By OWEN MORRIS
If heaven exists and God is merciful then my cafeteria will serve mainly seafood. I love seafood, which can sometimes be painful when there are no oceans for 1,500 miles in either direction. Fortunately, the miracles of air shipping and fish farms allow me to divulge more than is good for the environment or the fish.
That's why I was excited for yesterday's class.
The focus was on seafood and seafood alone. No sides, salads or desserts, just three types of seafood and accompanying sauces. Before we actually tried to cook seafood, we had an hour-long lesson on oysters, sole and shrimp -- and how to buy them.
Oysters are a pain to shuck and can also be a pain to buy (and if you eat a bad one, that's a different type of excruciating pain). What makes oysters in the shell so difficult is the fact they must be kept alive right until they're served. Fortunately for us Midwesterners, they are hearty creatures and can live a couple of weeks on ice. The problem, our teacher explained, is putting them back into water. "Don't put them in water ever," he said. "The chlorine in the water will kill them in a matter of minutes and then you will have nothing but a bunch of bad oysters on hand."
Immediately after an oyster dies, its body starts producing toxins. "It's serving your guests poison," our teacher explained as he held an oyster in his hand and pounded it on the table for effect. All I could think of was that the poor thing was still alive in his hand.
Soon, however, the instructor turned to the topic of opening the oyster. For this task there is a special knife that's small, squat and inflexible. Every oyster has a flat side and a round side, and a flat end and a pointed end. To properly open an oyster on the half shell, you want the round side on the bottom and to stick the oyster knife in the pointed end.
The biggest trick is gaining leverage, since the oyster will be fighting you by clamping its shell closed (if it doesn't fight, throw it away). The instructor placed the oyster on a cutting board and brought it as close to the edge of the table as possible. With one hand, wrapped in a cloth to prevent slippage, he held the oyster on that edge with the pointed end almost sticking over. With the other hand, he stuck the end of the oyster knife in the oyster and used the table edge as a lever and slowly angled the knife down until it was below the tabletop. "Using this method, you can apply up to 200 pounds of pressure on the oyster and eventually it will become exhausted," he said. After a second or so we heard a loud crunch and the oyster shell had given.
Opening oysters was a lot more exciting than cooking them. We ate them on the half-shell or just ran them through a standard breading station and fried them. After scaring us with stories about bad oysters, the teacher went on to explain that we actually didn't need to serve them immediately after shucking, but that they will keep on parchment paper and in the refrigerator for almost another 24 hours.
Then he began to talk about shrimp, but as soon as I realized that weren't really covering any special information ("Just remember PRE: That stands for peeled, ready to eat"), I conveniently found my way over to where the oysters were being held on ice and practiced my shucking skills, of course rewarding myself for a job well done by slurping my work with a little Tabasco.