Tomales Bay Oysters

Isak Dinesen once wrote, “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea”.  Besides penning the novel, which later, was adapted into my all-time favorite movie, I’m convinced she not only was referring to the healing powers of the salty sea, but to the bewitching, briny, exquisite creatures laying well below it.  One slurp of these babies and, Yowza!!  Senses are amplified—you’re suddenly more awake, more ALIVE.  Cold is colder, sweet is sweeter, and happy is happier.  Yep, I’m talkin’ about oysters.  Like stinky cheeses, brussels sprouts, or fish sauce —there’s no middle ground when it comes to oysters.  Either you love ’em, or you hate ’em.

I, for one, am solidly in the L-O-V-E camp.  My love is unflinching for my oh-so-slurpable friends.  A devout oyster purist, I am.  I don’t want them gussied up with butter, cheese, garlic, bread crumbs, parsley, salt or pepper.  I don’t want them baked, barbecued, broiled, roasted, steamed, smoked or fried.  I don’t want them to go by fancy-pants names, like Rockefeller, or goofy ones, like Bingo.  Oysters are like kisses from the sea, and I want my kisses one, and only one way: Raw, on the half shell, with a quick squirt of fresh lemon and a small smattering of Hog Wash Mignonette.  Forget hush money, promise me a few dozen Kumamotos and I’m your girl.

Admittedly, I developed my oyster crush late in life.  It wasn’t until my first year out of college did I have my first encounter.  And to be honest, I was pretty nervous.  Palm-sweating-nervous.  I was living in Chicago, out at my favorite sushi joint, minding my own business, when two oyster shooters arrived at the table.  Staring at the tallish shot glasses, I debated whether to “accidentally” knock mine onto the floor, dart out the back door to hail a taxi, or turn myself invisible.  Instead, I closed my eyes, held my nose and the rest, as they say, is history.

Oysters have a reputation for only performing on ‘special’ occasions.  Anniversaries, birthdays, weddings and the like.  They’re often members of the forgettable opening act and seldom, if ever, the main headliner, the Lady Gaga—the one you really came to see.  But luckily, we now live less than an hour’s drive from beautiful Tomales Bay, the epi-center of all things slurpy, salty and wonderful, where fresh local oysters, at dirt cheap prices (the Dungeness Crab ain’t so shabby either) are served up in a small, nondescript shack just off Hwy 1, turning any ordinary Saturday morning into the most special of special occasions.  The kind when you’re celebrating nothing at all.  Here, oysters are always the main headliner, and any ordinary Saturday morning turns into a delectabale, salty cure for anything.

I think Miss Dinesen would agree.

hog island oyster hog island oyster
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It started simply enough.  Innocently enough.

Somehow, someway, somebody snuck not one, not two, but three bunches of baby beets into our home.  Given the fact that I’m a lifelong, card carrying member of the N.A.B.A., otherwise known as the National Anti-Beet Association, I knew the ‘somebody’, was certainly not me.

Growing up, I believed beets were served and eaten one, and only one way:  out of an aluminum can packed by the folks who lived in a town called Del Monte. Those fine folks made fruit cocktail, too.  Even as a little girl, beets were horribly off-putting to me.  To be honest, they scared the bejesus out of me. The gelatinous texture, the pungent smell, the unnameable taste, and an alien color which didn’t match any in my sacred box of 64-Crayola Crayons, the bible of all things pigmented and pretty.

Since then, I’ve had a rather turbulent on-again, off-again relationship with beets.  Every time I think I can commit to a bigger bite, I back off.  And RUN.  With 3 bunches of beets at my mercy, I was in a conundrum.  “Take one more chance on us”, I hear them say. “We promise this time it’ll be different”.  How many times had I heard that before?  Reluctantly, I put them back in the fridge (instead of in a bag on my neighbor’s doorstep) and with no other N.A.B.A. members in sight to commiserate with, I head to the bookstore for an afternoon distraction.

Lo and behold, THE beet recipe of all beet recipes lands in my lap.  Thyme Roasted Baby Beets with Mint Vinaigrette.  THE beet recipe which, in an insanely delicious, hocus-pocus, abracadabra instant, converts me from beet basher to beet worshipper.  Just like magic.  Just like that.  Yes, roasted beets are a now a weekly staple and somebody is very happy about it.

Make sure to use an assortment of beets, not just the old familiar red ones.  Not only are golden and chioggia beets gorgeous to look at, they add a subtle nuance of sweetness to the final dish.  If I can’t make to the farmer’s market, I like buying my beets in the loose bulk bin at Whole Foods.  I can pick and choose the exact mix I want and get only as much as I need for that evening (plus, it costs less than buying them in full bundles).  If you have trouble finding baby beets, medium ones are dandy.  Slice them in half before cooking.  For larger beets, slice into quarters.  Just make sure all pieces are more or less the same size to ensure even cooking.

And whatever you do, DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT leave out the fresh mint.  This dish without the mint is like a crème brûlée without its heart-stopping crackly top.  It just wouldn’t be the same without it.

Adapted from Harvest to Heat

Music Pairing: ABBA, Take A Chance on Me

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Dippy Eggs and Soldiers

When we first discovered farm fresh eggs down the street from our Island home back in Washington, my husband suggested it would be THE perfect opportunity to make Dippy Eggs and Soldiers.  Huh?  Flummoxed, I looked at him, scratching my head, and for the next 30 minutes, he recounted stories about who the legendary Soldiers were and why exactly these fine fellas would be joining us for Sunday breakfast.

I still didn’t get it.

But, nevertheless, decided to take his word for it.  We dusted off the egg cups from the drawer of kitchen tchotchkes, in order to prep them for their on-screen debut.  Weekend breakfast is taken rather seriously at our humble abode.  The barometer for success falls into categories of leisurely, lengthy and lip-smacking goodness.  Bracing myself for a spectacular letdown, I began to quietly devise a Plan B in my head.  Brioche French Toast, Lemon Ricotta Pancakes, Maple Glazed Bacon…

Suddenly, my under-cover menu planning was interrupted.  Breakfast was ready.  The Soldiers had arrived.  So soon?  I swallowed nervously as I was presented with breakfast, perched atop its very own royal throne, looking ever so proud and suitably British.  I’m not sure I ever felt so happy, to be proven so utterly wrong.  Sure, I’ve had soft-boiled eggs in the past, but these tasted distinctly different.  They were Runny, Dippy, Delectable Eggs.  OH BOY.  And the Soldiers!  Those handsome Soldiers!  Lightly buttered, standing at full attention, ready and willing to perform their predestined, exemplary dunking duties.

One dip into this perfectly cooked, gooey, thing of wonder — and, Hallelujah — I get it. I finally get it.

Don’t forget to set your timer when cooking these bad boys.  The three minutes goes by in a blink of an eye.  We used large eggs, so adjust time up/down if using smaller/larger eggs.  I like my eggs super runny, so adjust time accordingly if you prefer yours less so.  Instead of butter, shower Soldiers with grated Parmesan for a little decadence.  Or for a gluten-free option, try roasted asparagus stalks as Soldiers.  The variations are endless.  Report back your favorites.  Happy dipping!

Music Pairing: The Beatles, Love Me Do

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