Tom Ross

Tom Ross

Tom Ross: Let them eat oysters

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— Fresh oysters are a treat I usually associate with semi-annual trips to the coast of Oregon. But this year, I anticipated the oysters coming to me for a splendid Christmas Eve feast.

It all came together in the end — just not the way I expected it would.

To be clear, gourmands can obtain excellent oyster shooters in a variety of Steamboat restaurants and slurp ’em down raw. I consider it a small miracle that we can dine on fresh oysters in December in the Rocky Mountains at all.

I’ve never had a bad experience with raw oysters, but I feel obligated to tell you that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration strongly urges consumers not to eat raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico because of a bacteria that can be harmful to humans. Proceed at your own risk.

The good news is that Pacific oysters are a delicacy when lightly fried (enough to kill any bacteria). And later in this column I’m going to tell you how to do it.

My holiday oyster odyssey began with my sister, Laurie, in Hillsboro, Ore., offering to ship me some fresh seafood for Christmas. At my request, she packed two pints of delectable Willapa Bay oysters in a little foam cooler with a frozen pack of blue ice. But the shipment took longer than normal to arrive, and we’d already promised her we wouldn’t eat them after they finally arrived at midday Dec. 23.

That same day, I set out before 7 a.m. to beat the holiday crowds at the grocery store, a strategy that has worked well for me when the size of Steamboat doubles with vacationers. You have to dance around a few shipping pallets in the store aisles, but there’s no wait at checkout, and the veteran store clerks have time to exchange pleasantries with their customers. That’s one of my favorite parts about going to the grocery store early.

I was scanning the seafood section Friday and considering replacing my holiday shellfish with crustaceans when what should my wondering eyes behold but some miniature tubs of eight fresh Willapa Bay oysters at $4 per pint.

I hurried home with my prized oysters, thankful for the miracle of jet-fresh seafood, and called Laurie on the telephone.

“How’s you sense of humor?” I asked, and was relieved to hear that she was more than pleased that we’d found a way to keep the intent of her holiday giving intact.

There are those among us who are not meant to ingest oysters, so if you are uncertain whether your digestive system will tolerate shellfish, ignore this last piece of advice. On the other hand, if you are tempted by the thought of fried oysters for New Year’s Eve, here’s the simple recipe for making your own.

Fried oysters, Pacific Northwest style

■ Rinse the pre-shucked oysters in a colander and pat dry with paper towels

■ Dust the oysters with flour and in succession dip them in whisked eggs and then Panko breadcrumbs.

■ Heat peanut oil in a heavy skillet until almost smoking hot.

■ Fry the oysters, turning them once, for about 4 minutes or until the internal temperature is 180 degrees (they should still be soft to the touch of a wooden spoon).

■ Serve with fresh Colorado chipotle salsa (the spice won’t overwhelm the flavor of the oysters) and a squeeze of lemon and sample seafood heaven.

For me, Pacific oysters mean more than a holiday treat. They are symbolic of a healthy coastal environment in a part of the country that I love.

Oysters cannot thrive without clean water. Willapa Bay, Wash., just north of Portland, Ore., is the second largest estuary on the western coast of the United States and ringed by a national wildlife area and small rain forests. Fed by several rivers including the Bone, Palix, Naselle, Bear and Niawiakum, the estuary’s continuing health means the river systems themselves are in good shape. And the oyster farmers whose livings depend on the estuary have a stake in its protection.

When I bite into a fried Willapa Bay oyster and its mysterious elixir contacts my tongue, I taste that fragile coastal environment where fresh water meets seawater.

On Christmas Eve 2011, the world was my oyster, and there was nothing to compare to it.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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