The World Of Oysters

In France it is illegal to sell an oyster which has not been opened to order. Think about that for a minute and what it could possibly mean. The oyster is a living thing, clinging to rocks in its secure rock-like shell as the ocean tides surge and retreat. Once collected from its natural home or oyster farm frames it is still a living thing, able to withstand the wide temperature ranges it is normally exposed to during changes in sea level. Kept unopened and cool the oyster is in a natural package ready to be immediately enjoyed in the numerous simple brasseries around Paris. When freshly shucked you not only get a plump fresh oyster but the salty taste of the sea. In contrast, oysters here are sold opened in trays of a dozen, the ocean juices long washed away and the oyster sagging, drying out and long dead. The question then arises how long has it been dead? Do I trust this establishment not to keep opened oysters for too long? The opened oyster now must be kept fridge cold to prevent further degradation and the risks of eating a bad one and getting sick is higher. There is now also a need for dressings to improve flavour. The simple enjoyment of a fresh oyster tasting of the sea is lost. Restaurants here really need to up their game and open oysters to order. Some good establishments clearly do and that’s why we pay $4 a pop for the privilege. At 1980’s legendary North Melbourne restaurant, Jean Jacques, a squeeze of lemon juice would cause the oyster to retract to the acid. At how many places can you see that degree of freshness? When one oyster bar opened to much fanfare in Melbourne a few years ago oysters were not opened in front of the customer, instead trays of opened oysters arrived on a trolley from some other food preparation location, totally defeating the purpose of an oyster bar. A cocktail bar would not operate this way; customers expect the bartender to mix and shake and create something wonderful.

While choosing your restaurant carefully is an option, what can you do about this state of affairs at home? Simple. Ask for unopened oysters at fish markets, invest in an oyster knife and start getting some opening practice. Check out youtube for instruction. It is really not that hard, my teenage nephews mastered it after a couple of goes; not a bad thing to add to their life skills set.

Oysters Australia recommends: From their harvest date, unopened Sydney Rock Oysters should be kept close to 20°C for up to 14 days and unopened Pacific Oysters at 5°C for up to 7 days. So that they can breathe and keep cool, wrap or cover oysters in a damp cloth. Storing in plastic, in water or on ice will kill them! This is a good guide but their youtube demo suggests storing live oysters in the fridge. This is fine for Pacific Oysters but Sydney Rocks, which like warmer waters, a cool place like the laundry is a much better choice. Once opened eat them straight away.

For the best oysters I recommend heading to our local farmers markets and chat to John The Oyster Bloke and get a net or two of his beautifully sweet Sydney Rock Oysters. To see which markets he will attend check his facebook page.

After a few goes at opening your own the world is your oyster.
The phrase the world is my oyster actually comes from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff says, I will not lend thee a penny. To which Pistol replies, Why then the world’s mine oyster, Which I with sword will open
We use the phrase to mean that there are opportunities and rewards to enjoy, not with the brute force of the sword, as suggested by Pistol, but with a little application (of a small oyster knife). Enjoy.




White Strawberries

You might be tempted to think that white strawberries are a modern monstrosity but they are in fact a hybrid variety created from a natural white strawberry indigenous to Chile. Why all the excitement about a white version of strawberry? Attributes of the white strawberry include an amazing perfume, a small berry size with a delicate soft texture and a lovely, lovely flavour. Just close your eyes, pop one in your mouth and experience real flavour and luscious berry texture. I’m sure you will be convinced. Being white allows some creative opportunities. A white wedding cake with a mass of berries with their blush of pink could look magnificent. Pair white strawberries with a red or a green colour focus – think jellies, sorbet or the intense green of a matcha roll cake. White strawberries look great with chocolate too. Here I have made a bavarois with red strawberries to contrast the white strawberries.
Gippsland Strawberries are selling their white (Blush) strawberries now at farmers markets around bayside Melbourne, including VegOut St. Kilda. Check their Facebook posts for upcoming market attendance. Alternatively, if you have a green thumb then take a trip out to The Diggers Club at Herronswood, Dromana and buy some midi pots of strawberry “Pineberry” to cultivate.




Winter Transformations – Potato, Pumpkin & Spinach

Potatoes, pumpkin and spinach are winter market staples. Each can be used to good effect independently but I’ve brought them together in one delicious dish: sautéed potato gnocchi with roast pumpkin and spinach. Potato gnocchi are easy to make and sautéing the cooked gnocchi in olive oil with a little knob of butter for taste really raises this to restaurant fare. Let’s face it a little sauté treatment makes many foods special, think sautéed potatoes with garlic and rosemary or pan fried gyoza dumplings or French toast. Sautéed gnocchi work best when the cooked gnocchi are drained, spread out on a tray to dry out a little before they land in the buttery fry pan. You want to get rid of some of that moisture trapped after boiling in water and firm the outside a little, making it easy to flip them to brown each side to golden crunchiness. I treat the spinach in the Japanese way by cooking a whole bunch of spinach and then squeezing out all the water when cool and chopping it up. This maximizes the amount of healthy spinach per serve while appearing balanced on the plate. The meager alternative is to toss in a handful of baby spinach leaves at the end but I prefer the Popeye approach. Finished with a little crumbled goats cheese and toasted pine nuts this is definitely going to be a favorite for dinner this winter.

Potato Gnocchi with Roast Pumpkin and Spinach

For Two

  • potato gnocchi made from 3 large Nicola potatoes
  • 1/2 butternut pumpkin cut into 1cm cubes
  • 1 bunch spinach
  • olive oil
  • knob of butter
  • 2 tbs goats cheese
  • toasted pine nuts*

Make the potato gnocchi with half quantities for two people as described in Gnocchi With Slow Roasted Tomatoes.

pushing cooked potato through a potato ricer to make gnocchi

Cook the gnocchi in a large pot of boiling salted water and scoop out the gnocchi when they rise to the surface. Drain the cooked gnocchi in a colander and then spread them out on a tray to cool and dry out a little. Roast the pumpkin cubes in a little olive oil at 180°C until tender, approximately 20 minutes. Remove the stems and wash the spinach well in 2-3 changes of water to remove any grit or mud. Place the washed spinach in a saucepan and wilt it with gentle heat and then drain and cool. Once cool enough to handle squeeze all the water out and chop it coarsely. In a frypan heat 2 tbs olive oil with a knob of butter and gently sauté the gnocchi until golden. Add the roasted pumpkin and the chopped spinach and gently mix. Plate out and top with crumbled goats cheese and toasted pine nuts.

  • I recommend the J C’s Quality Nuts brand. Look for the packet labelled Pine Nuts from New Zealand, available from quality green grocers around Melbourne.




Andean Sunrise Potatoes

Andean Sunrise are a new variety of potato great for roasting and mashing and with exceptional buttery flavour. These yellow fleshed potatoes have a high carotene level. Often spruiked as an heirloom variety, Andean Sunrise or Sunside was actually selectively cross bred from a different potato family called Phureja, originally from the Andean valleys of Peru and a commercial variety by Agrico, Netherlands. I enjoyed them last season and they are available again from Jones Potatoes at farmers markets around Melbourne. Give them a go and enjoy really crispy roast potatoes that actually taste great too.




Lion’s Mane

Would you put something called lion’s mane on your dinner menu? It may look like a large ball of fluff or a lion’s mane but in reality it is quite a meaty textured mushroom. Lion’s mane is one of the new gourmet mushroom varieties available around Melbourne farmers’ markets, along with coloured oyster mushrooms, nameko, shimeji, shiitaki and king mushrooms. I was very intrigued to find the lion’s mane mushroom at the Melbourne Gourmet Mushroom stall at Gasworks on Saturday. Lion’s mane is very high in antioxidants and much is made of its disease averting capabilities but vegans also love the texture which lends itself to meat or fish substitution in various recipes. Think fritters and fish or crab cakes. It is supposed to have a slight flavour of lobster but having recently enjoyed Portland lobster over the summer I found the resemblance a bit too subtle for my taste. However, I did enjoy the adventure of cooking something totally new that was locally and sustainably produced and in all likelihood will be a food on plates in a resource-constrained future. I started with the keep it simple approach and just sauteed thick slices slowly in olive oil and fresh thyme until it was tender and golden and served it with confit cherry tomatoes and salad.

It was very pleasant but with no obvious mushroom flavour and no, it wasn’t a bit furry. A bit like a mass produced chicken breast I think a lion’s mane mushroom is a chef’s delight, lending itself to added flavours and chefy tricks. I plan to maintain my explorations with lion’s mane and other exotic mushrooms and will keep you posted. These exotics are grown in the Melbourne suburb of Reservoir, so local that food miles hardly count, and are freshly harvested a couple of hours before they appear at market stalls. $5 for 100 grams.