The best part of living in Cape May for this Big City Girl is having access to piles of fresh wild oysters.
Compared to their farmed counterparts, wild oysters are often funny shaped, irregularly sized, and they are not as easy to shuck. And our secret trove is not always accessible; Last winter, the bay froze and most of "our" oyster beds were destroyed. When we do harvest them, we do our best to be careful, taking only the well-sized oysters, trying not to harm any neighbouring oysters with our prying.
Of all the seafood options available, both my vegan-pescetarian husband and I prefer oysters. They are animals, technically, but growing them does not strain any environmental resources, eating them means they will be replenished which is actually good for the environment as they are natural water cleaners, and finally they lack a nervous system so they do not suffer. This is all, of course, a bonus to their creamy brininess.
I love my oysters best raw, but they are lovely in a chowder too, and I prefer using wild oysters to farmed oysters when enjoying them cooked.
To always be ready for a surprise harvest of oysters and a quick bowl of chowder, I keep bonito flakes in my pantry at all times. Bonito flakes, (or katsuobushi), are little wisps of dried, fermented tuna. It's the basis of many soups and sauces in Japanese cuisine. It's smokey, intensely savory, and slightly fishy: If bacon and anchovies had a love child, it would be Bonito. It's perfect any time you need a fish stock on the fly, but it's also delicious as a garnish! Try it on eggs or even plain rice for instant umami. You should be able to find it in any shop with a decent Asian section, and even Amazon carries Bonito.
Makes 2 large bowls.
WILD OYSTER CHOWDER
🥣 Dozen or more fresh oysters
🥣 1/3 cup bonito flakes
🥣 Half an onion, diced
🥣 Carrot, diced
🥣 Celery, diced
🥣 Potato, cubed
🥣 1/4 cup corn kernels
🥣 1/4 cup diced sweet bell pepper
🥣 Can of coconut milk (do not shake it!)
🥣 Smoked fish or smoked fish oil (optional)
Sauté the diced onion, carrot, and celery until soft. Move it around and keep it on a medium heat; we're not looking for it to brown.
Add the potato cubes and add just enough water to cover. Add the bonito flakes. You can use fish stock here instead, and skip the bonito flakes.
While waiting for the potatoes to cook, shuck the oysters. Be sure to reserve all that brine to add to the chowder!
When the potato cubes are soft, add the corn and diced sweet pepper.
Once it comes back to a simmer, open the can of coconut milk. Skim off all the lovely coconut cream, leaving the coconut water in the bottom of the can, and add the cream to the pot. Of course, if you're not dairy free, go ahead and use regular cream.
When that simmers, gently add your shucked oysters, cover, and turn the heat off. Give the oysters 5-10 minutes to gently cook. Season carefully as there will already be lots of natural brine to the ingredients.
Enjoy piping hot!
When I have smoked fish or smoked fish oil around, I sometimes add it, but this is optional. The bonito flakes already add smokiness. I've always found that seafood chowders contain too much bacon, overwhelming the delicate sea flavours with hamminess. Using smoked fish instead makes much more sense in a seafood chowder, IMHO.