Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Contraption

The contraption showed up on my front porch about two days before the oyster roast. No note. No pre-arranged dropoff. Just the contraption. I was working from home that day, but didn't notice it until around 11am. I went to put my latest Netflix in the mailbox (Madagascar 2) for the mail carrier, and noticed it perched on the wicker table out front. Pristine-ly clean aluminum, shining in the morning sun. The kind that makes you squint, even after a morning Starbucks. It was about 24 inches tall, round, with a domed lid. It took about 45 seconds for me to realize what it was.

My friend and former insurance agent had mentioned this contraption in the recent past. He offered to assist with the oyster "roast", and had a potential supplier for oysters. He had been to our oyster "roasts" many times, and appreciated the work that went into the event. We have had them many times in the past - UGA football games on the big screen (25 feet of high-def bliss - but I digress) and for the annual Master's party that we have on Par 3 Wednesday. Unbeknownst (I hate that word) to me, Rusty had dropped the contraption on the porch before he went to his office, which is about a mile from my house.

Rusty is the kind of friend that everyone should have. Good hearted. Personable. And previously being in the home insurance business (now corporate), could find almost any building-related material at low or no cost using his client connections out in "the country" (i.e. Waynesboro, Sylvania, etc). He once got me a claw foot tub from a house in Harlem, GA for free. To this day, I still wonder whether we actually stole the thing. We took my pickup truck at sunset to a dilapidated shack with no power. We crept inside with flashlights, took a hacksaw to the pipes to get it free, and man-handled it into the pickup. I was on the verge of a hernia. If you've ever picked up a real clawfoot tub, you know what I mean. We still use that tub for iced bottles of beer when we have parties. I got smart and bought a hand truck to move it around.

Anyway, Rusty is a man who can get things. And a man who likes to dream up contraptions. Cooking contraptions appears to be one of his latest fixations. He had a fellow build him an upright smokehouse for meat, that stands about 5-feet tall, is rectangular and made of sheet metal, and has about 10 racks inside. It's attached to a pot-belly stove that he feeds to smoke and heat to the meat. Awesome contraption. He also had a fellow build him a smoker/grill from a 6-foot propane tank, cut in half, with a 1/2 inch sheet metal divider to distribute the heat, and make the smoke roll across the meat from one end to the other, prior to exiting through the chimney. Again, awesome contraption.

The contraption Rusty brought me two days before the oyster roast was not at all contrived or built by a fellow. It was from an Oriental Market. An oh-six oriental market nonetheless (for you non-Augustans, that's the south side, as in 309-oh-6 zip code). The 06'ers have a number of oriental markets, and as OG pointed out, if you haven't been to one, you don't know what you are missing. Especially in variety and price. This contraption was made for steam, and boy can it steam. I'm not sure what the oriental crowd uses this contraption to cook, but you can't beat steaming oysters in it.

Which brings me to the first clarification of the day. We call all of our oyster events "oyster roasts", although technically, it's a steam. Oyster Steam doesn't sound nearly as appetizing as an Oyster Roast, so we stuck with the latter. Although I can promise you, I will have the wet canvas and wire cages available for an event in the near future, which we will honestly call an Oyster Roast.

So we have established that the contraption is a steamer, and can steam oysters better than any contraption I have used. Since we have done this a number of times in the past, I have tried to perfect the process, not unlike the way JW continues to perfect his Pizza dough. An oyster steam is a bit harder to perfect. Not because it's a difficult process. It's actually pretty simple. That's why it's difficult to perfect. The simplicity is inherent in the steaming process. There's a lot less opportunity to introduce flavor into the process when you are steaming. My typical process involved a 40 quart aluminum pot with a basket, which was resting in the pot on top of half garlic heads, lemons, and a number of spices. These additions don't do much for the oysters, but do give an amazing aroma that enhances the eating experience. My problem has always been the limited distance between having the lid tight, when the basket is resting on garlic and lemons, to having the lid too far above the pot rim, where too much steam escapes. The contraption completely solved that problem.

Not only did the contraption allow the lid to tightly seal, but the bottom section provided a good 4 inches of room for liquid and aromatics. I used sea salt, 30 bay leaves, 4 heads of garlic (halved), 4 lemons (halved), a cup of old bay seasoning, a 1/4 cup of cayenne pepper, 1/4 cup of peppercorns, and about 4 quarts of water to steam the oysters. We use a turkey burner outside, and with the contraption, had two layers of oysters. This gave us a layer (bottom) that was well steamed (for the girls), and a layer that was just right (for the manly oyster eater). For the record, Rusty ate with the girls.

I got 400 oysters from my good buddy that runs the restaurant around the corner from the house. Very good quality, and about 50% cheaper than what you would pay at Publix (which we have done in the past). The first round of oysters was a test of the contraption, and were a little too steamed for me. They were all eaten. The next 3 batches were perfect. About 20 of the guests managed to consume all 400 oysters, and the contraption was an excellent addition to this annual event. As you can see from the photos, it's not something sold by Ronco, but is extremely light, inexpensive, and durable. And expandable. I'm not sure when it would resemble the leaning tower of Pisa, but as Rusty says, "the steam has to go up, so put as many of them layers on there as you want." More experimenting is definitely in order. I foresee vegetables (corn, potatoes, etc.) on some of the layers.

Rusty is on the lookout for one that I can purchase for myself. It appears that the oriental market doesn't keep them in stock for very long.


JW said...

Excellent post my friend. With a little help from the others, we might just make this blog worth reading!

OG said...

That's pretty awesome. You're exactly right about the flavor being a potential issue since you can't really inject any flavor into steam. The oysters do well because you can serve them with sauce. The other thing you can make (and a ton of 'em) is tamales. Simple really, and I've got some video that I took of my Mom doing it over Thanksgiving a year or so ago. Great post!