“I hope you smoke a cigarette after you eat that sh**.”

My colleague and I are staring down a dozen glistening, raw oysters, and the man who will become my ex has plopped down beside us.

“Those things are nasty,” he says, sucking on his ever-present Marlboro.

In either a testament to oysters’ aphrodisiacal qualities or my total lack of discernment, his comment sends my heart a-pitter pat. I may not bum a cigarette … but I put my oyster down.

That was mythic moons ago. Today — thank the Lord — I’d respond quite differently.

“No offense, Bud, but your cigarettes are nasty. Oysters are divine.”

Raw, fried, smoked, baked … I’ll eat these briny beauties whenever I get the chance. They’re high in calcium, iron and protein. Without the drawn butter or cornmeal coating, they’re naturally low in fat (and gluten free).

I used to get my oyster fix at restaurants and raw bars. But more and more, I’m bringing them into my own kitchen and cooking with them myself.

There’ve been a few missteps. Oysters can go from tasty to terrible in next to no time. Freeze them and you get a mushy, strident-smelling mess. Buy them cheap, and you end up with a taste that’s all fish and no nuance.

As with most cooking, your nose is the best guide when working with oysters. They should smell fresh and mild when you buy them. They should maintain a briny, almost delicate taste and texture once they’re cooked. And they should never, ever reek of fishy odors.

All of which means sourcing is key. According to the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, oysters are safe to eat raw when they’re harvested from approved waters, packed in sanitary conditions and properly refrigerated. I only buy them from specialty food shops or — increasingly — my local seafood restaurant.

Oysters have enjoyed pride of place on our Thanksgiving table for about three years now. I served a lovely oyster-fennel bisque one holiday. A cornmeal-oyster dressing last year (which I plan to reprise next week). And this beauty — oysters baked with leeks, bacon and cream — a couple of years in a row. It’s rich, salty and tastes of the sea.

Nothing a cigarette should sully.

Baked Oysters With Bacon & Leeks (Adapted from Bon Appetit, 2004)

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 8 ounces bacon, chopped
  • 4 large leeks, trimmed, washed and thinly sliced
  • 1 cup celery, finely chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Dash of cayenne pepper
  • 2 tablespoons vermouth (or any other dry white wine)
  • 1 1/2 dozen raw oysters, freshly shucked (stored in their own liquor, sealed and packed on ice, they’ll keep in your refrigerator for about 1 week)
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk for 2 minutes. Slowly add the cream, whisking until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove the pan from the heat.

Fry the bacon in a heavy saute pan until it’s crisp. Transfer to paper towels to drain, and discard all but 2 tablespoons of the grease.

Add the leeks, celery, bay leaf and cayenne to the drippings and saute until the vegetables are soft. Add the vermouth and cook until the liquid is absorbed.

Fold in the cream mixture, the cheese, the bacon and the oysters. Stir well to combine. Transfer to a greased casserole dish and bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, or until the mixture is hot and bubbly and the oysters are thoroughly cooked. Serves 10.