Last year may have been the-year-that-cannot-be-named, but for Robert and me it was not entirely bad. It was the year we got our oyster mojo going. We became rookie recreational foragers, following the tide clock for our daily routine. With licenses pinned to our hats and three-inch plastic rings, we headed out at low tides right before sunset so as to catch two local treasures in one trip — the oysters and the Outer Cape’s evening light.
Walking the flats in the cold and wind, heads down searching the seabed, has become a lesson in the richness of life below the surface. On it there are hordes of fiddler crabs that move like commuters rushing to the 6:05 train. And a carpet of periwinkles that reminds me of my first fancy dinner in Paris. I’m inspired by a seagull’s determination — it clutches a mussel in its beak, soars and drops it, over and over, until the mussel cracks open.
Because local shellfishermen are taking a hit from restaurant closures, the town has bought some of their oysters and scattered them in recreational areas. When you hit a vein of these beauties, you feel like a kid at a birthday party where everyone is a winner.
But even when pickings are slim, it’s worth it to be out in the air and the light, walking the creek’s bottom.
Robert, first to check the tides and gear up in his Bogs boots, windbreaker, and gloves, doesn’t eat oysters. That leaves more for me. And for friends who come and sit outside, shucking and slurping six feet apart. This year of bivalves has spurred kitchen experimentation, too. I’ve worked my way through the classics — pan roast, chowder, and “rockerfellas.” I like them broiled or grilled, with a little butter, curry powder, and breadcrumbs. (Maybe someday, I will perfect my fried oysters; in the meantime, I defer to our local pros who turn them out perfectly hot, plump, and crispy.)
But my revelation and go-to comfort food is oyster fried rice. The recipe is an easy template with multiple variations. I start with a bit of meat — bacon works well, but I am slightly obsessed with Chinese sausage, a hard, slightly sweet pork sausage called lap cheong. I buy it in Asian markets when off Cape and put it in the freezer. For a decidedly Provincetown spin, there’s sliced linguiça and garlic instead of ginger.
I have riffed on this with all kinds of rice, but jasmine is the classic. One thing to note is that when making rice for stir-frying you should use about 20 percent less water, so the rice is firm — that’s why you’ll see that my proportions are just 2 2/3 cups of water for 1½ cups of rice.
Don’t let shucking the oysters intimidate you. The folks at SPAT have a helpful demo of this more than satisfying life skill.
The Chinese love homophones — words that sound similar but have different meanings. The word for oyster, in Chinese, sounds like both the word for being open and the word for good fortune. Oysters are often served for the New Year, as a kind of food pun. I am eating as many as I can for a better 2021.
Wellfleet Oyster Fried Rice
Serves 2 as a main or 4 as a side
3 slices bacon or 3 oz. sausage
¾ tsp. five-spice powder, optional
½ tsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 Tbsp. minced fresh ginger
½ to 1 fresno or jalapeño chile
Freshly ground black pepper
3 cups cooked rice
½ cup quartered snow peas
1 large handful greens, such as baby spinach, baby bok choy, or pea shoots
1 to 2 tsp. soy sauce
Asian chili sauce
Lemon or lime wedges for serving
Shuck the oysters and save their liquor. Set aside. Mince the ginger and the chile. Slice the scallions thin, separating the green and white slices into separate piles. Quarter the snow peas.
Cook the rice and let cool, if you are not using leftover rice. Use 2 2/3 cups water for 1½ cups rice to yield 3 cups cooked rice.
Slice the bacon crosswise into thin strips (or, if using sausage, slice thin), and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat, in a wok or large skillet, until rendered and slightly crisp, about 6 minutes. Add the five-spice powder, if using, and the sugar, and cook, stirring until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Transfer bacon or sausage to a paper towel to drain. Discard all but the bacon drippings that coat the pan.
Return the pan to medium-high heat, add the oil and, when it shimmers, add the ginger, chile, and scallion whites, and stir-fry until wilted, about 30 seconds. Add the snow peas and stir to coat with the aromatics.
Add the rice and stir to coat and heat through, about a minute. Add the bacon and greens, and stir-fry until the greens begin to wilt, about a minute. Stir in the oysters, their liquor, and the soy sauce and combine evenly. Cook, tossing, until the rice is moistened and the oysters plump, 2 to 3 minutes depending on their size.
Transfer to a large platter or bowl, top with the scallion greens. Serve with chili sauce and lemon or lime wedges.