You cant roast oysters without one piece of essential equipment: a pint of beer.
Thats the first lesson I learned from award-winning cookbook authors Matt and Ted Lee, who let me persuade them to show me how to throw an oyster roast.
Oyster roasts are a culinary tradition in South Carolinas Lowcountry, where the Lee brothers grew up. The Lees were in town on a recent swing through North Carolina promoting their latest cookbook, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen.
Before they arrived, they gave strict instructions about everything to have on hand to ensure a successful roast: a stack of firewood, four cinder blocks, a 4-by-6-foot sheet of steel, a shovel, burlap sacks soaking in water, a bushel of oysters, and, of course, plenty of beer to drink.
And so, on a recent Thursday in March, the Lee brothers, a few friends and I, each with a pint of beer, gathered under a large maple tree in my backyard. The brothers scoped out a flat place in the grass. Matt stood the cinder blocks upright, creating a rectangle on which to lay the sheet of metal. Once the metal was laid on top of the bricks, Ted asked, Is it level?
Matt poured some beer out of his pint glass onto the metal sheet. The golden ale pooled in the center. Matt declared: Its pretty darn level.
When it comes to oyster roasts, the brothers speak from experience. In the high season from October to March, they said, they might get invited to an oyster roast a week for any occasion, including birthdays, sporting events and pre-wedding celebrations. A Thursday night oyster roast has become a traditional preamble to a Saturday wedding among Charleston couples.
But roasting oysters dates much farther back, as the brothers learned while researching their new cookbook. Mounds of oyster shells dating to prehistoric times have been found on Edisto Island, south of Charleston.
The oyster roast is the one thing that ties together the pre-European settlers to the tourists, Matt said. The thing we like to remind ourselves is: It really hasnt changed at all for thousands of years.
And really, Ted said, not much has changed in the modern era. At most, all that is required is four cinder blocks and a sheet of metal.
In my backyard, a fire was soon lit. Using a hose, Matt rinsed the mud off the oysters.
This separates a bad oyster roast from a good one, Ted explained.
Lets see how hot our griddle is, Matt said before spraying it with water. The droplets bounced and hissed as steam rose from the surface.
A shovel-full of oysters was laid out on the hot metal. The mollusks were covered with a wet burlap sack. Within five minutes, Matt removed the burlap and shoveled the first batch of steamed oysters onto a nearby table covered with newspaper. Soon all that could be heard was the popping of shells and the slurping of oysters. The brothers declared the first batch a tad overdone. The next batch came out right: just barely cooked.
Practice makes perfect, Matt said.
Twelve dozen oysters later, Matt wrestled with a large oyster that refused to open. He had put the oyster back on the fire several times to see if it would open on its own. Im not letting this oyster beat me, Matt said.
Finally, the shell popped and Matt savored his last oyster: It wasnt the very best of the day but it still felt good to be the victor.
Among the many lessons I learned that afternoon was this: Roasting oysters isnt an exact science.
It may take several attempts to perfectly roast an oyster or to pry a stubborn one from its shell. Even an overdone or troublesome oyster cant ruin a spring afternoon spent outside with friends under a maple tree with the smell of wood smoke all around and a pint of beer in your hand.
For a printable copy of the recipes, click the links:
USE a funnel to pour the vinegar in a cruet. Add chiles and use a chopstick or the handle of a wooden spoon to submerge them, if necessary. Cap the cruet and place it in the refrigerator. The vinegar will be well infused in 24 hours and will keep for months in the refrigerator. Yield: 1 cupRed Rice From the award-winning “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook,” by Matt and Ted Lee (W.W. Norton & Co., 2006). 2 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into small dice 1 1/2 cups diced yellow onion (about 1 large onion) 3 cloves garlic, crushed 1 1/2 cups long-grain rice 2 to 2 1/2 cups chicken broth 1 (28-ounce) can whole Italian tomatoes, drained 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes 1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
HEAT oven to 425 degrees.
FRY bacon in a 12-inch ovenproof skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, until firm and barely crisp, about 4 minutes. Use a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to a small bowl. Set aside. Sauté onion and garlic in the bacon fat over medium heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 2 minutes, until fragrant and slightly translucent. Add 2 cups broth and turn off heat.
PUREE tomatoes in a food processor. Stir in the crushed red pepper flakes, smoked paprika, salt and pepper and pour puree into the skillet. Stir to combine.
BRING mixture to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer vigorously until the rice is tender but soupy, about 20 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of broth at a time if the rice is not soupy.
TRANSFER skillet or Dutch oven to the oven and bake on the middle rack for 25 minutes, or until all the liquid has been absorbed. Serve rice in a bowl. Garnish with reserved bacon. Yield: 5 cupsSunday Collards From the award-winning “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook,” by Matt and Ted Lee (W.W. Norton & Co., 2006). 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, peanut oil or canola oil 1 smoked ham hock or smoked hog jowl or 1/4 pound slab bacon, diced 8 cups water 3 dried chile peppers or 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes 1 tablespoon kosher salt 3 3/4 pounds collard greens (about 3 bunches, ribbed, washed and cut into 1-inch wide strips)
POUR oil into an 8-quart stockpot over medium-high heat and swirl it around so it covers the bottom. Score ham hock with a small sharp knife, and when the oil begins to shimmer, set it in the pot. Sear the hock all over as best you can and allow it to render some fat, about 6 minutes. (Since a hock’s shape is so oblique, it will become spottily browned, but that is fine.)
POUR water into the pot; it will hiss and pop for a few seconds. Add chiles and salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes, until the stock is deeply flavored with smoke and spiciness.
ADD a few handfuls of collards to the pot. The greens will float to the surface, so stir them frequently, submerging them with the spoon, until they have turned a bright green, about 3 to 5 minutes, and become floppier and more compact, so you can add more handfuls. Continue adding collards, stirring and submerging them, until all the greens are in the pot. Turn heat to low and simmer gently for 1 hour. The greens will be very dark matte green and should be completely tender. If not tender, continue cooking.
USE a slotted spoon to serve greens and pass a cruet of pepper vinegar (recipe above.) Yield: 6-8 servings