The Joy of Oysters hit me like a BOLT — a Bacon, Oyster, Lettuce and Tomato sandwich — Nils Bernstein’s genius pairing of pan-fried oysters and a BLT. Here were two of my favorite foods sandwiched together in one salty, crunchy, juicy bite.
As a ’Fleetian household with two recreational shellfishing licenses, we are always looking for new ways to prepare our bivalve bounty. But I rarely look to recipes from the other coast. I wanted to know more about this writer. When I called Bernstein, he was in Baja California. He’s a journalist who divides his time between Mexico and New York City.
Bernstein spent his childhood summers foraging for oysters along Puget Sound. “What is better for a city kid,” he asks, “than to play out in nature and forage and eat free food?” At eight, when his stepdad told him, “You won’t like oysters,” he took the challenge and has been hooked ever since.
So, yes, he’s loyal to the West Coast oysters of his youth (which are cucumbery and delicate). But he admitted that after spending a pandemic year eating his way through bags of bivalves for the book, his preference “shifted to the brininess and size of East Coast oysters.” Score one for Wellfleets.
Bernstein makes the point that oysters weren’t always a high-end delicacy. The reefs were many and massive in the 1800s, and oysters were a cheap staple. “My goal was to inspire and capture oysters’ historical abundance with accessible recipes,” says Bernstein, “not just some diamond on a plate.”
The Joy of Oysters (Artisan Books, 2023) is more than a cookbook. It has enough lore, science, history, art, and architecture to keep the oyster-curious happily curled on the couch on a rainy afternoon. But the book has a trove of recipes. It includes classics like mignonette, pan roast, oysters Rockefeller, and angels on horseback (oysters wrapped in bacon). He offers great tips on storing, shucking, broiling, and live-fire grilling oysters (wear glasses — the shells can pop). There are plenty of modern and global inspirations, too, like oysters with watermelon salsa, Korean oyster pancakes, and a Brazilian oyster stew. The 20 no-cook toppings (he takes readers well beyond lemon and Tabasco) for oysters on the half shell are super. I loved the suggestion of peppery nasturtium and chubby purslane leaves, since both are overflowing in my garden right now. Broiled Oysters With a (Hard) Cider Cream is marked for my Thanksgiving menu.
And how did I not think of oyster mayonnaise? During recipe testing, Bernstein experimented with using oysters instead of eggs to emulsify oil for an umami-rich sauce. When he discovered it worked, he says, “I almost cried.” Hello, fried oysters with oyster-mayo sauce! If you don’t have a surfeit of oysters to make a mayonnaise, his suggestion of adding a splash of oyster liquor to store-bought Hellman’s makes a heavenly dip for pan-fried oysters or to smear on a BOLT.
Now, back to that oyster BLT. I adapted Bernstein’s BOLT into cocktail-size noshes. I found his technique for pan-fried oysters with panko to be a keeper. What to do, though, when inspired but not up for frying? I can imagine MacGyvering this and sending someone to bring home an order from one of our fried oyster shacks while I spike a little mayo with an oyster or two from our bucket, slice the tomatoes, and chop the herbs. Then it’s just a matter of tucking the crispy critters between slices of bread.
Makes 12 oysters
12 large oysters
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp. sea salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs, beaten
Vegetable or peanut oil, as needed
- Shuck and drain the oysters, reserving their liquor for the mayonnaise. Place the oysters on a dish towel to absorb any excess liquid.
2. Set out a wire cooling rack or platter and three shallow bowls. Put the panko in one of the bowls. In a second bowl, combine the flour, salt, and pepper. Beat the eggs in the third bowl.
- Working one at a time, dip the oysters in the flour mixture, toss them between your hands to remove any excess, and place on a plate. If the oysters are gummy, toss them in the flour again; you want a thin, dry coating of flour. When all the oysters are floured, dip each in egg, letting the excess drip back into the bowl, then coat the oyster in the panko. If necessary, gently press the oyster into the panko. (Tip: Use your dominant hand for dipping into the crumbs and your other hand for dipping into the eggs, so you don’t mix wet and dry ingredients.) When each oyster is fully coated, place it on the rack or platter until ready to fry.
- Pour oil into a large, deep skillet so it’s about ½ inch deep. Heat over medium-high heat until the oil starts to shimmer. You are aiming for a temperature between 360° and 375° F, but keep in mind that most thermometers won’t give an accurate reading in shallow oil. You can test the temperature by putting the handle of a wooden spoon in the oil; if bubbles appear around the wood, it’s ready. You can also test the oil by seeing whether a shard of panko starts sizzling immediately.
- Add as many oysters to the pan as will fit without them touching as they fry. Fry the oysters until they are golden brown and crisp, only 1 to 1½ minutes per side. Use a fork to turn the oysters and to remove them to paper towels to drain when done. Serve immediately.
Makes 12 appetizer-size sandwiches
1 to 2 Tbsp. oyster liquor
1/3 cup mayonnaise
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Sliced tomatoes, about 3 medium or 12 small
6 slices sandwich bread
6 slices cooked bacon
Lettuce, arugula, basil, nasturtium leaves, or a mixture
Freshly pan-fried oysters (see above)
- Whisk the oyster liquor into the mayonnaise. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until ready to use.
- Spread the sliced tomatoes on a plate and season with salt and pepper. Toast the bread, cut into quarters, lay on a clean workspace, and smear with oyster mayo. Build sandwiches with cooked bacon, sliced tomatoes and their juices, and lettuce. Top each with a warm pan-fried oyster, drizzle with more mayo, and sandwich it all together, topping it off with a last quarter slice of toast. Refrigerate any leftover sauce; serve warm with napkins.