Stretching Exercises for Your Lobster Dinner
According to food Authority Waverly Root, the 17th-century New England colonists had more lobsters than almost anything else. “When there was a storm at Plymouth, lobsters piled up in windrows two feet high on the beach; they were so plentiful and so easily gathered that they were considered fit only for the poor … ” There was, in fact, a brief lobster strike at Maine’s Popham colony in the early part of the century, when settlers got fed up with an enforced regimen oflobsters and lobsters only for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even between meals.
Though often told, these stories of abundance are no longer good for much except inspiring lamentations. Landings have steadily decreased over the years, but not so public demand. Unless we can figure out a way to “farm” lobsters successfully, their meat, which is certainly a luxury the way good steak is a luxury, will become instead a delicacy like caviar.
Fortunately, at least so far, stories where lobsters cost their weight in gold are also only stories. These richest of shellfish, though admittedly not cheap, are still a comparative bargain – especially if you follow the sensible French example and use the whole thing. There is a flavorful meat in the too-often discarded body of a lobster and there is a wonderful cache of flavor in the almost-always discarded shell. These neglected parts can be used to make two very handy items: a flavorful stock for use as a base in stews and soups and sauces, and an exquisite coral-pink butter that gives a fine, lobster-flavored flourish to any seafood preparation.
Making these things is not difficult, time consuming, or unpleasant, particularly if you do it in the aftermath of a classic lobster feed, when you’re already good and messy. That’s what I do. Then I’m ready at a moment’s notice to make dishes like deluxe lobster pilau, lobster-studded pasta primavera, or perhaps tastiest of all, lobster pate with pistachio nuts. The recipes are very little trouble once you have the basics ready. You can even make them with purchased cooked lobster meat (if you trust your fishmonger). And they are surprisingly inexpensive, since with the aid of your special flavor-enhancers you can wring up to four respectably meaty portions from only one large lobster.
Hard-Shell Lobster Versus Soft-Shell Lobster
All lobsters are not created equal. Hard-shelled winter lobsters are much meatier than the soft-shells of summer, and that meat is firmer and less sweet flavored. Even though the shells themselves are heavier, you get more meat per pound with winter lobsters. It’s not only because the body meat is firm enough to pick, but also because there is considerable “soft meat” (mostly fat) lining the shells.
Connoisseurs are divided on the subject of which is better. The tender-meated softshells are unquestionably the sweetest, but the firm flesh of the winter lobster has its own robust charms and there is, after all, more of it — a definite virtue. Speaking personally, I never met a properly cooked lobster I didn’t like; it’s just a matter of knowing what raw material you’re dealing with so you can use it to its best advantage. Incidentally, to get l-1/2 cups of lobster meat you will need one 1-1/2-pound winter lobster or two 1-pound soft-shells.
Lobster Stock Recipe
Plan to use the water from the initial lobster-cooking as your base. Omit the rockweed, which makes overstrong broth, and whether you steam or boil, save the water. Set the liquid to cool as soon as the lobsters have cooked and refrigerate it, covered, until needed. Live lobsters are usually pretty clean just as sold, but if yours look like they could use it, give them a very quick rinse before cooking. Pick them up right behind the head so they can’t reach back and pinch you.
For a little over 2 quarts:
- The picked-out bodies, heads, and 2 smallest legs of four 1-1/2-pound winter lobsters or the bodies, heads, and 4 smaller legs of five 1-1/4-pound soft-shells.
- 1 large carrot, peeled and cut in chunks
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 2 large stalks of celery, plus a few celery leaves
- 1 very small piece of bay leaf — about 1/3″ square
- 5 or 6 whole peppercorns
- 10 cups lobster-cooking liquid – make up the difference with water if you don’t have enough
Combine everything, bring to just under a boil, then lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 40 to 45 minutes. Strain, pressing hard on the solids to get all the flavor out, and refrigerate as soon as possible. Like all fish stocks, this one should be used within a day of its manufacture. Freeze it if you don’t need it right away; it will keep at 0· for about 6 months. Use it as a foundation for bisques, chowders — even bouillabaisse —or any sauce to be served with fish or shellfish.
For about 12 ounces (that’s a lot, it’s very rich):
- The brightly-colored leg, claw, and body shells of 4 cooked winter lobsters or 5 cooked soft-shells
- 1 pound unsalted butter, as fresh as possible
Winter Lobsters: Distribute the shells on a cookie sheet or other flat pan and dry them in a 200° oven for about 40 minutes, stirring frequently so all surfaces are exposed. The idea is to desiccate the shells, making them brittle and easy to crush. Do not overheat; if they actually cook, both flavor and color will be diminished.
Let the dried shells cool, then dump them into a heavy brown paper bag and pound with the flat of a hammer or other wide blunt instrument until they are thoroughly crushed — the finer the better. This crushing should ideally be done with a big marble mortar and pestle. Classic French cookbooks want the stuff as fine as powder, but “well-busted-up” — all pieces 1/2″ or smaller — will do just fine.
Summer Lobsters: Grind the assorted shell through the fine plate of the meat grinder, or pulverize it in small batches in a blender. Do not use a processor; the plastic workbowl can’t take it.
Winter or Summer, Second Step: Combine the mangled shells with the butter in a deep, heavy saucepan. Put it over very low heat — a heat-spreader on the smallest flame, the side of the woodstove, or atop a tepid radiator are all suitable locations. Let the mixture steep, occasionally stirred, for 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Once again, actually cooking the mixture would be injurious; the idea is to extract color and flavor in as gentle a manner as possible. At the end of the steeping period, put the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined strainer, stirring, then squeezing to get as much butter out as possible. Set the lobster butter aside to cool, then refrigerate, tightly covered.
Some of the precious substance will still be clinging to the shells. Combine them with 1-1/2 quarts boiling water and stir well— the butter will wash off and rise to the surface. Pour the liquid into a tall, narrow, heatproof container, carefully leaving the shells in the bottom of the pan, and chill until the butter forms a solid, easily-removable cake. This “second pressing” will have a more grainy texture than the pristine product. Use it to enhance soups, sauces, and other fairly liquid preparations, adding it at the very last minute so it just barely melts before serving. Both butters should be frozen promptly if they are not to be used within a day or two. (The butter will keep longer under refrigeration than the stock, but not by a whole lot.)
This stuff is universal: Use it as a garnish for chowder, in a hollandaise sauce for poached salmon, or as the cooking butter for any delicate filet.
Pasta Primavera with Lobster Sauce
The colorful, creamy lobster and tomato sauce is so richly flavored you can get four servings from a single large lobster . . . which is not to say a bit more shellfish is necessarily a bad idea. If you want a truly luxurious dish and more lobster is beyond your budget, consider adding some cooked crabmeat, a few scallops, or a handful of cooked mussels.
For 4 generous servings:
- 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 cups cooked lobster meat, chopped coarsely
- 1 cup light cream
- 2 tablespoons lobster butter
- 1 cup chopped onion, about 1 medium
- 1/2 cup white wine, preferably the wine you intend to drink with the pasta
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 4 tablespoons finely minced fresh parsley leaves, divided
- 2 medium-sized genuinely ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, drained, and cut into 1/4″ cubes, about ¾ cup of cubes. (When it isn’t tomato time, canned, peeled, first quality Italian plum tomatoes should be used in preference to those styrofoam monstrosities cynically labeled with the name of this most seasonal of fruits.)
- 1 cup barely cooked seasonal green vegetable, cut into small pieces about the same size as the lobster — use asparagus tips, broccoli florets, green peas, snap beans, very young zucchini … any one or a combination
- teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 2 quarts lobster stock (or water)
- 1/2 pound small seashell pasta
Combine the lobster and cream in a small saucepan and set in a warm place to steep. In a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, slowly simmer the onion in the lobster butter until it is limp, transparent, and completely cooked. Add the wine, raise the heat slightly, and allow to bubble until the liquid is reduced to 1/4 cup or slightly less. Add the tomato paste, 2 tablespoons of the parsley, and the tomato cubes. Set the mixture aside in a warm place .
Combine the lobster stock or water with the salt and olive oil in a biggish pot. Bring to a boil, covered, then uncover and add the pasta, dribbling it in slowly so the boiling never stops. Cook according to time suggested on the package, usually about 8 or 10 minutes.
While the pasta is cooking, finish the sauce by adding the creamed lobster, all at once, to the tomato mixture. Do not pour it in slowly or it might curdle. Stir to combine the sauce thoroughly and let it simmer over very low heat until the pasta is finished. When it is, drain away the stock, quickly toss in the vegetable, and mound the mixture on a heated platter. Thoroughly blanket it with sauce, garnish with the remaining 2 tablespoons of parsley, and pass any extra sauce separately.
Lobster Pate with Pistachio Nuts
- For a little more than 2 cups:
- 1/2 cup shelled, unsalted, raw pistachio nuts (available at health food stores, Middle Eastern and Indian markets)
- 4 tablespoons lobster butter
- 1/4 pound flounder or other tender, sweet white fish
- 1-1/2 cups cooked lobster meat, including some body meat and fat, if possible, and any coral
- 2 teaspoons cognac or brandy
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- a scraping of nutmeg
Spread the nuts in a shallow pan and toast them in a very low oven, 200°, for 10 minutes, or until the skins get papery. Then gently rub them together in a tea towel to remove as much of the skin as possible. Chop into coarse crumbs and set aside.
Cut the fish into 1-inch dice and, over low heat, slowly cook it in the lobster butter until it just turns opaque, about 3 minutes. Transfer the mixture to the container of a processor, a meat grinder, or a large marble mortar, and add 1 cup of the lobster meat, including the fat and other soft parts, and coral. Process, grind, or push that pestle until the mixture is completely pureed and smooth, then stir in the cognac, salt, nutmeg, and pistachios. Chop the remaining 1/2 cup lobster meat into small but still recognizable chunks and stir them in, too. Taste and adjust the salt, then mound the pate in a decorative crock, cover tightly, and refrigerate to mellow for at least 2 or 3 hours. Let the mixture return to room temperature before you serve it, preferably with crusty French bread, or melba toast made from unsweetened brioche or other egg bread. Whatever the vehicle, make sure its flavor is delicate and unobtrusive- even something as seemingly bland as a saltine can overpower the delicate, sweet shellfish flavor of this regal spread.
Lobster Pilau with Green Peas
Because the rice is so heavily infused with the flavor of lobster, you don’t need much actual lobster meat to get a rich effect. If, however, you want something really opulent, consult the introduction to the pasta primavera.
For 4 generous servings:
- 7 cups lobster stock
- 1 large clove of garlic, split into shreds
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- 5 tablespoons lobster butter, divided
- 1 cup rice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice, or to taste
- 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups cooked lobster, coarsely chopped
- 2/3 cup fresh green peas
- 1/3 cup scallions sliced very thin, including a bit of the green part
- 1/4 cup minced fresh dill or chervil or 1 tablespoon dried tarragon
Put the stock in a wide, non-corrodible pan over medium-high heat and boil uncovered until it is reduced to 3 1/2 cups.
Combine the split garlic clove with the cream and set it in a warm place. After the stock has reduced, begin the pilau. Melt 3 tablespoons of the lobster butter in a heavy, lidded saucepan over low heat, add the rice and cook, stirring, until the grains have become opaque. Add 2 cups of the lobster stock and the 1h teaspoon salt, stir well, cover, and cook over very low heat until the rice is done.
While the rice is cooking, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons lobster butter in a heavy saucepan, stir in the flour, and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for 4 to 5 minutes. Use a wire whip to slowly beat in the remaining 1 1/2 cups of reduced lobster stock. Simmer over low-medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture is very thick, then strain in the cream and add lemon juice and salt to taste. Keep the sauce warm.
By now the rice is probably cooked. Turn it into a heavy, warmed bowl, add the peas, onions, herbs, and lobster, and toss gently to mix. Return the pilau to the pan and let it sit, half-covered, over very low heat for about 10 minutes, just long enough to meld the flavors and cook the vegetables. Serve promptly with the reserved sauce.
This mixture makes a nice filling for giant mushroom caps, hollowed-out tomatoes, or packages of flaky phyllo pastry, by the way. In the case of the vegetables, fill with the newly mixed pilau and bake, covered, for about 15 minutes. The phyllo, available frozen at many groceries and specialty stores, comes with the instructions right on the box.