Sunday, 4 January 2015

A trio of native oysters, with hollandaise and soft leek, apple and watercress oil and crispy with pickled cucumber

Now that all of the hectic scurrying about over Christmas and New Years has been done I can settle down again to the relative tranquillity of this blog. Hectic doesn’t really quite cover it. Every year I always vow to be organised, to buy my presents months beforehand and be quietly smug when late December comes. Did I manage to achieve such grown-up, stress-free bliss this year? Did I heck.

Christmas was also busy at work; my first in my newfound fishmonger profession. Ever since I started, a day didn’t pass without the fabled words “you just wait ‘til Christmas” escaping someone’s lips, and now I fully understand. Needless to say, after providing what felt like most of North, East and South-West London with their lobsters and smoked salmon for the big day a rest was definitely needed.
One thing that particularly surprised me whilst working over Christmas was the sheer amount of oysters that we sold. Having not really come from an oyster-guzzling family, it felt crazy to sell people 60, 70 and more. I love the idea of a huge platter of them, all shimmering and dressed, to be lazily consumed with a glass of prosecco whilst waiting for Christmas dinner to arrive. Although I have to say that the thought of waking up on Christmas morning with a hangover and the task of shucking them all is not hugely appealing!
With this in mind I was inspired to return to a native oyster dish that I made a few months ago and that somehow I had forgotten to write about until now. It was the middle of September, and with the water starting to gently cool the shellfish season returned. After a barren summer we now had piles of plump, strong mussels, clams squeezed tight shut and boxes of beautiful oysters. I had never really seen or eaten native oysters before, and as with anything like this I was intrigued to give them a try. An idea was soon firmly planted in my head of making a few different dressings and garnishes and celebrating this first tasting.
To cut a long story short, celebration was the furthest thing from my mind when it came to opening the first one. I had opened oysters before, but it had been about a year, and despite approaching the whole thing very confidently I was soon hot-headed and embarrassed at how I couldn’t get the damn thing open. Unlike the normal rock oysters, natives take a bit more prising, and I really wasn’t prepared for it. Luckily, with calluses fast forming on my hands, I got it open. And as per usual, once that first one was popped open the rest soon followed.
After getting in such a flap, the eventual eating was made all the sweeter. Each flavouring really worked; accompanying and not overpowering the clean, mineral taste of the oyster. I could have eaten a bowlful of the almost scampi-like crispy fried variety, as long as someone else opened them for me…
Serves 4
12 very fresh live native oysters
For the crispy oysters:
5-6 tbsp panko breadcrumbs 
3-4 tbsp plain flour 
1 large egg, beaten 
Vegetable oil for frying, approx. 500ml-1ltr
For the pickled cucumber:
1 small-medium cucumber, deseeded and cut into thin strips 
100ml cider vinegar 
50ml water 
50g caster sugar 
1 shallot, finely sliced 
1 garlic clove, crushed 
A few tarragon sprigs 
1 tsp fennel seeds
For the watercress oil:
2 handfuls watercress, washed 
1 lemon, juice only 
5-6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
For the diced apple:
½ a braeburn apple, peeled and finely diced 
1 lemon, juice only 
A small pinch of caster sugar
For the hollandaise:
200g unsalted butter 
4 tbsp white wine vinegar 
1 bay leaf 
6 black peppercorns 
2 egg yolks 
½ lemon, juice only
For the soft leek:
1 leek, finely julienned 
1 large know of butter 
A squeeze of lemon juice
To garnish:
A few small watercress leaves 
A few tarragon leaves

You can prepare the watercress oil, the diced apple, and the pickled cucumber the day before.
For the watercress oil, bring a medium saucepan of water to the boil. Fill up a large bowl with cold, icy water and have it ready on the side. Blanch the watercress in the hot water for 30 seconds before draining and plunging into the cold water. Once cooled squeeze dry and transfer to a food processer with the lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil. Blitz to combine well, then transfer to a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours, preferably overnight. Once infused, strain through fine muslin into another bowl and discard the now used watercress pulp. Cover the green, flavoured oil and set aside until needed.
For the diced apple, put the finely chopped apple into a small bowl and combine with the lemon juice and sugar. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
To make the pickled cucumber, pour the vinegar and water into a small saucepan along with the herbs, garlic, shallot, sugar and fennel seeds. Bring to the boil. Put the cucumber strips into a small bowl and when the pickling liquor is hot, pour it over to cover. Allow to cool. 

On the day of eating, prepare the other elements of the dish.
Melt the butter for the leeks in a frying pan. Add the thin leek ribbons, season well and sweat down on a low-medium heat until soft and sweet. Add a squeeze of lemon juice to taste. Keep warm.
Melt the butter for the hollandaise in a small saucepan. While the butter is melting, add the vinegar, bay leaf and peppercorns to a small saucepan and reduce until only 1 tablespoon remaining. Strain into a small food processor. Allow both butter and vinegar to cool slightly. Add the egg yolks to the vinegar along with some seasoning and combine well. With the motor still running, very slowly drizzle in the warm butter until it has all been emulsified and you are left with a thick sauce. Mix in a squeeze of lemon juice to taste; you want it to be quite sharp. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Pour the vegetable oil for the fried oysters into a saucepan, you want enough to be 2” deep. Heat to 180⁰C.
For the crispy oysters, place two plates and a small bowl together on a work surface. Pour the panko and the flour onto the plates and beat the egg in the bowl. Season each element. Carefully coat each oyster in the flour then dip into the egg, so that it forms a thin paste around the outside. Finally cover with the panko breadcrumbs. Fry the crumbed oysters in the hot oil, in batches if necessary, for 1-2 minutes or until golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper. 

Shuck the remaining oysters just before serving. Carefully remove the meat and give the shells a quick scrub.
To plate up, arrange three shells on each dish. Spoon a dollop of the hollandaise into one of the shells and top with a raw oyster and a few tarragon leaves. Position the other raw oyster into another of the shells and pour over a little watercress oil. Garnish this one with some of the diced apple and watercress leaves. Arrange some of the pickled cucumber into the final shell and top with the crispy oyster.

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