Oysters are a Valentine's Day custom

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One of Valentine's Day's enduring customs is to launch the annual Feast of Love with a dozen raw oysters on the half shell washed down with a chilled bottle of bubbly. The briny bivalves have long enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac.

Most of us indulge our love of oysters at a restaurant, if only because we're daunted by the prospect of buying, shucking and serving the little devils at home. But it's not nearly as complicated as rumored. And it's certainly much more affordable to undertake this operation at home.

Oysters are more popular than ever these days. There are abundant varieties available from coast to coast, almost all of them sustainably farmed. Ideally, you'll buy your oysters at a seafood market with a high turnover. But if you're land-locked, don't worry. There are plenty of good sources online and the little fellers don't suffer when they're shipped.

What do you look for when buying oysters? Heft. A heavy oyster is one that is fresh, plump and juicy, and it hasn't been sitting around for too long. The shells must be tightly closed; an open oyster is a dead oyster. Buy your oysters right before you head for home, and if that's not possible, ask for a bag of ice to keep them cool during the journey. The oyster needs to breathe, so be sure that the fishmonger has punched a few holes in the bag holding the oysters.

Once you get them home, take the oysters out of the bag and store them in the coolest part of the refrigerator with the curved shells face down in a bowl covered with a wet towel. When the moment has come to shuck the oysters, which should be shortly before you're ready to serve them, pull out your tools: an oyster knife and a thick kitchen towel or two. Also, pull out a platter and line it with crushed ice. (I simply pulse some ice cubes in the food processor, but fresh snow works well, too.)

Briefly rinse and scrub the oysters, then shuck them. To help you with this part, I have given detailed instructions in the recipe. Make sure to keep your non shucking hand covered in the kitchen towel at all times; it's easy to slip and cut yourself.

What kind of sauce goes with raw oysters? If you asked my dad, who's been eating oysters for a million years, he'd say none or, at most, a spritz of lemon. But plenty of other folks love them dipped in mignonette, a simple vinegar sauce. And here I've provided two others: a Japanese-style ginger wasabi sauce and an American-style cocktail sauce.

How about the wine? Champagne, a good dry one, is perfect, especially on Valentine's Day. But if you're not a fan, try another dry white, such as a New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Or take a tip from the French and reach for the muscadet. Whatever you pour, don't sweat it. Love will be in the air.

How to shuck oysters

You will need an oyster shucking knife. They are readily available at kitchen shops and online.

Line a platter with crushed ice. Make one or all three of the sauces and set them aside. For two people, plan for 12 to 24 oysters.

To shuck the oysters, start by folding a thick kitchen towel several times. Place an oyster into the opening between the folds of the towel, leaving the hinge side of the oyster facing out. Use one hand to grasp the oyster in the towel and hold it in place on a cutting board flush with the edge of the counter, which makes it easy to apply downward pressure.

Insert the tip of the knife slightly to the right or left of the oyster's hinge and gently work it into the shell. Don't force the knife; if it doesn't slide easily into the place you've chosen, try another place. When you finally feel a little give, nudge the knife in further, then push straight down on the knife handle and pry open the top oyster shell just as you would the lid of a can of paint. If the top shell still doesn't become loose at the hinge, twist the knife a quarter turn so the blade is facing up, and try again to loosen the hinge.

The top and bottom shells are now unhinged at the end, but a muscle keeps the oyster itself attached to the middle of the top shell. To sever this muscle, insert the blade between the shells, loosen the edges, then slide the knife from one end of the oyster to the other, which should cut the top muscle and detach the top shell.

Almost done. Lift off the top shell and carefully remove any shell fragments that have fallen onto the oyster. Then stick the knife under the oyster and cut it loose from the bottom of the shell. Put the oyster in its shell on top of the ice, making sure that it lies flat so that none of its juices spill out. Repeat with the remaining oysters, then serve with the sauces below.

Cocktail sauce

If your supermarket does not sell fresh horseradish, you can substitute bottled horseradish. Just omit the vinegar called for in the recipe. Combine the bottled horseradish with the remaining ingredients and stir well.

Start to finish: 20 minutes

Makes about 1 cup

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons finely grated fresh horseradish

3 tablespoons white vinegar

Pinch kosher salt

1/3 cup ketchup

1/3 cup Heinz Chili Sauce (or similar brand)

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Hot sauce, to taste (optional)

Directions:

In a small bowl, let the grated horseradish stand for 5 minutes. Stir in the vinegar and the salt, then add the ketchup, chili sauce, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce, to taste. Stir well.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 20 calories; 0 calories from fat (0 percent of total calories); 0 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 170 mg sodium; 4 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 0 g protein.

Mignonette

Start to finish: 40 minutes (10 minutes active)

Makes about 1/2 cup

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons minced shallots

1 tablespoon coarsely cracked black pepper

1/2 cup red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, Champagne vinegar or cider vinegar

Hefty pinch kosher salt

Hefty pinch sugar

Directions:

In a small bowl, combine all ingredients and stir well. Cover and chill for 30 minutes before using.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 5 calories; 0 calories from fat (0 percent of total calories); 0 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 30 mg sodium; 1 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 0 g sugar; 0 g protein.

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GINGER WASABI SAUCE

If you have prepared wasabi in a tube, you can substitute that for the powdered mixed with water.

Start to finish: 20 minutes

Makes about 1/2 cup

Ingredients:

2 teaspoons wasabi powder

2 teaspoons warm water

1/2 cup seasoned rice vinegar

2 tablespoons minced shallots

2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger

Kosher salt

Directions:

In a small bowl, combine the wasabi and water. Mix well, then let stand for 5 minutes. Add a few tablespoons of the vinegar and whisk until the wasabi paste is thinned and smooth. Add the remaining vinegar, the shallots, ginger and a hefty pinch of salt. Serve right away.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 25 calories; 0 calories from fat (0 percent of total calories); 0 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 260 mg sodium; 5 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 0 g protein.

Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks.


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