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Southern cooks show us how to roast oysters in the backyard

  • Let oysters steam under wet burlap for about 5 minutes or until some, but not all, have opened, on the metal sheet. (Juli Leonard/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)

    Let oysters steam under wet burlap for about 5 minutes or until some, but not all, have opened, on the metal sheet. (Juli Leonard/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ted Lee shovels freshly roasted oysters onto the table outside Andrea Weigl's home in Raleigh, North Carolina, Thursday, March 14, 2013. Serve with with Pepper Vinegar, Red Rice and Sunday Collards. (Juli Leonard/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)

    Ted Lee shovels freshly roasted oysters onto the table outside Andrea Weigl's home in Raleigh, North Carolina, Thursday, March 14, 2013. Serve with with Pepper Vinegar, Red Rice and Sunday Collards. (Juli Leonard/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Let oysters steam under wet burlap for about 5 minutes or until some, but not all, have opened, on the metal sheet. (Juli Leonard/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)
  • Ted Lee shovels freshly roasted oysters onto the table outside Andrea Weigl's home in Raleigh, North Carolina, Thursday, March 14, 2013. Serve with with Pepper Vinegar, Red Rice and Sunday Collards. (Juli Leonard/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)

You can’t roast oysters without one piece of essential equipment: a pint of beer.

That’s the first lesson I learned from award-winning cookbook authors Matt and Ted Lee, who let me persuade them to show me how to throw an oyster roast.

Oyster roasts are a culinary tradition in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, where the Lee brothers grew up. The Lees were in town on a recent swing through North Carolina promoting their latest cookbook, “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen.”

Before they arrived, they gave strict instructions about everything to have on hand to ensure a successful roast: a stack of firewood, four cinder blocks, a 4-by-6-foot sheet of steel, a shovel, burlap sacks soaking in water, a bushel of oysters, and, of course, plenty of beer to drink.

And so, on a recent Thursday, the Lee brothers, a few friends and I, each with a pint of beer, gathered under a large maple tree in my backyard. The brothers scoped out a flat place in the grass. Matt stood the cinder blocks upright, creating a rectangle on which to lay the sheet of metal. Once the metal was laid on top of the bricks, Ted asked, “Is it level?”

Matt poured some beer out of his pint glass onto the metal sheet. The golden ale pooled in the center. Matt declared: “It’s pretty darn level.”

When it comes to oyster roasts, the brothers speak from experience. In the high season from October to March, they said, they might get invited to an oyster roast a week for any occasion, including birthdays, sporting events and pre-wedding celebrations. A Thursday night oyster roast has become a traditional preamble to a Saturday wedding among Charleston couples.

But roasting oysters dates much farther back, as the brothers learned while researching their new cookbook. Mounds of oyster shells dating to prehistoric times have been found on Edisto Island, south of Charleston.

“The oyster roast is the one thing that ties together the pre-European settlers to the tourists,” Matt said. “The thing we like to remind ourselves is: It really hasn’t changed at all for thousands of years.”

And really, Ted said, not much has changed in the modern era. At most, all that is required is four cinder blocks and a sheet of metal.

In my backyard, a fire was soon lit. Using a hose, Matt rinsed the mud off the oysters.

“This separates a bad oyster roast from a good one,” Ted explained.

“Let’s see how hot our griddle is,” Matt said before spraying it with water. The droplets bounced and hissed as steam rose from the surface.

A shovel-full of oysters was laid out on the hot metal. The mollusks were covered with a wet burlap sack. Within five minutes, Matt removed the burlap and shoveled the first batch of steamed oysters onto a nearby table covered with newspaper. Soon all that could be heard was the popping of shells and the slurping of oysters. The brothers declared the first batch a tad overdone. The next batch came out right: just barely cooked.

“Practice makes perfect,” Matt said.

Twelve dozen oysters later, Matt wrestled with a large oyster that refused to open. He had put the oyster back on the fire several times to see if it would open on its own. “I’m not letting this oyster beat me,” Matt said.

Finally, the shell popped and Matt savored his last oyster: “It wasn’t the very best of the day but it still felt good to be the victor.”

Among the many lessons I learned that afternoon was this: Roasting oysters isn’t an exact science.

It may take several attempts to perfectly roast an oyster or to pry a stubborn one from its shell. Even an overdone or troublesome oyster can’t ruin a spring afternoon spent outside with friends under a maple tree with the smell of wood smoke all around and a pint of beer in your hand.

Hosting an oyster roast

These instructions, designed to feed 6-8 people, are adapted from the award-winning “The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook,” by Matt and Ted Lee.

∎ Supplies

4 cinder blocks

1 large sheet of steel, about 4 feet square

Lots of dry split wood, plus kindling

1 burlap bag or 2 old bath towels

A 5-gallon bucket filled with water

1 metal shovel

1 pair work gloves per person, or old kitchen towels (to protect hands while shucking)

1 oyster knife per person

1 bushel unshucked oysters or more depending on number of guests

∎ Step by step

Create a level, well-swept clearing on the ground and stand the cinder blocks upright so that they form the corners of a rectangle to support the metal sheet. Lay the metal over the cinder blocks and test it to make certain it is secure.

Remove the metal sheet and build a fire in the center of the cinder blocks. When the fire is roaring, place the metal squarely on the cinder blocks. Dunk the burlap bag in the pail of water.

When a handful of water tossed on the metal sizzles, place 2 to 3 shovels-full of oysters on it and blanket them with the soaked burlap. Let oysters steam for about 5 minutes or until some, but not all, have opened, then remove burlap and return it to the water bucket. Shovel oysters off the metal and onto a table for shucking.

When guests have nearly devoured the first batch, begin the second batch. When all the oysters have been steamed, you can douse the fire with any water left in the pail.

Serving: Serve the oysters with Pepper Vinegar, Red Rice and Sunday Collards (see recipes). Also consider setting out saltines, various types of hot sauce, several rolls of paper towels and, of course, cold beer.

Order your oysters ahead of time from a store that specializes in fresh seafood.

∎ When should we eat
oysters?

Many people adhere to that old adage to eat oysters only in months with the letter “R” in them. That limits oyster consumption to fall, winter and early spring. Steve Murphey, an environmental health supervisor with the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, says that advice has to do with the quality of the oyster meat. In colder months, oysters are more plump and contain more fat. In the summer, oyster meat is more watery.

“The quality of the meat isn’t as good in the summer as in the winter months,” Murphey says.

Farmed oysters are available through the summer. If you do eat oysters in the summer, make sure the oysters are kept at 45 degrees to prevent naturally occurring bacteria from creating pathogens that can make people sick.

Don’t eat a dead oyster: A live oyster keeps its shell tightly closed. If you tap a live oyster, it will close its shell even tighter. A dead oyster’s shell will be slightly open and won’t close when you tap it.

Pepper Vinegar

Makes 1 cup

1 cup white vinegar

2 Thai, Serrano or bird’s eye chiles, fresh or dried

Use a funnel to pour the vinegar in a cruet. Add chiles and use a chopstick or the handle of a wooden spoon to submerge them, if necessary. Cap the cruet and place it in the refrigerator. The vinegar will be well infused in 24 hours and will keep for months in the refrigerator.

Red Rice

Makes 5 cups

2 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into small dice

1½ cups diced yellow onion (about 1 large onion)

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1½ cups long-grain rice

2 to 2½ cups chicken broth

1 (28-ounce) can whole Italian tomatoes, drained

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Heat an oven to 425 degrees.

Fry the bacon in a 12-inch ovenproof skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, until firm and barely crisp, about 4 minutes. Use a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a small bowl. Set aside. Saute the onion and garlic in the bacon fat over medium heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 2 minutes, until fragrant and slightly translucent. Add 2 cups broth and turn off heat.

Puree the tomatoes in a food processor. Stir in the crushed red pepper flakes, smoked paprika, salt and pepper and pour puree into the skillet. Stir to combine.

Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer vigorously until the rice is tender but soupy, about 20 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of broth at a time if the rice is not soupy.

Transfer the skillet or Dutch oven to the oven and bake on the middle rack for 25 minutes, or until all the liquid has been absorbed. Serve the rice in a bowl. Garnish with the reserved bacon.

Sunday Collards

Serves 6-8

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, peanut oil or canola oil

1 smoked ham hock or smoked hog jowl or ¼ pound slab bacon, diced

8 cups water

3 dried chile peppers or 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon kosher salt

3 2/3 pounds collard greens (about 3 bunches, ribbed, washed and cut into 1-inch wide strips)

Pour the oil into an 8-quart stockpot over medium-high heat and swirl it around so it covers the bottom. Score the ham hock with a small sharp knife, and when the oil begins to shimmer, set it in the pot. Sear the hock all over as best you can and allow it to render some fat, about 6 minutes. (Since a hock’s shape is so oblique, it will become spottily browned, but that is fine.)

Pour the water into the pot; it will hiss and pop for a few seconds. Add the chiles and salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes, until the stock is deeply flavored with smoke and spiciness.

Add a few handfuls of collards to the pot. The greens will float to the surface, so stir them frequently, submerging them with the spoon, until they have turned a bright green, about 3 to 5 minutes, and become floppier and more compact, so you can add more handfuls. Continue adding the collards, stirring and submerging them, until all the greens are in the pot. Turn the heat to low and simmer gently for 1 hour. The greens will be very dark matte green and should be completely tender. If not tender, continue cooking.

Use a slotted spoon to serve greens and pass a cruet of Pepper Vinegar (see recipe).

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