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Showing posts with label Oysters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Oysters. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Villa Rental 101: A Visit to Beautiful Places in the Sonoma Valley

If you're planning a couples' getaway or a family reunion, you might think about a rental villa as an alternative to a hotel.

The last time I traveled with a group was for a family reunion on the Jersey shore. The resort was lovely, but when we wanted to be together, we had to find space in the lobby with the other guests or break up into small groups to meet in our cramped hotel rooms. We missed having a private space where we could hang out and not deal with other people.

Recently my wife and I planned a weekend with four other couples. We were going to meet in the Sonoma Valley where we like its bucolic mix of small towns, cafes, vineyards, dairies, farms, and ranches.

For foodies, with hundreds of organic farms, world famous wineries, and access to fresh seafood, the valley is nirvana. We only needed to decide where to stay. At first we considered one of the luxury hotels in the area: Meadowood, Auberege du Soleil, or the Calistoga Ranch.

There's no question a hotel has advantages. Fresh towels every day. Someone else making up your bed. Room service whenever you're hungry. Little chocolates on your pillow at night. Those luxuries are a treat. So is having easy access to the hotel's restaurants, bars, pool, spa, and recreational facilities.

But for all that convenience there are trade-offs. As we learned at the family reunion, the public spaces aren't your own. Your room will be small. And with room rates ranging from $550-850 per person, per night, the cost of all those luxuries and conveniences can be pricey, even with the discounts many hotels are currently offering.

The other option was a villa rental.

Getting Started

Until you've taken your first rental-vacation, the idea can be daunting. Will you have to give up the ease and comfort of a hotel? How difficult will it be to find the right place? What about pricing?

The first step is to send around an email work sheet to your group and ask some basic questions.

Where do you want to go? In the U.S. or out of the country? Do you want to be in a big city, in the country, or somewhere in between? For how long? A long weekend, a week, a month, or longer?

How much do you want to spend a night? What amenities do you want at the house? A pool and a spa? What about tennis courts? What kind of activities do you want for the visit? Do you want to focus your vacation at the villa or would you rather use the rental as a jumping off point to explore the area's recreational, cultural, or culinary opportunities?

Once everyone is on the same page, begin your search. Go on line and look for "vacation rentals" in an area or city of interest. Or try one of the many web sites that arrange rentals. Each site has a different profile. Some focus on specific areas of the country or foreign locations. Some target upscale travelers.

For properties in the U.S., check out Zonder (www.zonder.com), HomeAway (www.homeaway.com), GreatRentals (www.greatrentals.com), and WeNeedAVacation (www.weneedavacation.com). Owners in the U.S. and around the world also list their homes at VRBO (www.vrbo.com) and VacationRentals (www.vacationrentals.com).

Beautiful Places (www.beautiful-places.com) specializes in high end properties in the U.S., Mexico, Italy, and France. Sanctuary Villas (www.sanctuary-villas.com) and In Villas Veritas (www.invillas.com) offer luxury accommodations in Europe and along the Mediterranean coast.

Prices are as varied as the properties. On a recent check of HomeAway, there were no-frills 1 bedroom houses for under $130/night, while luxury accommodations with 4-6 bedrooms were priced twenty times that amount. The location, number of bedrooms, and amenities will all affect price. You can find a house in just about any price range, but no matter what, traveling with a group, you'll save money.

When you go can also make a big difference. Generally speaking, you'll pay full fare during the high season, 10% less in the shoulder, and another 10% discounted in the off-season.

One region's high season is another's off season. In Napa and Sonoma in the California Wine Country, the Low Season comes at the end of the harvest (November - March). The Shoulder Season is in April and May. During the High Season (June - October) Napa and Sonoma are busy with activity as tourists fill the valley. For skiing areas like Aspen and Park City, their High and Low Seasons follow a reverse calendar.

Finding the Right Place

When you stay at a hotel you pretty much know what you're getting. Renting a private home is different because the house reflects the personality and taste of the owner.

Look carefully at the photographs you see on line or receive from the broker. Do you like the furniture? What about the art on the walls? Pay attention to details. They could affect the quality of your vacation.

If you can talk with the broker or the owner, ask questions. Is the pool heated? Are pets allowed? And kids? If you want to cook while you're there, ask about the kitchen. If you want to barbecue, does the property have a grill? What is the neighborhood like? Is the house close to shopping areas? Will you need a car? Get as much information as you can. The more you know, the happier you're more likely to be during your vacation.

Ask about support as well. Is a rental agent available during your stay? If there is a problem, will you get help or are you on your own? Some web sites offer reimbursement and replacement guarantees if you aren't happy, but that would be cold comfort for any group on a short visit. As a rule, the more you pay for the rental, the more services and support you can expect.

Where We Stayed: Villa Andrea in Glen Ellen

With the Sonoma Valley as our objective, we looked through the web sites that had listings for the area. We chose Beautiful Places because they had a wide range of properties, from smaller, idiosyncratic homes to large estates with vineyards, tennis courts, pools, and spas.

The agent at Beautiful Places asked how many bedrooms we wanted, were we bringing children or pets, did anyone in our party have physical limitations that should be taken into account, how long did we want to stay, did we want to be in town or in the country, what amenities did we want, and what was our price range?

As we considered several properties, we spent a lot of time on the phone and in emails with the agent. She seemed to understand exactly what would make us happy, but, of course, we would only know if we had made the right choice once we arrived and opened the front door.

On the web site, Villa Andrea (http://www.beautiful-places.com/winesearch/villa_andrea-3) looked amazing. Surrounded by a thirty acre vineyard, the villa had all of the amenities of a luxury hotel: beautiful grounds landscaped with native plants, an elegant pool, and a patio that overlooked the estate's private vineyard.

The description of the villa said that in addition to the outdoor jacuzzi, there was a spa with a steambath, sauna, and relaxation room. For entertainment, almost every room had a flat screen tv. Because the owner is a movie buff, we could use his state-of-the-art screening room. For exercise there was a bocce ball court and a tennis court fitted out with bleachers, in case we wanted to rally a crowd.

Three of the bedrooms were in the main house. The other two were in separate bungalows for added privacy. Since we wanted to cook together, we needed a large, well-appointed kitchen. Beautiful Places promised us a "dream kitchen." We were told that there was an 8-burner stove with two ovens, two dish washers, and two plate warming drawers. Clearly the owner loves to entertain and he expected we would as well.

Besides brokering the rental, Beautiful Places offered concierge services. They would arrange any number of activities: hang gliding, a ride in a hot air balloon, a private tour of a winery, difficult-to-get reservations at well-known restaurants like the French Laundry or Ubuntu. They could arrange golf packages or a helicopter tour of the valley. Their goal was to make our trip memorable. Once, they told us, for a NASCAR fan's birthday party, they arranged for race car driving lessons at nearby Infineon Raceway.

Many of these activities would add to the cost of a visit but not all. Because of their relationships with local businesses, Beautiful Places arranged tastings and private tours at no additional cost.

They could also provide in-villa services: massages, wine tasting, or a chef to cook on the premises. Daily maid service was also available and, split five ways--another advantage of traveling with a group--added very little to our costs.

How We Spent the Weekend

In the hills above Glen Ellen we turned off the two lane blacktop onto a narrow private road. We drove for five minutes through stands of trees draped with Spanish moss interspersed with views of the valley below where the green fields were covered with brightly flowered mustard plants. As we rounded a turn, we were stopped by a wrought-iron gate. We punched in the security code, the gate swung open. For the first time we could see Villa Andrea on the crest of the hill.

Arriving at a property you've only seen on line is the moment of truth.

We were welcomed by representatives of Beautiful Places who took us on a tour of the property. Given that we worried the villa wouldn't live up to the on line description, we were very happy that the photographs didn't do it justice.

Everything about the house was both comforting and visually stunning. Balconies run the length of the house on the main and second floors, the better to enjoy the view of the pool and the mountain behind.

The living room furnishings were elegantly cozy. Newly installed European bathroom fixtures with spa-style showers added to the sense of luxury. By painting the dining room a deep red, the owner proved he wasn't timid about using color. Clearly, he had given great thought to every detail and he had done this for himself. Now we were the beneficiaries.

In the kitchen a fruit and cheese plate and a selection of wines were waiting for us. While we snacked and enjoyed a glass of Benziger Family Winery's Merlot, we reviewed the plan for the weekend.

Since part of our group wanted to spend the vacation enjoying the villa, their time revolved around reading, eating, watching movies, and spending time in the spa. For those of us who wanted to explore the valley's incredible culinary bounty, Beautiful Places put together a comprehensive itinerary.

We started our tour of the valley with a stop at the Sonoma farmers' market a few blocks from the town square. Then we drove out to the very organic Green Spring Farm (www.greenstringfarm.com) in Petaluma where chickens fertilize the fields and weeds control the insects.

At the Benziger Family Winery (www.benziger.com), Bob Benziger gave us a private tour of their Glen Ellen vineyard where he explained the principles of biodynamic farming which were similar to the techniques practiced at Green String Farm.

In Sonoma, we took our time walking around the amazing Sonoma Market (www.sonoma-glenellenmkt.com) looking through the extensive collection of local cheeses, wines, organic produce, dry aged beef, free range poultry, fish, and shellfish, including Dungeness crabs freshly cooked in the market's kitchen. We filled our shopping cart with food for the weekend and were tempted by the block long counter of prepared foods and the bakery with enough freshly baked breads and upscale desserts to satisfy an army of foodies.

At Jack London Village in Glen Ellen we had a really informative tasting of artisan cheeses at Raymond Cheese Monger (www.raymondcheesemongers.com). Next door at Figone's of California Olive Oil and Press (www.figoneoliveoil.com) we sat at the bar and tossed down shooters of the locally produced olive oils and balsamic vinegars.

Back at the villa, we unpacked our goodies. Everyone gathered in the kitchen. Those of us who wanted to cook, cooked. The others kept us company and were available to sample what we had bought.

A wine tasting happened spontaneously. We still had our welcoming gift of Benziger's delicious Merlot and, when we toured the winery, we picked up bottles of the Chardonnay 2006 (Sangiacomo Vineyards, Carneros) and Pinot Noir 2006 (Sonoma Coast, Quintus Vineyard).

We didn't cook anything overly complicated. With such fresh, high-quality ingredients, simple preparations were best. We started off with Hog Island oysters from nearby Tomales Bay. The body meat from two Dungeness crabs added sweetness to a parsley-tomato-avocado salad dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar we bought at Figone's. Freshly made tagliarini pasta from Wine Country Pasta was tossed with garlic sauteed kale raabe we picked up from Oak Hill Farm (www.oakhillfarm.net) at the farmers' market in Sonoma. A dry aged ribeye steak from the Sonoma Market found its way onto the outdoor grill. Dessert was a delicious wedge of Ig Vella's (www.vellacheese.com) locally produced Dry Jack and a jar of summer peaches from Green String Farm.

Beautiful Places suggested that we have a private chef come to the villa so we didn't spend all our time cooking. The cost would be the same as a dinner at a restaurant, but how much more fun to have Margie Tosch and Willy Brooke of Meadow Brooke Catering (www.meadowbrookecatering.com) prepare a wine-paired meal in the villa.

Adding to the evening, Beautiful Places arranged for a screening of Bottle Shock. The film dramatizes the 1976 competition in Paris when two California wines were judged better than their French counterparts. Marc and Brenda Lhormer, producers on the film, told us behind-the-scenes stories about the making of the film in the valley (and all the wine that had to be tasted along the way). They brought a selection of Sonoma wines for us to sample.

For our last night we had a private wine tasting with Garrett Day of Provino (www.provinowines.com) who introduced us to Sonoma Valley's smaller and very remarkable vintners.

Having a kitchen turned out to be the best part of the trip. Hanging out together where we could cook, eat, sample wine, and just talk made our vacation so much more memorable. We connected in ways we wouldn't have if we had stayed in a hotel.

With Beautiful Places' concierge services, we had much more fun, because we experienced the valley from an insider's view.

At the end of the visit we totaled up what we spent. Ultimately the weekend cost less than it would have if we had stayed in a hotel. We saved money on the room and by cooking most of our meals.

Staying in the villa we had all the advantages of a luxury hotel with the added privacy and spaciousness of a private home.

For more about our Sonoma trip, please check out:

Off Season Bargains in the Sonoma Wine Country

Sprouted Broccoli from Green String Farm in Petaluma, California

Friday, May 2, 2008

A Tale of Two Bivalves

Farmers’ markets aren’t only for produce. Flowers, eggs, cheese, milk, poultry, and fish are available as well. And for the past several months at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, Carlsbad Aquafarms has been selling live shellfish: mussels, oysters, clams, abalone, and scallops.

The mussels, oysters, and clams sit in ice-filled tubs while the abalone and scallops come to market in thick plastic bags filled with a mix of sea water and oxygen. Since Carlsbad Aquafarm arrived at the market, I've become a regular customer. This week Robb, who is a chef as well as one of the proprietors of the aquafarm, gave me a dozen Catalina Oysters and a bag of the Calico Scallops to try. I've had the oysters before but the scallops...that was something else. I hadn't prepared a scallop that was alive and still in its shell.

Scallops on a Bacon-Spinach Sauté

Dealing with live scallops for the first time I needed to do research, which meant turning to the internet. What we know as the "scallop" is in fact the adductor muscle that holds the two shells together. Surrounding the muscle in both the male and female scallop is the roe. Although I enjoy roe, most people find the flavor gamy. A sharp paring knife easily removes the thin membrane that secures the roe to the muscle.

Carlsbad Aquafarm doesn't raise the over-sized scallops served in Chinese restaurants. Their Calico scallops are petite. To be appreciated these sweet morsels need to be surrounded with contrasting flavors and textures. Although the scallops take a bit of work and are pricey, I made them for Michelle as an appetizer and they were delicious, truly special.

6 scallops
1 cup spinach, washed, dried, roughly chopped
2 shallots, peeled, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled, finely chopped
2 slices bacon, finely chopped
1 tablespoon sweet butter
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Wash the scallops and put on a hot grill or in a 450 degree oven for 5 minutes. As they open they'll release their juices. Capture as much of the liquid as you can. Let cool, then twist off one of the shells and discard. Using a sharp paring knife, remove the scallop from the shell and carefully cut off the membrane and roe. Put the scallop back in its shell, add a pat of butter, and put them into a small frying pan on a low flame. Cook the scallops for 5 minutes in the butter, then set aside. In a frying pan drizzle olive oil, add the scallop liquid, and sauté the bacon, garlic, shallots, and spinach until lightly browned. The sauté will be crispy and sweet, the perfect contrast for the delicate scallops.

Put the sauté on the bottom of the shell and on top of the scallop. The scallops should be eaten warm. Use a cocktail fork or eat them off the shell. I much prefer the latter. That way you won't miss any of the sauté and the scallop's sweet juices.

Serves 2. Preparation Time: 10 minutes. Cooking Time: 20 minutes.

Oysters Breaded with Bacon and Parsley

I ate some of the oysters raw on the half shell with a bit of lemon juice and cocktail sauce. Delicious. For the rest I wanted to have them breaded. I've talked about that before. This time I wanted to make a small adjustment to the breading by adding crisp bacon. The bacon added a layer of flavor and upped the crunch-factor.

Shuck the oysters, reserving their nectar to use in an oyster stew. The oysters can be served either on lettuce with avocado slices or on a baguette with homemade tartar sauce.

12 oysters, shucked
1/2 cup bread crumbs (preferably homemade, unseasoned)
1/2 cup Italian parsley, washed, dried, finely chopped
2 slices crisp bacon
Sea salt and pepper
Olive oil

Combine the bread crumbs, parsley, and bacon in a small food mill, pulse until thoroughly combined, and put on a plate. Drizzle olive oil on a second plate and season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Over a medium flame, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large frying pan. Dredge each oyster first through the seasoned olive oil, then through the bread crumbs to coat. Sauté the oysters until lightly browned. Serve warm with tartar sauce either on a baguette or on lettuce with avocado.

Serves 2. Preparation Time: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 5 minutes.

If you want to try Carlsbad Aquafarm's shellfish, they're at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market on Wednesdays. They have been going to some of the other local farmers' markets as well. If you send them an email, they'll let you know their schedule: info@carlsbadaquafarm.com

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Care and Feeding of a Shellfishaholic

Hi, I'm Dave and I'm a shellfishaholic. My wife wants me to stop writing about shellfish because they aren't everyone's cup of tea. But I can't resist the temptation. When we were in Boston recently, the one restaurant I had to visit was the Union Oyster House. While Michael and Michelle rested at the hotel, I snuck away and happily indulged in a dozen oysters and a bowl of clam chowder.

Today at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, Carlsbad Aquafarm had fresh oysters, clams, mussels, and live abalone. I wanted to buy everything. I showed some restraint. I only bought the oysters and clams.

A nice thing about shellfish is they keep in the refrigerator for several days as long as you follow a couple of suggestions. Oysters need to be stacked in a bowl with the rounded part of the shell down, so the oyster sits in its own liquid. Clams will drown if they're submerged in water. Save a plastic basket that comes with strawberries. Cut it in half, put it on the bottom of a bowl and the clams on top. That will keep the clams above any water they spit out while they're waiting in the refrigerator.

Breaded Oyster Sandwich

Breading usually means dredging the oysters in a egg-milk wash before rolling them in breadcrumbs. I prefer a simply seasoned olive oil mixture. The resulting oysters are lighter and crisper. As a condiment I recommend making homemade tartar sauce.

1 dozen oysters, shucked, nectar reserved for later use
1 cup bread crumbs
1 tablespoon Italian parsley, leaves only, finely
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sweet butter
Sea salt and pepper
2 tablespoons tartar sauce
2 small baguettes, cut in half
1 small avocado, peeled, pitted, sliced (optional)
Romaine lettuce or arugula leaves (optional)

Drizzle the baguettes with a little olive oil, then toast or grill. Pour the olive oil into a shallow bowl and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. In a second bowl, mix together the bread crumbs and parsley. Roll each oyster first in the seasoned olive oil, then in the breadcrumb-parsley mix. Heat olive oil and butter in a sauté pan. Lightly brown each oyster. Turn carefully so they brown on all sides, then drain on a paper towel.

Spread the tartar sauce on the baguettes. Arrange 6 of the oysters on each baguette. Adding sliced avocado and lettuce is optional but recommended.

Serves 2. Preparation Time: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 5 minutes.

Steamed Clams

Cooking clams is no more complicated than boiling water. The Carlsbad Aquafarm's clams are exceptionally fresh and sweet tasting.

2 pounds clams (butter clams or little necks)
1 cup water
1 tablespoon sweet butter

Put the clams, water, and butter into a pot on medium-high heat, cover, and cook for 5 minutes. Pick out any clams that haven't opened and discard. Serve the clams and their nectar in a bowl with a buttered baguette. Adding a salad turns the clams into a full meal.

Serves 2. Preparation Time: 2 minutes. Cooking Time: 5 minutes.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Surprise at the Farmers' Market: Six Oysters, Two Appetizers, One Stew

Michelle checked the refrigerator and all we needed from the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers' market was a romaine lettuce. She handed me the list before I left. Usually when I go to the Wednesday market, I only have a few minutes, but the day wasn't that busy, so I didn't have to rush. I checked with the farmers I usually go to for lettuce, but there must have been heavy rains when the romaine was picked, because the ones I saw were pretty ragged and muddy.

I have to confess, whenever I go to a farmers' market, I buy more than I intended. The flowers are always amazing, even in the winter and the vegetables are so inviting. By the time I'd walked around the market, I'd filled my bag with anemones, Italian parsley, a bunch of carrots, a bag of Haas avocados, and Yukon potatoes. I even bought baby onions and fresh mustard greens because they were too cool to pass up, even though I didn't have a clue what I'd do with them.

Leaving the market I saw that a new vendor, Carlsbad Aquafarm, was selling baskets of fresh mussels, oysters, clams, and red seaweed. Fresh oysters at a reasonable price are always hard for me to resist. The Catalina Oysters looked like the Gulf oysters I had years ago when I worked on an oyster boat near Galveston. I bought a dozen.

When I got home, excited about having oysters for lunch, I unpacked what I'd gotten from the market and realized an awful truth. I'd forgotten to buy the romaine. 'Guess I got distracted.

I've described how to shuck oysters in an earlier posting. It's not difficult, but it does take some practice. Prying open the first plump, beautiful oyster, I discovered a benefit of buying them fresh-from-the-ocean. As I cut the oyster loose, nectar filled the shell. Six oysters opened over a bowl and I had a cup of nectar. Today had turned into a day of improvising. My lunch now had an added course: oyster stew.

Eating good food makes me happy. I must have learned that from my dad. When I was a kid, I remember watching him come home from work and sink down into his leather chair. My mom had the routine down cold. Within a few minutes she'd bring him a plate of appetizers. Happiness for him was a pre-dinner feast of pickled herring with sour cream and onions on pumpernickel bread, a plate of thinly sliced radishes with salt, a jar of baby shrimp in cocktail sauce, and a Seven & Seven on the rocks. The only part of his menu held onto was a love of cocktail sauce.

I tried the raw oysters a variety of ways: with a squeeze of lemon juice, a little taste of caviar left over from my Home Alone dinner, with finely chopped baby onions, with chopped avocado, and with cocktail sauce. I ate the oysters with slices of French bread and a couple of Nabisco saltine crackers.

6 Oysters Serves 1. Preparation Time: 10 minutes.

Traditional Cocktail Sauce

1 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon capers
1 teaspoon soy sauce
½ teaspoon grated horse radish
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Pinch of cayenne

Mix all the ingredients together. Put a small amount on top of each oyster. The recipe makes enough for several servings. Keep the sauce in the refrigerator in a sealed jar.

Salami With Avocado

When I had finished prepping the oysters, I realized I hadn't used half of the avocado. I could have easily made an arugula and avocado salad, but an appetizer seemed more satisfying. There was some felino salami from Bay Cities in the refrigerator. A piece of avocado, dredged in olive oil with sea salt and black pepper, placed on a slice of the salami, topped with finely chopped scallions and reduced balsamic vinegar and I had a delicious compliment to the oysters.

Oyster Stew

This dish is a freebie. The nectar gives the stew its flavor. Since I was eating raw oysters, I didn't need any in the stew, but you can certainly add them if you want.

1 cup oyster nectar
½ cup homemade chicken stock
½ carrot, washed, peeled, finely chopped
½ Yukon potato, washed, peeled, finely chopped
1 large shallot, peeled, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled, finely chopped
½ cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
1 piece of bacon or 1"piece of sausage (Italian or Cajun), finely chopped
1 tablespoon sweet butter
1 tablespoon cream
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil
2 tablespoons homemade croutons

Two quick notes. The stew doesn't need any added salt. The oyster nectar has all the saltiness you'll need. The vegetables should be finely chopped as you would with a mirepoix.

Sauté the vegetables and bacon/sausage in the olive oil, seasoned with black pepper. After they're lightly browned, add the pat of butter, the oyster nectar, and the chicken stock. Simmer for 15 minutes to combine the flavors. Taste the potato for doneness. If you've decided that you'd like to have some oysters in the stew, add them at this point and simmer for 2 minutes. The oysters can be cooked whole or cut up if they are larger than the size of the soup spoon. Add the cream and simmer 2 minutes. Top with a tablespoon of croutons just before serving.

Serves 2. Preparation Time: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 20 minutes.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Shucking Oysters

Shucking oysters is easy but as everyone who's ever done it knows, it's a hassle, that's why there are oyster bars. Buying your own oysters is a lot cheaper, so it's worth doing when you have time to spend in the kitchen.

Everyone has their own way of opening an oyster. I learned mine many years ago when I was writing an article about Vietnamese fishermen on the Texas Gulf Coast. This was back in the late '70's when some Vietnamese had been given government grants to relocate along the Texas and Louisiana coasts. There was friction with the locals who didn't like the increased competition and the cultural differences. It's actually a fascinating story about "unintended consequences" after the Vietnam War....I'll save that for another time. The point is, I met a young fisherman, Bobby, who took me with him on his boat to go oystering. Part of my job was shucking the mountain of oysters we dredged up. He gave me the oyster knife I still use today. The knife's an old, misshapen thing. The blade's always coming out of the wooden handle. Every so often I'll buy a new knife, but the one Bobby gave me works the best because the blade is thin and sharp.

Using the point of the knife, place it under the "parrot's beak," the pointy part of the shell on the narrow end. Being careful not to break off the "beak," push the knife between the shells and pry them apart about a 1/4", then slide the knife around the side of the oyster so you can cut the muscle that holds onto the shell.

With the top shell removed, use the knife to cut off the muscle to release the oyster.

This is your first look at the oyster itself. Now you'll see whether or not your effort was worthwhile. The oyster's good if it's plump and creamy looking. If it's scrawny and gray, chuck it and move on.

Save the liquid inside the shell, the "nectar." If you're worried about sand and bits of shell, gently wash the oyster with water, then put the oyster back in its shell.