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Maryland's Way With Oysters

September 17, 1997|ANNE WILLAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Willan is the author of "In and Out of the Kitchen in 15 Minutes or Less" (Rizzoli, 1995)

ST. MARY'S, Md. — Here on the shore of Chesapeake Bay, oysters never go out of style. Maryland oyster stew is really a soup, made by sauteing chopped onion and bacon until the onion starts to brown, adding oysters and milk (half milk, half cream, if you are traditional) and simmering 1 minute so the oysters are lightly cooked. Crackers are the mandatory accompaniment; that's what the little hexagonal oyster crackers are made for.

Locally, oysters are also fried in cornmeal or cracker crumbs: Simply drain shucked oysters, toss them in a bag with cornmeal or crumbs until coated, then fry them in hot oil. Or you can make them into fritters with corn and chopped green pepper or enjoy them creamed, au gratin and scalloped.

Jack Russell is captain of a skipjack, one of the dozen remaining oyster boats still worked under sail. His skipjack, the Dee of St. Mary's, is a picturesque 56-foot wooden boat with a mast twice that length carrying a massive 2,600 square feet of sail. This huge spread is needed to drag spiked iron dredges over the ocean floor to dislodge the oysters. Sometimes, however, a "push" boat, a dinghy with an outboard motor, is needed to help the skipjack along.

Russell still gathers oysters by sending down a diver wearing a wetsuit heated with tubes of warm water; sometimes in winter the boat must first break the ice for the diver. A day's work 15 feet down in cold water yields perhaps six bushels of oysters. It seems primitive compared with the easy-to-reach trays of farmed oysters.

The flavor of oysters depends on their habitat, hardly surprising given that they absorb nutrients and minerals by siphoning through gallons of water each day. They can be moved from place to place and will take on local characteristics within three months. They are therefore often identified by their place of origin--Chincoteagues or Indian rivers, as the case may be.

St. Mary's oysters are ivory-colored, sweet and creamy, lacking the salt of more northern oysters and with no trace of the green tinge and mineral tang of European breeds. They grow about an inch a year and are ready to gather when 3 inches long, at 3 years old.

"Big ones are so fat you have to eat 'em with a knife and fork," Russell says.

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MARYLAND SCALLOPED OYSTERS

Willan adapted this recipe from "Favorite Recipes From Trinity Church," in St. Mary's City, Md. Use any size of shucked oysters in this recipe and serve them with plenty of crusty bread to soak up the juices.

1/3 cup butter

3 stalks celery, chopped

1 large onion, chopped

Salt, pepper

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

5 to 6 unsalted crackers

1 pint shucked oysters

1/4 cup half and half

1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, or more to taste

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in small skillet. Stir in celery and onion and season with salt and pepper to taste. Saute over low heat, stirring often, until soft but not brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove vegetables, stir in parsley and set aside.

Add remaining butter to pan and heat until melted.

Place crackers in plastic bag and crush with rolling pin to medium crumbs. (There should be about 1 cup crumbs.) Stir crumbs into melted butter in skillet and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Drain oysters, reserving liquor. Stir half and half, Worcestershire, hot pepper sauce and salt and pepper to taste into liquor. Taste and adjust seasoning. Sauce should be quite spicy. Add to oysters.

Spoon half of oysters with some sauce into individual 1-cup baking dishes. Spread vegetables on top and add remaining oysters and sauce. Sprinkle with buttered crumbs. Set baking dishes on baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees until crumbs are brown and sauce is bubbling, 25 to 30 minutes. Serve at once.

4 servings. Each serving:

283 calories; 504 mg sodium; 115 mg cholesterol; 21 grams fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams protein; 0.45 gram fiber.

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