oysters at home, and nearly all are equally appealing, but rather than get too complicated, I suggest you simply serve the oysters raw and grill them in their shells. The small variety will be more fun than nearly anyone can stand, and no one will feel compelled to slurp down that sea-salty wonderful raw thing should they not wish to. Also, maybe one of your friends is pregnant, or a biologist who knows too much, as my mother pointed out. And anyway, there’s no use in being dogmatic about anything.
So, fire up your grill and prepare your ice and:
a) Scrub and shuck half the oysters. Ideally be the luckiest host in the world and have a friend or someone’s silent older relative who is a wizened Expert of the Sea and who doesn’t mind being the oyster shucker and minder for all. Even if you have it all under control, watch this video (again from the brilliant Julie Qiu at In A Half Shell) a thousand times. Serve about half the oysters on the half-shell on a bed of crushed ice, with the mignonette sauces and lemon.
b) For the remaining half of the oysters, as yet unshucked (you may want to choose the biggest, meatiest ones you've bought for this treatment) heat your grill to medium-high and place the oysters on the grate with their cup/convex side down. After a couple minutes, the shells should pop open. From there, you can continue to grill them on the half-shell: to do this, manually open them (again being careful to keep the oyster liquor from spilling), separating the oyster meat from the shell and turning it over once in the shell, if possible. Or just continue cooking the intact oysters as they are in their shells another minute or two. If you are a Bobby Flay Grill Master I’m sure you’re fine with just your own two hands and a watchful eye, but you may be me, in which case you need to rig up some type of device with tin foil and your innate creativity to keep the oysters from spilling their juice. Once the shells are open and you can see the oysters' flesh is opaque and firm, serve immediately, with hot sauce, or melted tarragon butter, or just lemon. Discard any bad oysters who didn't open their shells.
The day of the party (which I hope looks like the above painting), buy your oysters and store them safely. Also pick up a giant bottle of hot sauce, the ingredients for the sauces, a few loafs of bread, and the wine. If you’re making a Bouillabaisse or salad, pick up all of the things you need for that. An old-fashioned chocolate cake from somewhere (a store? your kitchen?) is the right dessert.
Once you’re home, start chilling your wines, and make sure you have all the tools and plates and things ready to go, because that’s the sane thing to do. Early in the day, make the two mignonette sauces and store them somewhere cool to combine and become pungent. Lay a big table with bowls of lemons, plates, forks (and big wide spoons, if you're serving stew) and big cloth napkins. As your accommodating friends arrive, immediately pour them glasses of wine and hug them with gratitude. Heat the grill, cut the bread into long thin slices, and baste the slices with melted butter or olive oil and herbs. Commence with the raw oysters as soon as you wish. Pile the crispy slices of bread on big plates. Once the bread is off, grill your oysters. Eat and repeat. When your friends and loved ones are happy and full of oysters, bring out a brilliant fish stew full of Herbs de Provence and tomatoey broth, or a generous bowl of a beautiful salad. Serve with more bread, more wine, and a declining early-summer's sun.