Sunday, July 13, 2008

Primum Non Nocere

First, do no harm. That is to say: love the lobster. Treat it as you would your own mother, if you were a large marine crustacean with a cannibalistic streak. Do not mask its flavors with cream and butter and mayonnaise. Let it shine like the star of the sea it is!

This was my mantra last weekend as I took up the cause of a female lobster in the Cape Cod kitchen of dear friends. She was of speckled complexion and robust build, 1.25 pounds and about 10 inches long. There was one of her, and seven of us, but she, like those biblical fishes, would serve us all (no miracles involved).

Eliza Leslie, the author of Directions for Cookery (1837), did not abide by the code of nephropidae ethics to which I subscribe. Her approach to "Potted Lobster," a kind of shellfish terrine suitable for spreading on thin slices of bread, can only be described as buttery and violent: the lobster is parboiled, its meat picked out and beaten with a mortar, pressed "down hard" into a mold, slathered with butter, and baked for a half hour. The butter is then removed and clarified, the lobster meat is pressed into smaller molds, topped with the clarified butter, and, presumably, chilled until ready to serve.

What might potted lobster have tasted like? Well, there are a few spices in it -- nutmeg, mace, and cayenne -- as well as salt, but I suspect the dominant flavor would be butter. The lobster, cooked so long and treated so roughly, would retreat, its usually domineering flavor reduced to a vague pan-shellfish flavor rich in umami but not in lobster essence. Or perhaps not, but in any case, for a summer meal I craved something fresh and sea-breezy.

My approach to Eliza Leslie's lobster spread would celebrate the briny diva: lemon juice, green onions, parsley, salt, and pepper played chorus, and just a dollop of mayonnaise brought the ensemble together.

Like a true diva, she did not go without a fight. Lydia Hopkins, my hostess with the absolute mostest, has been spending summer on the Cape since she was a wee thing; she knows a thing or two about beach buggies and killing crustaceans. I've always boiled lobster but she suggested we steam it for the best flavor and texture. That meant preparing a shallow, simmering bath for the lobster in a saucepan large enough for her to sprawl in the bottom. And once she was in, it meant ignoring the sounds of her frantic scramblings. (I may have squealed with dismay, but all went silent within a few moments.)

Lydia's expertise came in handy again when it came time to remove the meat -- which was, as promised, perfectly cooked, not a bit rubbery, not even in the claw (as it can be when the execution method is a vat of boiling water). She made such quick work of the task, the lobster was reduced to an empty exoskeleton before I could properly note her technique. (So I shall have to return for another lesson, but in the meantime, these directions from a 19th century cookbook look good.)

You may be wondering why I keep reiterating that my lobster was a "she." I requested a female because I wanted her roe, both for its brininess and for its pretty color. Potted lobster layers white lobster meat with what Leslie called the "coral;" the roe in my dip gave my dip made it festively tricolor.

Served alfresco with dry white wine and toasted rye bread, the dip made an ideal appetizer for a meal of plump grilled sea scallops and vegetables. So you see, if you treat your crustaceans in death with the dignity that they lived, you will be richly rewarded. And you need not wait until the afterlife, either -- dinner will do.

Let-the-Lobster-Shine Dip

1.25 pound female lobster
2 tablespoons finely chopped green onions
1 packed tablespoon finely chopped parsley
1 heaping tablespoon mayonnaise
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  1. In a saucepan large enough to lie the lobster, bring about 2 inches of water to a gentle boil. Place the lobster in the bath, shut the lid, and close your ears to her scrambling. She'll quickly go quiet. Let steam for 15 minutes, remove from bath, and douse with plenty of cold water to speed up the cooling. When cool enough to handle, pick out the meat, including the roe.
  2. Combine the lobster meat and roe with all other ingredients. Taste carefully and adjust seasonings as needed. Serve with thin slices of bread rubbed with a bit of olive oil and garlic and toasted in the oven.

Serves 6.


Dave, 'LunaPierCook' said...

I really thought that first pic was of a massive spider you were going to cook. Geez ...

srhcb said...

Nora, I'd lost your blog address, (or rather my feckless iBook lost it), so I had a lot of catching up to do. I'm happy to find your Project still apace, and full of fun and apothegm!

Nora Leah Sherman said...

I know, isn't it distinctly insect-like? I was such a sadist, making it pose for its final photo while the water was steaming....

And good to hear from you again, Steve. I'm still at it with this cooking project, though I'm very nearly finishes. And then what? Not sure yet, but you know I've always got something cookin'. :)

TKTC said...

I can't believe I'm just now stumbling on your Blogger page after months of following FFFFood. Fantastic!!

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Anonymous said...

I could never boil any animal alive. No lobster and no loss for me.