Seafood of the Week – Oysters

November 26, 2013 at 10:24 AM | Posted in seafood, Seafood of the Week | Leave a comment
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Oyster

Oyster

The word oyster is used as a common name for a number of distinct groups of bivalve molluscs that live in marine or brackish habitats. The valves are highly calcified.
Some kinds of oysters are commonly consumed, cooked or raw, by humans as a delicacy. Other kinds, such as pearl oysters, generally not eaten by humans, are harvested for the pearl produced within the mantle.

 

 

 

Almost all shell-bearing mollusks can secrete pearls, yet most are not very valuable.
Pearl oysters are not closely related to true oysters, being members of a distinct family, the feathered oysters (Pteriidae). Both cultured pearls and natural pearls can be obtained from pearl oysters, though other molluscs, such as the freshwater mussels, also yield pearls of commercial value.
The largest pearl-bearing oyster is the marine Pinctada maxima, which is roughly the size of a dinner plate. Not all individual oysters produce pearls naturally. In fact, in a harvest of three tons of oysters, only three to four oysters produce perfect pearls.
In nature, pearl oysters produce natural pearls by covering a minute invading parasite with nacre, not by ingesting a grain of sand. Over the years, the irritating object is covered with enough layers of nacre to become a pearl. The many different types, colours and shapes of pearls depend on the natural pigment of the nacre, and the shape of the original irritant.
Pearl farmers can culture a pearl by placing a nucleus, usually a piece of polished mussel shell, inside the oyster. In three to six years, the oyster can produce a perfect pearl. These pearls are not as valuable as natural pearls, but look exactly the same. In fact, since the beginning of the 20th century, when several researchers discovered how to produce artificial pearls, the cultured pearl market has far outgrown the natural pearl market.

 

 

Oyster reef at about mid-tide off fishing pier at Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina

Oyster reef at about mid-tide off fishing pier at Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina

 

The largest oyster-producing body of water in the United States is located in Chesapeake Bay, although these beds have decreased in number due to overfishing and pollution. Willapa Bay in Washington produces more oysters than any other estuary in the US. Other large oyster farming areas in the US include the bays and estuaries along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico from Apalachicola, Florida on the east to Galveston, Texas on the west. Large beds of edible oysters are also found in Japan and Australia. In 2005, China accounted for 80% of the global oyster harvest. Within Europe, France remained the industry leader.
Common oyster predators include crabs, sea birds, starfish, and humans. Some oysters contain live crabs, known as oyster crabs.

 

 

 

As an ecosystem engineer oysters provide “supporting” ecosystem services, along with “provisioning”, “regulating” and “cultural” services. Oysters influence nutrient cycling, water filtration, habitat structure, biodiversity, and food web dynamics. Oyster feeding and nutrient cycling activities could “rebalance” shallow, coastal ecosystems if restoration of historic populations could be achieved. Furthermore, assimilation of nitrogen and phosphorus into shellfish tissues provides an opportunity to remove these nutrients from the environment, but this benefit has only recently been recognized. In California’s Tomales Bay, native oyster presence is associated with higher species diversity of benthic invertebrates but other ecosystem services have not been studied. As the ecological and economic importance of oyster reefs has become more widely acknowledged, creation of oyster reef habitat through restoration efforts has become more important- often with the goal of restoring multiple ecosystem services associated with natural oyster reefs.

 

 

 

Oysters are harvested by simply gathering them from their beds. In very shallow waters, they can be gathered by hand or with small rakes. In somewhat deeper water, long-handled rakes or oyster tongs are used to reach the beds. Patent tongs can be lowered on a line to reach beds that are too deep to reach directly. In all cases, the task is the same: the oysterman scrapes oysters into a pile, and then scoops them up with the rake or tongs.
In some areas, a scallop dredge is used. This is a toothed bar attached to a chain bag. The dredge is towed through an oyster bed by a boat, picking up the oysters in its path. While dredges collect oysters more quickly, they heavily damage the beds, and their use is highly restricted. Until 1965, Maryland limited dredging to sailboats, and even since then motor boats can be used only on certain days of the week. These regulations prompted the development of specialized sailboats (the bugeye and later the skipjack) for dredging.
Similar laws were enacted in Connecticut before World War 1 and lasted until 1969. The laws restricted the harvesting of oysters in state-owned beds to vessels under sail. These laws prompted the construction of the oyster sloop style vessel to last well into the 20th century. Hope, is believed to be the last built Connecticut oyster sloop, completed in 1948.
Oysters can also be collected by divers.
In any case, when the oysters are collected, they are sorted to eliminate dead animals, bycatch (unwanted catch), and debris. Then they are taken to market, where they are either canned or sold live.

 

 

 

Oysters have been cultured for well over a century. The Pacific oyster, Crassostrea gigas, is presently the most widely grown bivalve around the world. Two methods are commonly used, release and bagging. In both cases, oysters are cultivated onshore to the size of spat, when they can attach themselves to a substrate. They may be allowed to mature further to form ‘seed oysters’. In either case, they are then placed in the water to mature. The release technique involves distributing the spat throughout existing oyster beds, allowing them to mature naturally to be collected like wild oysters. Bagging has the cultivator putting spat in racks or bags and keeping them above the bottom. Harvesting involves simply lifting the bags or rack to the surface and removing the mature oysters. The latter method prevents losses to some predators, but is more expensive.
The Pacific or Japanese oyster, Crassostrea gigas, has been grown in the outflow of mariculture ponds. When fish or prawns are grown in ponds, it takes, typically 10 kg (22 lb) of feed to produce 1 kg (2.2 lb) of product (dry-dry basis). The other 9 kg (20 lb) goes into the pond and after mineralization, provides food for phytoplankton, which in turn feeds the oyster.
To prevent spawning, sterile oysters are now cultured by crossbreeding tetraploid and diploid oysters. The resulting triploid oyster cannot propagate, which prevents introduced oysters from spreading into unwanted habitats.

 

 

 

Jonathan Swift is quoted as having said, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster”, but evidence of oyster consumption goes back into prehistory, evidenced by oyster middens found worldwide. Oysters were an important food source in all coastal areas where they could be found, and oyster fisheries were an important industry where they were plentiful. Overfishing and pressure from diseases and pollution have sharply reduced supplies, but they remain a popular treat celebrated in oyster festivals in many cities and towns.
It was once assumed that oysters were only safe to eat in months with the letter ‘r’ in their English and French names. This myth is based in truth, in that in the Northern Hemisphere, oysters are much more likely to spoil in May, June, July, and August.

 

 

 

Fresh oysters

Fresh oysters

Oysters are an excellent source of zinc, iron, calcium, and selenium, as well as vitamin A and vitamin B12. Oysters are low in food energy; one dozen raw oysters contains 110 kilocalories (460 kJ). Oysters are considered most nutritious when eaten raw.
Traditionally, oysters are considered to be an aphrodisiac, partially because they resemble female sex organs. A team of American and Italian researchers analyzed bivalves and found they were rich in amino acids that trigger increased levels of sex hormones. Their high zinc content aids the production of testosterone.
Dietary supplements may contain calcium carbonate from oyster shells, though no evidence shows this offers any benefits beyond what calcium may offer.

 

 

 

Fried oyster with egg and flour

Fried oyster with egg and flour

Unlike most shellfish, oysters can have a fairly long shelf life of up to four weeks. However, their taste becomes less pleasant as they age. Oysters should be refrigerated out of water, not frozen, and in 100% humidity. Oysters stored in water under refrigeration will open, consume available oxygen, and die.

Oysters must be eaten alive, or cooked alive. The shells of live oysters are normally tightly closed or snap shut given a slight tap. If the shell is open, the oyster is dead, and cannot be eaten safely. Cooking oysters in the shell kills the oysters and causes them to open by themselves. Traditionally, oysters that do not open have been assumed to be dead before cooking and therefore unsafe. However, according to at least one marine biologist, Nick Ruello, this advice may have arisen from an old, poorly researched cookbook’s advice regarding mussels, which has now become an assumed truism for all shellfish. Ruello found 11.5% of all mussels failed to open during cooking, but when forced open, 100% were “both adequately cooked and safe to eat.

Oysters can be eaten on the half shell, raw, smoked, boiled, baked, fried, roasted, stewed, canned, pickled, steamed, or broiled, or used in a variety of drinks. Eating can be as simple as opening the shell and eating the contents, including juice. Butter and salt are often added. In the case of oysters Rockefeller, preparation can be very elaborate. They are sometimes served on edible seaweed, such as brown algae.
Care should be taken when consuming oysters. Purists insist on eating them raw, with no dressing save perhaps lemon juice, vinegar (most commonly shallot vinegar), or cocktail sauce. Upscale restaurants pair raw oysters with a home-made Mignonette sauce, which consists primarily of fresh chopped shallot, mixed peppercorn, dry white wine and lemon juice or sherry vinegar. Like fine wine, raw oysters have complex flavors that vary greatly among varieties and regions: sweet, salty, earthy, or even melon. The texture is soft and fleshy, but crisp on the palate. North American varieties include: Kumamoto and Yaquina Bay from Oregon, Malpeque from Prince Edward Island, Canada, Blue Point from Long Island, New York, and Cape May oysters from New Jersey. Salinity, mineral, and nutrient variations in the water that nurtures them influence their flavor profile.
Oysters can contain harmful bacteria. Oysters are filter feeders, so will naturally concentrate anything present in the surrounding water. Oysters from the Gulf Coast of the United States, for example, contain high bacterial loads of human pathogens in the warm months, most notably Vibrio vulnificus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus. In these cases, the main danger is for immunocompromised individuals, who are unable to fight off infection and can succumb to septicemia, leading to death. Vibrio vulnificus is the most deadly seafood-borne pathogen, with a higher case-to-death ratio than even Salmonella enterica.

 

 

 

Special knives for opening live oysters, such as this one, have short and stout blades and the best have a downward curve at the tip.

Special knives for opening live oysters, such as this one, have short and stout blades and the best have a downward curve at the tip.

Fresh oysters must be alive just before consumption or cooking. There is only one criterion: the oyster must be capable of tightly closing its shell. Open oysters should be tapped on the shell; a live oyster will close up and is safe to eat. Oysters which are open and unresponsive are dead and must be discarded. Some dead oysters, or oyster shells which are full of sand may be closed. These make a distinctive noise when tapped, and are known as ‘clackers’.

Opening oysters requires skill. The preferred method is to use a special knife (called an oyster knife, a variant of a shucking knife), with a short and thick blade about 5 cm (2.0 in) long.

While different methods are used to open an oyster (which sometimes depend on the type), the following is one commonly accepted oyster-shucking method.

Insert the blade, with moderate force and vibration if necessary, at the hinge between the two valves.
Twist the blade until there is a slight pop.
Slide the blade upward to cut the adductor muscle which holds the shell closed.
Inexperienced shuckers can apply too much force, which can result in injury if the blade slips. Heavy gloves are necessary; apart from the knife, the shell itself can be razor sharp. Professional shuckers require less than three seconds to open the shell.
If the oyster has a particularly soft shell, the knife can be inserted instead in the ‘sidedoor’, about halfway along one side where the oyster lips widen with a slight indentation.
Opening or “shucking” oysters has become a competitive sport. Oyster-shucking competitions are staged around the world. Widely acknowledged to be the premiere event, the Guinness World Oyster Opening Championship is held in September at the Galway Oyster Festival. The annual Clarenbridge Oyster Festival ‘Oyster Opening Competition’ is also held in Galway, Ireland.

 

Seafood of the Week – Crab

September 24, 2013 at 7:43 AM | Posted in seafood, Seafood of the Week | Leave a comment
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Liocarcinus vernalis

Liocarcinus vernalis

Crabs are decapod crustaceans of the infraorder Brachyura, which typically have a very short projecting “tail” (abdomen), usually entirely hidden under the thorax. They live in all the world’s oceans, in fresh water, and on land, are generally covered with a thick exoskeleton and have a single pair of claws. Many other animals with similar names – such as hermit crabs, king crabs, porcelain crabs, horseshoe crabs and crab lice – are not true crabs.

 

 

Crabs are generally covered with a thick exoskeleton, composed primarily of calcium carbonate, and armed with a single pair of chelae (claws). Crabs are found in all of the world’s oceans, while many crabs live in fresh water and on land, particularly in tropical regions. Crabs vary in size from the pea crab, a few millimetres wide, to the Japanese spider crab, with a leg span of up to 4 metres (13 ft).
About 850 species of crab are freshwater, terrestrial or semi-terrestrial species; they are found throughout the world’s tropical and semi-tropical regions. They were previously thought to be a monophyletic group, but are now believed to represent at least two distinct lineages, one in the Old World and one in the New World.
The earliest unambiguous crab fossils date from the Jurassic, although Carboniferous Imocaris, known only from its carapace, may be a primitive crab. The radiation of crabs in the Cretaceous and afterward may be linked either to the break-up of Gondwana or to the concurrent radiation of bony fish, crabs’ main predators.

 

 

Fishermen sorting velvet crabs at Fionnphort, Scotland

Fishermen sorting velvet crabs at Fionnphort, Scotland

Crabs make up 20% of all marine crustaceans caught, farmed, and consumed worldwide, amounting to 1½ million tonnes annually. One species, Portunus trituberculatus, accounts for one fifth of that total. Other commercially important taxa include Portunus pelagicus, several species in the genus Chionoecetes, the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), Charybdis spp., Cancer pagurus, the Dungeness crab (Metacarcinus magister) and Scylla serrata, each of which yields more than 20,000 tonnes annually.
In some species, crab meat is harvested by manually twisting and pulling off one or both claws and returning the live crab to the water in the belief the crab will survive and regenerate the claws thereby making it a sustainable industry.

 

 

Crabs are prepared and eaten as a dish in several different ways all over the world. Some species are eaten whole, including the shell, such as soft-shell crab; with other species just the claws and/or legs are eaten. The latter is particularly common for larger crabs, such as the snow crab. Mostly in East Asian cultures, the roe of the female crab is also eaten, which usually appears orange or yellow in colour in fertile crabs.
The biggest importers, and therefore countries where eating crab is immensely popular, are Japan, France, Spain, Hong Kong, the US, Canada and Portugal.
In some regions spices improve the culinary experience. In Southeast Asia and Indosphere, masala crab and chilli crab are examples of heavily spiced dishes. In the Chesapeake Bay region, blue crab is often eaten with Old Bay Seasoning. Alaskan king crab or snow crab legs are usually simply boiled and served with garlic butter.
For the British dish Cromer crab, the crab meat is extracted and placed inside the hard shell. One American way to prepare crab meat is by extracting it and adding a flour mix, creating a crab cake.
Crabs are also used in bisque, a global dish of French origin.

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