Welcome to What's for Dinner. I have house guests I didn't anticipate for this weekend when I signed up but guess what? I'm on The Rock, and we're having lobster. I thought "wow, what an opportunity to republish my 2010 diary about cooking lobster?!". This was my very first diary for What's for Dinner and am delighted to have the opportunity to post it again.
I will be in and out this evening, but I ask you--What's for dinner at YOUR house?
So the diary after the fold and a little business:
What's For Dinner is a community diary on Saturday evenings about 7:30 pm EST where cyber friends get together and discuss food and share recipes. Pull your chair up to the table and leave politics at the door. Pour yourselves a drink and relax.As a bit of a serious foodie, there are a few books which I keep all together on a shelf where they are easily accessible. It's an eclectic lot, in a way and I mention this group of books because I am going to quote from one at length in this diary. Among this group: several generations of the Larousse Gastronomique, Alex Lichine's guide to wines and spirits, Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz's outstanding small volume Cooking with the Young Chefs of France (who, given that the book was written in the early 80's are now the old chefs of France but contains the best pheasant and onion tart recipes I have ever encountered), Giles MacDonough's A Palate in Revolution: Grimod de la Reyniere and the Almanac des Gourmands, and most importantly, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's incomparable tome Histoire Naturelle et Morale de la Nourriture" in the excellent English translation "History of Food" by Anthea Bell. Every serious foodie should own all of these books but especially History of Food. It is one the most compelling and often surprising thesis on food ever produced, all 801 pages of it. And it will inform tonight's diary, after the fold.....
Nota Bene: This Diary describes the cooking of live crustaceans in a very frank manner. It also contains some humor about the process. If this offends you, I recommend skipping this diary.
Lobster and Its Preparation, with Tips on Handling Your Fresh Seacritters
The Homarus Americanus, generally known as the American or Maine Lobster is a truly amazing creature. Nasty, cannibalistic and generally thought of to be rather stupid (erroneously: only 6 to 10 percent of those who walk into a lobster trap get caught: source: Wikipedia) they are also delicious, especially when cooked the same day they are caught. Found from North Carolina to the Canadian Maritime Provinces, these creatures are simply some of the best eating in America. The European lobster, Homarus gammarus is closely related. The spiny or rock lobster, Palinurus vulgaris, is not.
From History of Food by Toussaint-Samat:
It lives in cold waters, and although it is a solitary creature sometimes shares its burrow with the female conger eel. It is thought that they associate because each hopes to eat the other. The lobster is waiting for the conger to lay her eggs, and the conger is on the lookout for the moment when the lobster, shedding its shell, will be at its most vulnerable. They will fight pitilessly.Continuing from Toussaint-Samat:
The lobster swims backwards, but can turn to face its enemies...(i)t is a very belligerent creature, and lobster fishermen cut the tendons of its strong pincers as soon as they take it out of the water; otherwise, whether kept in baskets or in tanks, the lobsters would eat each other alive.Toussaint-Samat, History of Food, pg. 393.
Given this, no one excepting vegetarians or vegans or those who for religious reasons eschew shellfish and crustaceans, should ever have any compunction about consuming this nasty but succulent creature, which is generally boiled alive or cut in half length wise while alive and broiled. Which brings us to recipes and what is for dinner.
Purchasing and Keeping Live Lobsters
Perhaps it is my background as a native of New England, but I am of the opinion that no one should purchase a lobster that has not been sent by overnight mail or has traveled more than one or two hours from the coast where it was caught to the fishmonger's. Lobsters who hang around in tanks in the Randalls or the Albertsons or the Safeway or the Kroger or the local Asian market do not taste much like lobster to this Mainer's palate, but when properly cooked can make fine eating. That being said, people are going to buy them like this, though I do recommend purchasing them from reputable sources such as St. George Marine at 10 Cold Storage Rd, Port Clyde, ME 04855. They are a wholesaler but will ship to you if you ask them to. I am biased in favor of this source, partly because the men and women who do the lobstering are my neighbors. I am also thoroughly convinced that it is a complete waste of time to order lobster in a restaurant, no matter how talented the chef. I have never had a satisfactory lobster dish in any restaurant, American or European. I have, however, spent a considerable sum of money for the privilege of being sorely disappointed. My father, a lobsterphile who has had the privilege of a large corporate expense account in the past says that on occasion a good lobster can be had in a restaurant, though his guests were more impressed than he. Don't do it. Cook it at home.
No matter where you purchase your lobster, you want them to be alive when they are ready to go into the pot. Select lobsters that are feisty and will flap their tails when picked up, right behind the front claws, which will be banded or pegged to keep them from turning on the chef. If they are shipped directly from New England, they are likely to be packed in rockweed, a kind of seaweed. You want to reserve that because you're going to use it to season the broth you'll cook them in. Lobsters molt several times a year. Soft-shell lobsters or "shedders" will keep a day in your refrigerator. Hard-shell lobsters will keep two days. But it's best to cook them as soon as you buy them. Most will be 1 to 1.25 pounds (called "Chickens") to 2 to 2.5 pounds. My opinion is that smaller lobsters are sweeter.
Lots of people do not like the act of plunging a lobster head-first into a boiling court-bouillon, and there are a few things you can do to make this process more pleasant for both you and the lobster. A half an hour in the freezer will slow them down quite a bit. Or, alternately, they can be "hypnotized" by running a finger from the pointy spine between their eyes to the base of the "tail" for a couple of minutes. This works well, and is my usual practice.
Simple Boiled Maine Lobster
This recipe is a hybrid of New England and European techniques. It is the best way to eat a lobster, at least in my opinion.
Plan on one lobster per person, plus a couple of extras. As my father, a man who has summered in Maine for nearly 60 years would tell you, one lobster is never enough and two is too many.
In a large pot (I use a canning kettle) fill it about two thirds full with good, fresh water and a little Kosher salt to taste. Add also a handful of rockweed if you have it, about a tablespoon of caraway seeds crushed in a mortar and pestle or with the back of a spoon, three crushed cloves of garlic, one small strong yellow onion cut in half, with the skin on, one stalk of celery, some parsley, about a tablespoon of crushed black peppercorns, and bring to a boil.
In the meantime, anesthetize the lobsters in one of the ways discussed above if you are squeamish. If you are particularly puckish, like my aforementioned father, you may name them and race them on the kitchen floor. Mortimer and Throckmorton are family favorites, though I do not indulge in this particular perversity. If I were to indulge in this barbarism, which I would never do as I am far too much a friend of animals, my personal preference would be inclined to name the unfortunate lobsters after two rather well known Friday night PBS pundits. The Democrat would go in first, out of respect, followed by his Republican counterpart, who would make a big racket but like all lobsters, one that no one else could understand because lobsters communicate through hormones in their urine, very much like Republican pundits do.
When the water comes to a good, rolling boil, plunge the lobsters, one at a time, into the boiling stock head-first. Cover and bring back to a boil.
A note on cooking times
Lobsters, for the most part, are smaller than they used to be, and many reliable but out-of-date manuals recommend 10 minutes for the first pound and 4 to 6 for each additional pound. If you cook your lobsters like that, you will ruin them. Let the water come back to the boil, crack the lid to prevent boiling over, and cook 5 minutes for the first pound and three minutes for each additional pound, counting after the water returns to a boil.
What to Do When They Are Done
Let them rest, like one would for steak. They will continue to cook, hence the shorter cooking time. If you are very lucky, there will be Roe or "Coral" (that means you have a female lobster that hasn't been "notched", a notch in the tail that identifies it as a breeder and under Maine law must be thrown back). This is lobster caviar, and is best slightly undercooked, which means it will take on a slight red color on the outside and be the color of sturgeon caviar, that is slightly green, on the inside. Put this on buttered bread and consider yourself lucky.
One thing that the lobster, male or female, will have is Tomalley, which is a kind of liver-cum-pancreas organ which should be the color of wasabi when cooked. Put this on some buttered bread too. Wasting this waste-organ is tantamount to handing out petitions to ban foie gras, both of which belie a total misunderstanding of the nature of both the lobster and the goose respectively. Gout is the only excuse for not eating either.
A Note on Sauces
Newburgs and saucy lobster dishes have their place. My home is not one of them. After all, one of my very favorite movie lines ever, from Mel Brooks' "History of the World, Part One" is "don't be saucy with me, Bernaise". Real purists will dip the lobster in drawn butter alone, usually kept hot in a small ramekin over a tea light. Here is my preference:
For each two lobsters, take:
One quarter pound of sweet butter
A pinch of Salt
One clove of garlic, finely minced
A dash of black pepper
A dash of sweet Hungarian paprika (there is no substitute)
Two tablespoons of dry sherry
Melt ingredients over low heat in a heavy pan and put into ramekins over a flame when melted and serve at table, one for each two diners.
Eating Your Lobster: Yes, Virginia, There is a Process
Many people think that the tail is most succulent, though it is tough even when cooked properly. Some people think that the claws are sweetest. One famous Mainer, who will remain nameless, thinks that it is crass to call them "claws" and thus refers to them as "cuddlers" which is not only not in keeping with the nature and use of the claws of a lobster (which is to kill and crush) but also in worse taste than racing them on the floor and putting them in the pot while exclaiming "Good Bye, Mortimer!"
The first thing to begin eating on a lobster are the small legs around the body. They should be twisted off and the meat squeezed out by running the leg from the bottom up between the front teeth. Generally, butter is not used. The knuckle meat near the body can be removed by a small pic or if it is a soft-shell lobster, it can be recovered when the tail is removed.
The claws are generally eaten next, with drawn butter. A nutcracker may be necessary if it is a hard shell lobster. Knuckle meat at the base is generally extracted with a small pic or fork.
The tail is then removed from the body, at which time Roe/Coral and Tomalley is extracted and the tail de-veined. If one twists the tail while grabbing hold of the body it can be separated. Under no circumstances eat the brains, which are inconsequential but widely regarded to be poisonous. Squeezing the separated tail between the palms should break the shell, which can then be removed. The tail is eaten with the drawn butter.
Serious lobster eaters then pull the rest of the shell apart and forage for the rest of the knuckle and rib meat inside. My grandmother has been known to spend nearly an hour at this task. In silence.
So there you have it: a detailed approach to the preparation and eating of one of the sea's better fruits. So at your house, what's for dinner?