by Kaitlyn Goalen
I am helpless when faced with a freshly shucked oyster. If the salty bivalves are featured on a restaurant menu, I will always order a dozen – or two. Part of my love affair is due to the taste. I adore the briny mouthful of ocean that the best oysters bring. But I’m equally devoted to the ritual. With oysters, you abandon utensils, you slurp, you leave a trail of debris. Accompanied by a glass of Sancerre and a white tablecloth, oysters are a kind of comfortable, playful luxury.
At one point in history, the inlets and waterways of the North Carolina coast were teeming with wild oysters. The state’s spindly, veiny coastal border makes for numerous spots with the ideal mix of salt and fresh water for oyster habitats. But yields have dropped significantly over the years, the result of modernity: pollution and overfishing.
Recently, however, the state’s oystermen have begun to take cues from areas like the Chesapeake, where oyster farming has brought new life to the damaged estuary. As a result, oyster farming is starting to take hold from Manteo in the north to Stump Sound in the south, and the results are remarkable.
Unlike farmed fish, which are cultivated in tanks, farmed oysters come to maturity in natural habitats, meaning they carry the distinct flavor of their watery provenance. At the same time, because oysters act as natural filters, this type of aquaculture actually helps to clean up our waterways.
Oysters are at their prime during the colder months – a happy condolence in an otherwise low-harvest season. Locals Seafood, an amazing sustainable seafood purveyor in Raleigh that delivers directly to your home, sells Chadwick Creek farmed oysters from Pamlico Sound.
I bought a bushel and split the bounty into two sections: The first half, I shucked and ate raw with a simple mignonette sauce, the traditional oyster condiment made with minced shallots, pepper, and vinegar.
Then, inspired by Sean Fowler’s play on oysters Rockefeller at his Raleigh restaurant, Mandolin, I made a Rockefeller riff of my own with the second half, topping them with creamed kale and a fontina-hazelnut crust.
Both experiments were well worth it. So the next time you need an excuse to indulge, grab a bag of North Carolina farmed oysters, some shucking knives and some friends. Luxury never came so easily.
Baked Oysters with Kale and Hazelnuts
1 bunch kale, stems removed and leaves sliced into very thin ribbons
½ cup chicken broth
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup grated Fontina cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper
½ cup finely chopped hazelnuts
1 cup breadcrumbs
2 dozen oysters, freshly shucked and deeper shell halves reserved
In a large skillet over medium heat, combine the kale and the chicken broth. Let simmer over medium heat until the broth is almost completely evaporated, about 6 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of butter and cook, stirring, until the butter has melted. Add the cream and fontina and cook for an additional 10 minutes, until the cheese has melted and is incorporated into the cream. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Preheat the oven to 450°. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium skillet. Remove the skillet from the heat and add the hazelnuts and breadcrumbs; toss to coat. Season to taste with salt.
Line the surfaces of two baking sheets with rock salt. Arrange the reserved oyster shells on the two sheets, then place an oyster in each shell. Top each oyster with a tablespoon of kale and sprinkling of the breadcrumb mixture. Transfer to the oven and bake until the oysters are bubbling and the tops are beginning to turn golden, about 8 to 10 minutes. Serve warm.