Sunday

Shuckin' & Cluckin' - Oysters & Eggs

With my first year officially in the suburbs complete, I can comfortably admit I've gone full-on domesticated dad.  Weekly trips to Ace Hardware, YouTube videos on light fixture installation, and hours scouring the internets for the best soil and mulch mixtures.  Tom and Patti at our local garden center even feel like my new best friends.  The creepy algorithmic content trackers have definitely noticed, too.  Every third Instagram post I see is "you may qualify for free solar panels" or "check out this new BBQ kit, only $49.99."  It really hit me the other day when I audibly slammed the door my fiancé had left open.  "Are we trying to heat the whole neighborhood!?"  But honestly, I couldn't be happier.  I'm embracing it head on - Costco membership, John Deere mower, t-shirt tucked into my cargo shorts - everything.   

Oyster shell paved garden path
#oystershellrecycling
The first major dad venture was building a raised bed vegetable garden.  At the end of the first growing season, I think I can say it went pretty well.  A few successes, a few failures, and plenty of fresh, "
free produce" at the modest cost of scores of labor hours and hundreds of dollars in equipment.  It is a tasty, rewarding, and therapeutic endeavor, though.  I kept wanting to incorporate oysters into our gardening somehow, and work it into a blog post.  Unfortunately, beyond paving the garden path with oyster shells, nothing really came to mind.  If you've got any ideas, please do share.  

In tandem with our homegrown vegetables, we frequently discussed getting our own chickens.  Few things can beat fresh eggs straight from your backyard, I imagine.  Admittedly, I nixed the idea as I know what nasty little beasts they can be from past experience.  That, and I can already see my 2 year old harassing them non-stop.  The family of foxes in the woods behind our house would be pretty happy if we had them, too.  However, our neighbors have a whole flock of chickens and kindly share some eggs from time to time. They are quite delicious, and we've made plenty of breakfasts and baked goods with them. 

This got me thinking of the hangtown fry (an omelette with oysters, spinach, and bacon, originally from the SF Bay Area) that I'd explored over a decade ago.  What other ways could oysters and eggs come together?  As my desire to connect oysters and gardening had yet to materialize, why not use the next closest thing: homegrown eggs?  Lady Oyster shared a fascinating post on how she strengthens her chickens' eggs by putting crushed up oyster shell in their feed.  Also, as this is an "oyster blog" and my previous five posts had been mostly oyster-less, I needed to get back to my roots.  Nothing but oysters on this round.  And while definitely not a common pairing (at least in Western cooking), oysters and eggs just might work if exeggcuted correctly.  Don't worry, plenty more egg puns to come.  I did some research, came up with a few ideas, and delved into crackin' and shuckin'.  Who's eggcited!?!  

Buffalo Oyster Deviled Eggs

Wingswept Acres Eggs
The adjective "deviled" before any food item has always intrigued me.  The first instance of deviled in reference to food appeared in British print in 1786, and the term was quickly adopted in American vernacular by the early 19th century.  Deviled clams, deviled ham, deviled crabs, even deviled oysters are a thing.  Then there's Mexican camarones a la diabla and Italian fra diavolo sauce.  And, of course, most prominently, we have deviled eggs.  While there are various methods of stuffing, breading, saucing, etc. to be found in deviled recipes, they all have that common, obvious element: well-seasoned and spicy.  Appropriate nomenclature, right?  For my first oyster and egg mashup, I couldn't think of a better starting point than my own favorite well-seasoned and spicy style: buffalo.  Additional disclosure: I worked at a San Francisco oyster bar, Leo's, for a while, and they served a deviled egg topped with a wing-fried oyster.  It was the most popular item on the menu.  Best to start with a surefire hit.  My wacky oyster-eggscapade needed some confirmation bias and confidence building.  
 
I hard boiled five extra large eggs from Wingswept Acres, a Berks County farm that's a weekly staple at our local farmers market.  They're pricey, but worth it.  Eggs are a "get what you pay for" food item, and I've always found the dollar or two more you spend per dozen is completely justified in terms of quality.  All that non-GMO, organic fed, pasture raised, did-the-chicken-have-friends stuff aside, they're just better tasting eggs.  I also do have a heart and believe all our livestock should be treated ethically and respectfully.  You can literally taste the sadness in those bootleg sweatshop eggs.

Top left clockwise: egg prep, deviled eggs pre-oyster,
cornmeal fried oysters, buffalo dressing oysters
Anyway, with the eggs cooked and peeled, I sliced them, removed the yolks, and moved on to the deviled filling.  I made some mayo with another egg, lemon juice, and canola oil; then mixed in the yolks, hot sauce, ranch, Worcestershire sauce, and some diced celery.  The result was a tasty, but standard, buffalo deviled egg mixture.  I wanted a more dynamic oyster-egg marriage.  So, I shucked the dozen Sweet Amalia Oysters I'd received from Fishadelphia and added some of the oyster liquor to the filling.  The addition loosened the mixture a bit, but brought a slight oceanic salinity that would tie in the fried oyster nicely.  I stuffed the eggs and into the fridge they went to chill.   

As for the fried oysters, I wanted to stay classic.  I've done some crazy versions of buffalo oysters in the past, but this one had to be textbook.  I gave the oysters a quick dredge in some rather culturally insensitive Indian Head Yellow Corn Meal  (perhaps they'll re-brand as Guardians' or Commanders' Corn Meal).  The oysters went into 350°F canola oil for 2-3 minutes until golden brown and out they came.  I melted some butter, mixed in ample amounts of Frank's Red Hot, and gave the oysters a toss.  Final step, compilation. 

Buffalo Oyster Deviled Eggs
I grabbed the chilled deviled eggs, which had set and firmed up nicely, and topped each with its own buffalo fried oyster.  I added some chives and thinly sliced celery, garnished with lemon and celery leaves to make it all pretty, and dove right in.  I don't mind saying they tasted speggtacular.  I expected as much since two of my favorite flavors are buffalo and brine.  The rich, buttery egg had a great tang from the ranch and hot sauce, and contrasted well with the crunch from the fried oyster and diced celery.  A great dish for your next Super Bowl party with some culinarily adventurous guests, and a great start to my own oyster and egg adventure.


"Scotch Egg" Oysters

Classic Scotch Egg from ScotchTails,
formerly in London's Borough Market 
Scotch eggs have made a real resurgence on the American culinary scene the last few years.  British cuisine has in general.  I'm not quite sure why.  Maybe because it's delicious, despite the frequent disparaging stereotypes you hear.  It could be the meteoric rise of British chefs like April Bloomfield, Gordon Ramsey, and Jamie Oliver.  Or it could be a organic extension of the gastropub and micro-brew renaissance we've seen the last decade.  Beer and British food, after all, are a natural pairing.  Either way, being an unapologetic Anglophile, I'm pretty happy about it.  When it comes to scotch eggs, doubly so.  

As for the scotch egg's history, it's a contentious one, to say the least.  Some believe it was created in a London department store, others say its from Whitby in Northeast England.  Then there are claims it originates from an Indian dish, while others argue various North African dishes.  The only things that seem to be agreed upon are 1) it's definitely not from Scotland, and 2) it's a damn tasty dish.  So when thinking of oyster and egg dishes, a scotch egg oyster immediately came to mind.  The texture of a soft to medium boiled egg, as desired for a scotch egg, is pretty similar to that of a larger, poached or steamed oyster.  And as shellfish and salty pig parts are always a brilliant match, an oyster wrapped in pork sausage and deep fried sounded deleggtable.

Top left clockwise: ingredient prep, forming
the scotch egg oysters, breading, deep frying
I picked up some pre-shucked, extra large MeTompkin Chesapeake oysters from Hill's Seafood, my local fish market.  I'm usually a proponent of shell to table, as in shucking your own.  However, the scotch egg undertaking required uniform, extra large oyster meats - so large they'd be difficult to find retailed in the shell.  Also, even though this may seem sacrilegious, I've often found freshly jarred oysters from reputable establishments to be fine, if not better, for some cooked oyster preparations.  Give them a try.  Or egg-off with your sanctimony if you feel otherwise ;)   

I lightly poached the oysters, thirty seconds or so, just to firm them up for handling.  I'd also bought some English style bangers from Dundore and Heister, a sausage maker in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania that wholesales to local markets around Philadelphia.  I removed the sausage from the casings and mixed it up with some chopped thyme, just to add some fresh aromatics and color.  Well, honestly, thyme was pretty much all that remained of my garden come mid-November, and I had to use some homegrown ingredients, right?  The sausage was then rolled into balls, flattened into patties, and the oysters neatly tucked in to form the scotch egg oysters. Next step was your standard breading procedure: flour dredge, egg wash, then breadcrumb coating, Panko in this instance.  With some vegetable oil at 375°F, it was finally time to fry.   

"Scotch Egg" Oysters
The end result was identical to a scotch egg in its crispy, golden-brown ovular sphere.  You'll notice what was once five scotch egg oysters became four when finished.  I lost one to the oil overheating and browning the outside before the sausage had fully cooked through.  It was disappointing to slice open and see a pink center.  Nobody likes medium rare sausage.  Lesson learned and the other four came out spot on.  I sliced one for presentation, then plated them up with some lemon, thyme, and parsley for garnish.  As for a condiment, you typically see creamy or spicy mustard sauces with scotch eggs.  However, I've got a soft spot for the classic British HP Brown Sauce.  It's like a tangier, Worcestershire flavored ketchup, and they put it on practically everything in the UK.  As for the scotch egg oysters themselves, they weren't eggsactly what I'd hoped for.  Unquestionably good, as most deep fried things are, but the sausage completely overwhelmed the oyster.  It was more like eating sausage nuggets with a muted, low-tide surprise in the middle.  You got the texture of the oyster a little, but that was about it.  Perhaps I'll try again using more mildly flavored sausage and less of it.  But hey, it was a pretty fun and tasty experiment, nonetheless.       

Oyster Chawanmushi (牡蠣茶碗蒸し)

Oyster Omelette (Orh Luak) in 
Singapore - courtesy of @jamietan04 
Pairing oysters and eggs is pretty common in Asian cooking.  Every country or region seems to have its own version of egg and batter fried oysters or an oyster omelette.  There's Gul Jeon (
굴전) 
in Korea and Hoi Thod (หอยทอด) in Thailand, both crispy fried oyster pancakes.  Then, there are countless oyster omelettes throughout Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Singapore, many believed to have originated from the Fujian province in China with the Hokkien diaspora.  In Taiwan, it's even considered an unofficial national dish.  All are highly celebrated staples of hawkers and night markets.  Grossly overgeneralizing, they're basically oysters and eggs pan fried with a starchy batter and served with rich or spicy sauces and toppings.  Between the intimidating array of varieties and my overall ignorance to them, I knew I couldn't do the world of Asian street-style oyster omelettes any justice in a single dish.  They're deserving of their own blog post, or posts even.   

However, this brought my absolute favorite Asian fare egg preparation to mind: chawanmushi.  Chawanmushi is a Japanese egg custard flavored with dashi, soy sauce, and mirin, and often served with shrimp, mushrooms, fish cake and other savory ingredients.  The first time I ever tried it left a serious impression.  Silky-smooth, umami-laden egg topped with uni, sea beans, and scallions; it was like nothing I'd ever had before.  Mind-blowing, in fact, as every egg custard I'd had until that point was sweet.  Who knew they could even be savory, and wouldn't a briny ocean pop from an oyster be a great addition?  I'm also a bit of an armchair Nipponophile, so when it came to eggs and oysters, I knew I was going to look to Japanese cuisine for some inspiration. 

Top left clockwise: ingredient prep, Graveling Points,
pouring the mixture, adding oysters mid-steam
It just so happened the next catch of the day from Fishadelphia was Graveling Point Oysters from Maxwell Shellfish off the Mullica River in New Jersey.  Perfect timing for my oyster and egg custard.  I grabbed a few ingredients from my local Asian grocer, Ebo's, and hit the web and some cookbooks for recipes and techniques.  I started with two eggs, whisked, and added in some dashi.  Instant Hondashi, to be exact.  Free time is rare as a parent, and my kids' one hour naps didn't provide enough for me to make a proper dashi from seaweed and bonito flakes.  Plus, I was skipping my own nap and was tired.  
Parenting is eggshausting.  

All the recipes I read varied slightly in their egg to liquid ratio.  Some said 3 to 1, others 2 to 1, and several said somewhere in between.  Then some went by weight, while others went by volume.  My whisked eggs equaled half a cup by volume, so I went with a cup and a third of dashi with a little rice vinegar, soy sauce, and oyster liquor.  Chawanmushi also requires straining to remove any particulate, ensuring a smooth, consistent custard.  I sieved the eggs and poured it into some Japanese tea cups over a few oysters, so they'd all steam and meld in flavor together.  I added some baby shiitake mushrooms on top, and the lidded tea cups went directly into a few inches of lightly steaming water for thirty minutes or so.  At the twenty-five minute mark, I added another oyster, just so it would barely cook and set on the top of the custard.  A fresher oyster to contrast the fully cooked ones on the bottom would be nice, but I didn't want the temperature clash of a raw oyster and its ice-cold liquor mixed into the warm, cozy custard. 
  
Oyster Chawanmushi
 I steamed the tea cups for another five minutes, but the custard hadn't fully set.  I gave them another five minutes, checked again, but still not set.  Had my egg to dashi ratio been wrong?  Was my water temperature too low?  Would the custard ever firm up?  Finally, after another ten minutes, they had that classic custard quiver and were finished.  David Chang did say "making chawanmushi is easy, but cooking it is difficult."  I definitely found that to be true as the prep was a breezy five minutes, but the cooking was forty-five minutes full of anxiety and impatience.  That being said, there are more approachable and less fussy ways to make chawanmushi.  I removed the lids and added sesame seeds, fresno chilies, chives, and some caviar.  You know I had to work fish eggs somewhere into a post on oysters and eggs.  Don't worry, it was just $10 Coho salmon "caviar" from Whole Foods.  I'm a baller on a budget.  Thankfully, all the anxious cooking paid off as it tasted incredible.  It was silky, smooth, and savory.  The smokiness from the dashi was most prominent, but the oyster brine and flavor was notably there.  The salmon roe brought a sharp brightness, and the mushrooms a slight earthiness.  And the fully cooked oysters at the bottom were texturally perfect, a most surprising delight.  This chawanmushi was, in one word, eggsquisite.

Spoonful of the Chawanmushi
My oyster and egg mashups were a lot of fun, from the initial research and conception to seeing each dish to fruition.  Some were great overall, others were great learning eggsperiences.  And this was just a start to a most eggcellent adventure.  There are plenty more combinations that I certainly missed and am keen on eggsploring.  I fondly look forward to further 
eggsperiments, and hope you try your hand at some as well.  Perhaps, if you're bold enough, take a crack at a prairie oyster.  Either way, go eat some oysters and eggs!  

Cheers,
The SF Oyster Nerd

Boston Seafood Tour

My family and I took a weekend trip up to Boston recently for the missus' 15th year college reunion.  I've never been the reunion type.  Tony Soprano said it best - "...'remember when' is the lowest form of conversation."  What else can you talk about with someone you occasionally played beer pong with or sat next to in Intro to Western Civ?  They also seem like shameless networking and bragging sessions.  The amount you hear - "So, what do you do?" - is brutal.  "I'm a lead attorney and vice president for DLA Piper."  "In finance right now, but working on a tech start up."  "Tenured professor at Tufts, and we summer on the Cape."  Who knew "summer" could be used as a verb?  I enjoyed throwing people off with my response of "well, I play soccer, eat seafood, garden, hang out with my kid, a lot of Netflix and Phillies baseball."  It was fun watching them squirm to get out "oh, I meant for a living, what do you do for a living?"  And though I had no frame of reference for the former co-eds in their heyday, Joan Cusack's line in Grosse Pointe Blank resonated with me - "I went to my reunion, it was just as if everyone had swelled."  

I'm kidding.  These were my preconceptions of reunions.  I was pleasantly surprised how nice the experience was, and of course am joking on the "swelling" part.  Everyone was lovely, both in appearance and conversation.  I did come to realize that a college reunion is a wonderful chance to get all your friends together in one place, if you can reach a critical mass in attendance.  They're particularly opportune if those friends are strewn about the globe, as was the case here.  And while rubbing elbows on the quad over mediocre tapas and poor deejaying isn't my cup of tea (woohoo! Boston!), I did in fact have a splendid time.       
The 30+ restaurants or markets I'd considered
for my seafood tour of Boston
More importantly, there was a Saturday afternoon interlude in which I could sneak away to explore Boston's seafood scene.  Cape Cod oysters, Ipswich clams, scrod, lobster rolls, and of course, New England clam chowder.  There's certainly no shortage of seafaring history, culture, and cuisine when it comes to Boston.  Unfortunately, the four to five hour window I had couldn't do any of this true justice.  My journey would be more like Paul Revere's in length than Israel Bissell's (definitely check Bissell out if you're not familiar).  I was limited by time, geography, and hours of operation.  Such is life as a parent, and for the brownie points, I'll say "I wouldn't change a thing."  I did some research, consulted some Boston-familiar friends, and put together a respectable mashup of classic, trendy, and eclectic eateries.  Apologies in advance for the innumerable gems omitted from this tour.  So, after hugs and kisses to my almost-napping toddler and eye-on-the-time fiancé, I jumped in a cab and headed to the city. 

Two of Saltie Girl's Four Menus:
Raw Bar and Main
First stop was Saltie Girl in Back Bay.  This place gets busy as ever for Saturday brunches, and since they don't take reservations, I needed to get there early.  Opened in 2016 by Kathy Sidell, Saltie Girl was hyped as a pint-sized 30-seat restaurant hawking Barcelona-inspired seafood, right next to its parent restaurant, MET Back Bay.  It proved so successful that it took over MET Back Bay's space in mid 2020 and more than tripled in size.  Even arriving at 11:15 am, just after they'd opened, the place felt overwhelming.  Scores of patrons in the street, patio, bar, upstairs and downstairs 
dining rooms.  Dozens of staff scurrying around with smoked salmon benedicts and fried lobster & waffles.  I nestled into a corner seat at the bar, and I swear, the bartender averaged making ten Bloody Marys a minute my entire meal. 

Fried Clams, Raw Platter
Live Rokke Scallop Crudo 
Being busy definitely isn't a bad thing for a restaurant, nor its guests 
necessarily.  But when that carries over to the menus, it can be.  Nothing looked bad, it was just too much and again, overwhelming.  Toasts, crudos, oysters, tartares, pastas, sashimi, terrines, burgers, caviar, fried fish.  Overkill, literally.  I was originally keen on ordering some tinned seafood (more on that later), but that menu was 100 items alone.  And beyond those tins, nothing really struck me as Catalan, as Saltie Girl was originally branded.  I decided on a modest mix of dishes.  I had to save room for the rest of the tour, but wanted a good representation.  Some raw, some crudo, some fried, some fancy.  I ordered three different oysters, a top neck clam, and a Jonah crab claw.  Seeing Jonah crab on menus excites me.  It was largely ignored when I was growing up on the East coast, deemed as inferior to the blue crab or lobster, and often considered by-catch or a nuisance. However, regulations and over-fishing of other species have seen the Jonah crab's popularity grow.  And it's quite delicious, kind of like a poor man's Dungeness crab.  As for the oysters, unfortunately all were a bit lean and bland.  It was the summer, a poor oyster season, so I couldn't expect top quality or hold that against them.  They were a little butchered and bellied in their shucking, though.

Foie Gras & BBQ Eel
(Unagi) Toast
The fried Ipswich clam bellies didn't disappoint.  Crunchy, salty, and slightly sweet with that intertidal gaminess only clams have.  The intoxicating aroma of fried clams alone is enough reason to order them.  Ipswich clams, more crassly known as piss clams, are rarely found outside of New England.  If they aren't on your Boston culinary bucket list, right next to chowder and lobster roll, you've got some reassessing to do.  The
 scallop crudo with green garlic sauce was clean, refreshing, and pretty decent.  What impressed, though, was the seared foie gras & BBQ eel toast with sesame and shisho.  I have a mixed relationship with foie gras, I'll admit, in that it feels both over and under appreciated.  There's a pervasive hatred and a counter-culture love of it.  Politics and production methods aside, I overindulged on foie gras while working in the industry as it was always on hand.  It lost its mystique and appeal.  A few years later, having been out of restaurants for some time, I miss it, particularly when seeing the price tags as an average patron.  Either way, it's delicious, and Saltie Girl's pairing with unagi on toast was a delightful bite.  The decadent, fatty foie gras matched the eel's briny sweetness well, and was all illuminated by the bright shiso and Japanese BBQ sauce.  

Overall, Saltie Girl was a perfectly pleasant time with solid food, although not what I imagine the establishment originally set out to be.  That's fine.  Restaurants evolve and cater to their clientele's desires, as they should.  It was little raucous and overwhelming at times, but maybe that's me being old and curmudgeonly.  I just wish I'd been able to dine there in its pre-expansion prime.  I can't be sure, but believe it was a much different experience. 

Seaport seems to constantly
be in development mode
Next stop was Row 34 in Seaport.  The last two decades have seen this neighborhood completely revamped, primarily from the city's Big Dig and billions of dollars in local, state, and federal investment.  Abandoned warehouses and desolate parking lots are now 7-figure lofts and shimmering glass high rises.  It's nice, but almost too nice, like a movie set or something.  Character takes time.  And of course, with luxury development comes hip, new restaurants serving up locally sourced produce, spirits, and seafood.  Ironically, it's this very development that may officially kill the city of Boston's fishing industry by pricing out the commercial anglers at the waterfront pier, but that's another story.  Row 34 was opened in late 2013 through a partnership of James Beard nominated chef Jeremy Sewall and oyster-farmer now oyster-magnate Skip Bennett of Island Creek.  The restaurant's name even comes from an especially prized oyster growth row on Island Creek's farm in Duxbury Bay.  It's got an industrial chic, workingman's feel, but the menus and food are a bit more elevated than your average oyster bar.  

I was meeting an old friend here, so this was my only real chance to go full throttle on a menu of any of the establishments I'd be visiting.  And man, we went pedal to the metal:
Left Going Clockwise - Raw Bar, Raw Oysters,
Smoked & Cured Fish Board, Collar and Whole Fish
  • Raw Oysters 
    • Row 34, Duxbury, MA 
    • Butter & Brine, Narragansett, RI  
    • Farewell Bluff, Damariscotta, ME
  • Smoked & Cured Board
    • Salmon Gravlax
    • Classic Smoked Salmon
    • Bluefish Pâté
    • Salmon Pâté
  • Crispy Fried Island Creek Oysters
  • Baked Oysters w/ Poblano Lime Butter
  • Roasted Amberjack Collar w/ Pistachio Gremolata
  • Grilled Whole Black Sea Bass w/ Corn & Shishito Chimichurri and Cilantro Crema
Their menus were admittedly just shy of Saltie Girl's size and breadth, but they were more focused, more reigned in.  Everything seemed legit and in line.  Mostly continental American with some pan-Latino influence.  They had a raw selection of ten oysters, focused on Cape Cod, with a few from Maine, Rhode Island, and Virginia.  Looking back, the oysters were by far the best shucked and presented of the day.  I expected nothing less from an establishment co-owned by an oyster farmer, after all.  All three we ordered were delectable, especially the Row 34s.  Duxbury Bay oysters always have a savory shellfish or lobster stock finish to them, and the Row 34s delivered this in spades.  I now understand the restaurant's choice in name.

Row 34 not under construction
Photo courtesy of Bentel & Bentel
The smoked & cured fish platter was solid, most notably the salmon "pâté."  It was basically a classic smoked whitefish dip, but hit all the right spots.  My buddy and I have a saying about house smoked fish:  "if it's on the menu, it gets ordered."  I was glad we stuck to the credo here.  The accoutrements with the board felt more like an after thought, but the important parts were on point.  And like smoked fish, if a fish collar is on the menu, it too "gets ordered."  The roasted collar was rich, juicy, and exploding with deep amberjack flavor.  It contrasted well with the sweet pistachios, tart lemon, and sharp garlic of the gremolata.  Just like a t-bone steak or bone-in chicken thighs, fish cooked on the bone always tastes better, whether whole, chops, or portions like the collar.  I really appreciated seeing the same fish throughout the menu being prepared in different parts and ways.  Halibut ceviche, halibut tacos, pan seared halibut cheeks, roasted halibut collars.  Right away, you know Row 34 is bringing in fresh whole fish, butchering, and utilizing every bit.  Economical, sustainable, and delicious all at the same time.  My only regret was not ordering one of the ceviches or crudos, as it seemed they put a lot of thought into those presentations.  Maybe next time when we return for the 20th year college reunion.  Thumbs up to Row 34, either way.  

The Union Oyster House
from Marshall Street
The third stop was an absolute must.  Perhaps not from a culinary perspective, but definitely a historic one.  I headed out of Seaport, across the Congress Street Bridge, and past the Boston Tea Party Museum.  I'm also a bit of an American Revolution nerd, so I would have loved to stop in.  Time was of the essence, though, and Union Oyster House was going to provide plenty of historic representation (with a modest taxation).  Founded in 1826 next to what is now Boston City Hall, Union Oyster House is the oldest continually-operating restaurant in America and a recognized National Landmark.  The building itself predates the restaurant by over a century, having previously been a dry goods and clothing store.  It housed a printing press for The Massachusetts Spy, a 1770s pro-American Revolution newspaper, and was briefly the residence of then-exiled Louis Phillipe, who later became King of France.  Since its inception as a restaurant, originally named Atwood & Bacon Oyster House, countless celebrities, politicians, and tycoons have dined at the establishment.  There's even a booth named after President John F. Kennedy, where he frequently enjoyed many a libation and oyster.

I didn't even catch which were "Rhode
Island" and which were "Connecticut"
I grabbed a seat at the original 1826 semi-circular oak oyster bar.  It's so old and weathered that there's a slight decline in the bar top, towards your lap.  One end of each platter actually needs to be propped on coasters when served.  Anachronistically charming as hell.  As for the menu, it had a bit of a "don't tread on me" attitude.  If it's working, why change it?  By no means was anything cutting edge, and even teetered on tourist-trappy.  Crab cakes, lobster rolls, crumbed Boston scrod, fried seafood and of course, chowder, which they've reportedly been serving since the 1840s.  But sometimes, the classics are classics for a reason, and I respect that.  Ye Olde Union Oyster House is, after all, a historic landmark, and the food reflects this.  

What I most enjoyed were the oyster listings - just "oysters - 1/2 dozen or dozen - market price."  I asked the shucker what oysters they had, and he responded "Good oysters.  One's from Rhode Island and the other's from Connecticut."  The simplicity was honestly kind of refreshing.  No "bottom cultivated, three years to harvest Royal Captain's Cups - bright brine with slight notes of brassica."  While I certainly value, even advocate for the high brow oyster sommelier presentation, there was something nice about "Rhode Island or Connecticut, what do you want?"  Both were well shucked and tasty, as was the chowder.  I went into Union Oyster House kind of knowing exactly what to expect.  Nothing mind blowing or showstopping in terms of cuisine.  What I did expect, and got, was a satisfying glimpse into colonial Boston with a heaping plate of history.  The oysters and "cuppa chowdah" on the side were great too.        

On to the final stop, but I first wanted to circle back to the aforementioned tinned seafood.  Quality tinned seafood is both literally and figuratively foreign to the US.  Starkist skipjack tuna or Bumble Bee pink salmon typically come to mind first when we hear "canned seafood," and they're most frequently reserved for budget conscious casseroles or sandwiches.  Don't get me wrong.  I've enjoyed a decent tuna salad sandwich here and there.  But most of these products fall closer to the cat food rather than caliber side of the culinary spectrum.  You'd be hard pressed to find Chicken-of-the-Sea celebrated at any established eatery.  Shit, our expectations for these products are so low that Subway fooled us for years by passing off even worse products as "canned tuna."  

However, across the pond, largely in Portugal and Spain, a variety of tinned seafoods or conservas have long been treasured as oceanic delicacies.  Most canned fish products in American markets are high volume, lower quality catches that are butchered, steamed, packed in water or vegetable oil, preserved and sold as economical staples.  Abroad, there's a bit more artistry to it.  Entire stores and restaurants are dedicated solely to curated tinned goods. Seafood preservation isn't just to sustain edibility, but a way to highlight or amplify desired characteristics.  Preservers employ nuanced techniques to elicit the best textures and flavors.  Pungent anchovies and sardines are cured, then seasoned and immersed in vinaigrettes.  Rare bivalves are mildly treated and packed at peak freshness to maintain their prized taste.  Tuna belly is charcoal grilled and preserved in rich, velvety oils.  It goes on, but to say the least, the Iberians and other Europeans take their tinned seafood much more seriously than we do/have.  A few vestiges of colonialism might have been nice to keep post-Revolution, in this instance at least.  Luckily, it's started to catch on in the States in the last few years.  And Boston, with its large Portuguese and Cape Verdean immigrant populations and influences, is a perfect starting point.      

haley.henry's front window
This is where haley.henry entered.  Well, after some wayward wandering around downtown first.  As they're centuries old, Boston's streets are not laid out in any discernible grid or pattern.  It's easy to get lost or turned around in what felt like a live action game of Chutes and Ladders.  After a few loops, I finally arrived at my destination.  Opened in 2016 by veteran sommelier Haley Fortier, haley.henry is an unassuming neighborhood wine bar in Downtown Crossing.  It's focused on natural wines, tinned fish, crudos, charcuterie, and hip hop.  Yes, hip hop.  The menu even whimsically pays tribute to hip hop favorites with à la carte categories like "bone thugs & charcuterie" or "biggie small plates."  As soon as I walked into an open kitchen behind a warm wooden bar and a congenial staff with Ghostface Killah playing in the background, I knew I'd made the right choice.   

View of the kitchen from
my seat at the bar
I was seated at the bar, right in front of the kitchen.  The bar is only nine seats and the kitchen is, at best, a compact 5 x 15 feet.  Talk about being packed in like sardines, am I right?!  Impressive they're able to execute quality from such a modest space.  I most admired their inventive use of the limited area and equipment; one of the cooks was reducing something in a sauce pan on the panini press.  Respect.  The menus were just as advertised on the front window.  An erudite listing of wines and beers, some salty and pickley starters, meat & cheese boards, crudos, and tinned fish.  As you can imagine, I was there for the latter.  And while I highly praise artisanally preserved seafood, I'm most definitely a novice to the wide array of choices.  The GM of the restaurant more than willingly spent several minutes chatting with me and detailing the selection.  

I landed on three tins - Icelandic cod liver in its own oil; Portuguese calamari tubes stuffed with tentacles and rice, preserved in a tomato ragout; and Portuguese steamed mussels in escabeche.  All were served with toasted bread, red onion, mixed herbs, lemon, and of course, Ruffles.  It takes balls to present a $22 tin of fish next to a bag of 50¢ potato chips and say "trust me, this is best."  But shit, they were right.  Each tin was great.  The mussels were full of that vinegary, smokey paprika, garlic forward flavor a classic escabeche delivers.  The calamari tubes were delightful, like tiny seafood seafood sausages in salty tomato sauce.  As for the cod liver, absolute next level.  I know cod liver oil has had some not so pleasant connotations in our culture.  I always picture poor little Johnny being force-fed a spoonful before he's allowed to watch Howdy Doody or go shoot marbles.  That stuff is fermented and choked down for health purposes, and I believe constitutes child abuse nowadays.  This tin of cod liver, however, was incredible.  It was mild yet luscious and spread on toast like warm butter.  The GM was dead on with "it's the foie gras of the sea."  With a touch of salt and a squeeze of lemon, I can't think of many better bites I had the entire weekend.  I even peer-pressured a couple dining next to me to try some.  They agreed.  I only wish I could have tried a few more tins from the menu, as the three recommendations I had were great.  Again, 20th year college reunion, here I come.     

Left to Right - Minnow Cod Liver in Oil, Da Morgada Stuffed Calamari in Ragout,
Da Morgada Mussels in Escabeche 
Whereas Saltie Girl's tinned fish list was over 100 items that I doubt more than a few staff members could knowledgeably speak to, haley.henry's was carefully and resolutely selected.  Anyone can order the gamut of Iberian canned goods from their regional wholesaler.  Boasting the widest selection of something is not always a good thing.  Believe me, I did it with oysters as a raw bar manager, and the quality and connection with the guests suffered.  haley.henry is hitting the tinned seafood experience right in the sweet spot.  It's not often I'm awestruck by what a restaurant is doing, but I can truly say I felt that here.  The food, music, ambiance, staff, and conversation were all some of the best I've had in years.  They succeed in humbly selling their experience with and passion for novel wines and cuisine.  They strike a delicate balance of fun and educational dining while eschewing even the slightest hint of arrogance or condescension.  As the owner put it, "we don't take ourselves too seriously."  It's hard to with menu categories like "Missy Shell-iot," sides of Ruffles potato chips, and even Weiner Wednesdays.  But I can assure you, haley.henry does in fact take their food and drink very seriously, and it shows in the best ways.
      
Although brief, my mini seafood tour was a blast.  I had some great food, learned some intriguing history, and chatted with some amazing and passionate people.  And while I still maintain reunions are not my thing, I am genuinely looking forward to the next one in Boston.  I've only touched the tip of the iceberg in what the city has to offer - just not quality baseball - #GoPhillies. 

Cheers,
The SF Oyster Nerd

Pastry & Seafood

As you may have noticed from the new header, I moved this past summer from the Bay Area to the suburbs of Philadelphia, where I grew up.  Quite the transition from the trendy, hipster streets of Oakland and San Francisco to the pastoral, colonial themed ways of Willistown Township, Pennsylvania.  I'm pretty excited for the perks of suburban living: bigger home, backyard, tool shed, tree house, tire swing.  But I'd be lying if I said I don't miss the bustling food scenes of urban areas.  Don't get me wrong, there are lots of quality restaurants and markets in the suburbs, and I'm just a 30 minute drive from a booming restaurant scene in Philadelphia .  The accessibility to gardening, fishing, foraging, and hunting in the suburbs more than makes up for any cuisine shortcomings.  Occasionally though, I've caught myself whining "why aren't there any Peruvian roast chicken spots" or "what do you mean the nearest Korean BBQ is 45 mins away?!"  I've even uttered a snide "man, this place is stuck in 2012 with all these gastropubs."  Seriously, every other new restaurant profiled in this January 2022 issue of a local magazine was a beer tasting room or tap house.  Criticizing the community is a great way to reintroduce myself, right?  Figured I'd be transparent on what an asshole I can be when it comes to my culinary expectations.

Largemouth bass from my neighborhood
pond in Chester County, P
A
What most excites me is both the prospect and challenge of new oyster nerd experiences.  When I first moved, I was nervous, knowing I'd become a snobby brat from the abundance of food culture in the Bay Area.  Sure, the Philly suburbs were where my foundation of fish and seafood obsession started.  My childhood was filled with trips to the Jersey Shore, bass fishing in neighborhood ponds or Marsh Creek, and learning how to shuck oysters at Hill's.  But no way the quaintness of Malvern, Pennsylvania could compete with the edible eminence of San Francisco to which I'd become so accustomed.  However, the more I've regained my footing in the Greater Philadelphia area, the more ideas for seafood experiments, exploration, and collaboration have spawned (yep, still grinding out the oyster puns).  I can't wait to splurge on Philadelphia's high-end seafood scene, delve into Chester County trout fishing, and visit some Delaware and South Jersey aquaculture farms.  There are new, progressive organizations like Fishadelphia to check out.  Hell, even Baltimore, Boston, and New York with all their oceanic delights are just a few hours' drive.  And you know I'm going to do a deep dive into one of Philadelphia's most historic and iconic dishes, Snapper Soup.

That being said, it gets cold here.  Like, really cold.  Like fuck-off-I'm-not-going-outside cold.  Taking the climatic Prozac of the Bay Area for the last 10 years has made me a little b*tch when it comes to the weather, but it was 4° Fahrenheit outside as I wrote this.  Come on.  That's cold.  I guess that meant most of my ideas would be back-burnered until spring or summer.  What that also meant, though, was this would be the first proper braising and baking season I'd enjoyed in a long time.  Nothing says "it's winter" as endearingly as a pot of beef stew simmering on the stove top or the aroma of freshly baked Christmas cookies permeating the house.  

David Atherton's Fish Pie from
The Great British Bake Off 

Okay.  I knew I wanted to celebrate the joyous cooking season that an East Coast winter could be.  How best to incorporate seafood or oysters into this?  Yes, I'm aware oysters are at their absolute peak in the winter and there are myriad new and unique ones to try on the East Coast.  In due time.  I was looking for more of a cozy and covid-resurgence-safe indoor project.  Something to enjoy with the family, and braising or baking seemed like a perfect fit.  As for a braise, beyond squid, octopus, and a debatable fish or two, not many good low and slow cooked seafoods came to mind.  Sure, few things are better on a cold night than steamy bowl of chowder or cioppino.  But those felt like old hat and wouldn't occupy all my recently obtained free time thanks to omicron.  That left me with baking.  And while king mackerel muffins or black cod biscotti sound like horrifyingly bad ideas, there might be something to savory, warmth filled and pastry focused seafood dishes.  Binge watching The Great British Bake Off may or may not have played a part in this as well.  

There was one problem.  I'm a shit baker.  Maybe not that bad, but I never took a keen interest or really gave it the old college try.  Without even the most novice of experience in making chocolate cake or apple pie, how the hell was I going to tackle a master task like flaky, well laminated puff pastry?  Luckily, I have a wonderful co-parent and partner in culinary crime, Vanessa, who lives and breathes all things baking.  Girl can make a mean pie crust from scratch while reviewing our mortgage, hosting a Zoom meeting for work, and chasing our son around the kitchen, all at the same time.  With some coaxing, I finally convinced her to participate in my selfishly indulgent baked seafood bonanza.  So, with opulent amounts of butter on hand and a savvy pâtissier by my side, I guess it's: 

Maine Lobster Pot Pie

The Kennebunk Inn Lobster Pot Pie
I love chicken pot pie.  My family actually has a long running tradition of making what can best be described as sympathy or support pot pies.  Serious injury or illness, you get a pot pie.  Loss of a loved one, you get a pot pie.  Welcoming a new baby, you get a pot pie.  Everybody gets a pot pie!  It's a timeless comfort food; a warm, edible hug that says "we're here and thinking of you."  I wanted to start with something simple and identifiable, so a lobster pot pie made perfect sense.  It's a rather common re-imagination of the classic dish, and The Kennebunk Inn in Maine has even received international recognition for theirs.  Celebrity chef Cat Cora called it "the best thing she ever ate" on the namesake Food Network show.

Top left clockwise - Cooked Lobsters,
Filling Prep, Pre-Bake Pot Pies, Shortcrust

After grabbing a few lobsters from Hill's on a chilly Sunday afternoon, we busted out the steaming pot and rolling pin to get started.  Vanessa knocked out her legendary shortcrust pastry: AP flour, kosher salt, butter, ice water, egg, and of course, more butter.  I was expecting her to be slapping, kneading, and all the things associated with dough making.  Pie crust, however, should be handled as little as possible.  Overworking the dough will create gluten and make the final product tough and chewy.  We wanted that flake.  She brought together cold butter and flour as gently as possible til crumbly, worked in the egg and cold water, and formed it all into a ball.  I steamed the lobsters and started cracking away.  Both the shortcrust and the lobster meat went into the fridge for chilling. 

For the pie filling, I'd had a refined lobster chowder of sorts with a slight sweetness in mind.  I evenly cubed up carrots, onions and celery (or brunoised the mirepoix if you're feeling posh).  I also cubed up red potatoes and fennel.  That anise flavor fennel has goes great with lobster.  I sauteed all this on high heat for a few minutes with some grapeseed oil in a dutch oven, then hit it with some cognac to deglaze and bring in that desired sweetness.  Lobster and cognac are another great pairing.  After the alcohol cooked off, I added in some butter and flour to make a light roux, followed by clam juice and heavy cream, then brought it all down to a simmer.  The veggies cooked a little more until al dente and the filling gradually thickened.  Right before it finished, I folded in some peas, parsley, and the lobster, and let it go a few minutes more for the flavors to meld.  Shortcrust rolled out and we were ready for com-pie-lation.

Warren Avenue Lobster Pot Pies
Keeping a little lobster meat and filling left over for snacking, of course, we ended up making four individual serving sized pies.  Two for us, and two for some family members who'd recently tested positive for the 'vid.  Like I said, support pot pies are a tradition.  As for ours, light egg wash applied and into a 375° oven for 15-20 minutes.  I also made two claw sized slits in the crust to pop in some lobster claws and fennel fronds at the end, kind of like a classic lamb shank pie presentation.  The final product, quite delicious to say the least.  Admittedly, we started with a layup on this one.  Nailed on pie crust from Vanessa and a surefire lobster chowder all brought together couldn't really fail.  It was warm, crispy, rich, savory, comforting and every other adjective you could tuck into your own personal little pot pie.  Only adjustment I would make is the price of lobster, as this would be an excellent Sunday night staple if the pocketbook allowed.  

Everything Spiced Smoked Salmon Pinwheels

This came to me as a cheeky "when in Rome" approach.  As mentioned before, being in the suburbs kind of feels like being ten years behind the culinary curve.  So, why not embrace that?  Pinwheels are right up there with other anachronistic dishes like stuffed tomatoes, tuna casserole, and egg salad.  You know, like those buffalo chicken pinwheels Carol brings to Nance and Bill's Super Bowl party every year.  They are sooo good, and Carol won't tell anyone the secret ingredient.  Three margaritas later and "shhh...it's a packet of Hidden Valley Ranch Seasoning."  I'm actually pretty fond of some of these and genuinely believe the tupperware generation doesn't get enough appreciation.  Some are truly terrible, though, so maybe it's just the contrarian in me.  Either way, a puff pastry pinwheel would be a step-above-novice challenge, and while tongue in cheek, should still be delicious. 

Aunt Jo making puff pastry with the 
Poilâne recipe for reference
We were fortunate enough to have an even more veteran baker, my in-law Aunt Jo, visiting at the time.  She's an expert in everything from your standard rough puff to newspaper thin sheets of filo.  We had to employ such experience when making our puff pastry.  Funny thing I started to realize, I was making it through this entire pastry foray without actually making any dough myself.  True pros delegate, no?  Quick reference to Vanessa's good friend's cookbook, Poilâne, and away we went with the kneading and laminating.  Making puff pastry didn't seem the insurmountable task I'd assumed, it's just time consuming and a bit finicky.  It's basically enveloping butter in dough, rolling, folding, and chilling.  Then it's rolling, folding, and chilling.  Again, rolling, folding, and chilling.  Once again, rolling, folding...you get the point.  We then had to wait a full 24 hours before we could actually use the dough.  Not exactly a casual process. 

Salmon Pinwheel Roll
The next day, I mixed up cream cheese, sour cream, parsley, everything spice, lemon juice, and some Sugartown Smoked Specialties salmon.  Go figure there's an award winning smoked seafood company right around the corner from our house, and it's really good.  I guess the 'burbs ain't so bad.  Anyway, I laid out the chilled pastry dough, spread out the mixture, and rolled it up tightly.  After a little more everything spice was sprinkled on the outside, I sliced out fifteen wheels as evenly as possible, added a little egg wash and into a 400° oven they went.  20 minutes later and we had beautifully browned, flaky, smoked salmon pinwheels.  Visually they weren't perfect, but the pastry and salmon mixture tasted amazing.  Our 15 month old even crushed two whole ones on his own.

Willistown Everything Spiced Smoked Salmon Pinwheels
There were some tweaks I'd definitely make on future versions.  I should have whipped the cream cheese longer and flaked the salmon finer for a nicer uniformity and texture, which may have also made a better visual spiral.  Dill would have been preferable to parsley.  I also could have sliced the pinwheels thinner for more suitably sized appetizer bites, but all in all, I was happy.  Due to "taste testing," fifteen quickly became twelve before plating.  And nothing felt more appropriate than presenting them all dolled up with some lemon and parsley garnish on my most ostentatious oyster platter, boomer style.  Watch out, Carol, 'cause I'm coming hard in the paint with everything spiced smoked salmon pinwheels at the March Madness Final Four party.

Steelhead Trout Wellington

Josh Niland's Fish Wellington
Beef Wellingtons are admittedly out of style, but they're making a gradual comeback, or at least should be.  Regardless, they taste great, are always showstoppers, and had everything that I wanted in my seafood pastry coupe de grâce.  Whole fish or loins wrapped in pastry were more common than I'd originally thought.  Various fish en croûte recipes by Gordon Ramsay, Martha StewartJamie Oliver and others were all over the place in my research.  Sydney based chef and avant-garde seafood master Josh Niland makes an impressive one.  As I'd had decent success with guidance from his fish sausage recipe, I decided to use his version as my main reference.  And going for that stunning look, a head on tail on whole fish was a must.

Mediterranean sea bass, also known as branzino or branzini, was my original idea for this approach, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to go local.  I'd already had Northeast trap caught lobster and salmon that was locally smoked, so it would be nice to keep the regional theme going.  That meant trout.  Don't get me wrong, branzino is a tasty fish and can be a very sustainable choice depending on how it's farmed.  However, there's something weird about getting plain old sea bass all the way from Europe, especially as the carbon footprint from its 5,000 mile journey seems to negate the ecological benefits.  It's also been annoyingly trendy for the last decade and almost cliché now.  I bet you'd find it on one of those aforementioned suburban gastropub menus.  Sorry, I'm sure they're all very pleasant establishments with great kale caesar salads and Nashville hot chicken sandwiches.

Hudson Valley Steelhead on a Snow Day
I ended up getting a Hudson Valley Fisheries steelhead trout.  A Pacific coast native fish being responsibly farmed in New York felt like an appropriate choice reflecting my own personal transition.  I'd honestly wanted to get a trout from Springcress or Laurel Hill trout farms in Pennsylvania, but driving four to eight hours round trip for one fish was a tough sell.  Hudson Valley simply shipped directly to my doorstep in 24 hours.  I'm pretty anti-Amazon, DoorDash, Blue Apron, etc., but delivery can be a way to directly support sustainable farms around the country and ensure the best quality.  Plus, it kept me out of the cold.

Top left clockwise - Steelhead Butchery,
Pre-Bake Wellington, Duxelles Prep
Fortuitously enough, the steelhead showed up on a snowy Saturday morning.  Perfect timing.  With my fillet knife sharpened and Aunt Jo's puff pastry thawing in the fridge, I went to work preparing the fish for the Wellington.  It was tricky, as I had to fillet one loin off, debone the whole fish, skin it, and keep the head and tail intact.  My fish-mongering was definitely rusty, but with nothing but time on my hands, it ended up working out.  Next, I cooked off a mushroom and spinach duxelles for the stuffing between the fish and pastry.  Bloomsdale spinach, creminis, shallots, garlic, thyme and parsley finely minced and sauteed in butter.  A little cream was added in for an almost paste-like texture to adhere to the fish.  I let this cool and spread it out on a double layer of store bought filo dough.  The filo would act as a barrier to prevent the puff pastry from getting soggy while baking.  We rolled the trout up tightly, let it chill for a few hours to bind and slow the eventual cooking, and then enveloped it with the puff pastry.  Vanessa did some cross hatching to make it all fancy, and into a 425° oven.  The higher temperature would expand the pastry more quickly, adding an insulation barrier to ensure the trout wouldn't overcook before the pastry had fully browned.  Yeah Science!  

Duffy's Cut Steelhead Trout Wellington
Although those 25 minutes felt like an eternity, the result was well worth the wait.  A decadent showstopper indeed, and it tasted great.  The puff pastry was crispy, buttery, and popped with a heavy sprinkle of Maldon sea salt.  Cracklings I'd made from the steelhead skin added a nice crunch on top too.  The trout had a mild, clean yet slightly earthy flavor that was complimented well by the mushroom, garlic, and spinach.  I know many people say saltwater fish are better than freshwater, but I genuinely prefer the latter.  There's a pleasing gaminess to them that most saltwater fish don't have.  When I think of what fish tastes like, it's freshwater like trout, yellow perch, and lake whitefish that first come to mind.  The only issue with the Wellington was the worst possible offense of all - a soggy bottom.  Paul Hollywood would not have approved.  I'm not quite sure what happened.  I could have left too much moisture in the duxelles, may not have used enough filo, or the Pyrex baking dish might not have been the best medium.  I'll try out some different methods in the future. Either way, it wasn't a complete deal breaker.  Vanessa and I had lovely snowy Saturday evening dinner with a bright side salad, and then enjoyed some Great British Bake Off - Holiday Edition.  

Sliced Steelhead Trout Wellington
Overall, our seafood pastry experiments were a success.  We had some quality creations, quality educational experiences, and most importantly, some quality family time together.  However, I won't lie, as much as I love family time and the indoors, I can't wait for spring to arrive and the covid-surge to subside.  Philadelphia has so much seafood culture to offer, explore, and nerd out on - just preferably in above freezing temperatures.  And as much I knock the suburbs, there's tons of wonderful stuff to explore here too.  Please, just ease off the gastropubs and taprooms. I hope you're braving the inclement weather and pandemic with some fun culinary projects of your own.  Whatever you do, keep it crispy.  

  
Cheers,
The SF Oyster Nerd