September 21, 2008

As far as I can tell, we pretty much only "shuck" corn or oysters (Merriam-Webster backs me up on this and designates the origin of the word as "unknown"). But I want to use the term to describe the crystallizing or refining of thoughts: Iím shucking ideas for a menu, peeling off stringy layers of corn silk, wedging in through the hinge with a blunt knife until Iíve cracked the thing open.

Thatís pretty much the point of the trip to D.C., ostensibly to see another fancy menu unshucked and up close, but also because I know my brother is my best match for both a bit of practice at shucking oysters and shucking options for their toppings.

I've had such success with granita lately that that's my first thought for a somewhat exotic half-shell garnish. Then my classmates serve up a tray of raw oysters with yuzu sorbet for a buffet—a prospect I'm excited about, but what happens is that the high acidity almost cooks the shellfish at the same time as the sorbet melts, so I'm left with the high points of neither.

So I start to think of more savory granitas, something with kick, and settle on two possibilities: apple-jalapeño and cucumber-horseradish. Both come together fairly easily, the apple by cooking out the juice, the cucumber just by blending to a pulp. Luckily Bryan and I have become jointly obsessed with homemade cold-brewed coffee so he's already equipped with a mesh sieve and cheesecloth. With that tucked safely into the freezer, we decide we need an early practice run at shucking with the new oyster knife we've fixed on owning jointly, across state lines. As I recall from class, it's not hard—just a matter of finding the sweet spot in the hinge where the knife can wiggle in. The bigger issue is figuring out how to keep the oysters free of grit, while keeping all the good oyster juice inside (scrub them very well to start, then rub a wet finger around the bottom of the shell to try to drag out anything not oyster-y). By the time the granita is frozen and the taste-testers assembled, we're old hands at shucking.

Both granitas are good, but I think Bryan and I are both a bit unmoved. Truth be told, culinary exoticism aside, we'd both prefer to mix together some Ketchup with horseradish, Tabasco, lemon, salt and pepper and down our oysters with a good helping of saltines. I decide that vinegar is probably what's missing, so for the final two oysters (Bryan and I are the only ones still slurping them down), I mix together a mignonette of white wine vinegar, diced cucumber, onion, horseradish and salt. Closer, but still not there. I do some research about vinegar in granita, and find a wide array of options—including what amounts to a simple deconstruction of classic cocktail sauce. I contemplate tomato aspic as opposed to the crunch of granita altogether. But finally I decide that I was so nearly on the right page that I don't need to throw the oyster out with the bathwater (or something). I devise a cucumber-jalapeño granita with a helping of vinegar. But then I start to wonder about that....

And here's the trouble with idea-shucking: Letting yourself stop and say, "Yes. That is what I will do," without contemplating dozens more concepts and designs. I might not have perfect oyster granita yet, but it's time to move on, for now.