You might think a great benefit of living in Maine is unlimited access to fresh, cheap lobster. Most Mainers, however, probably eat less lobster in a year than tourists here consume in a week. Lobster bakes and boiling lobsters in those tall, speckled pots are grudgingly reserved for when company comes.
As a less fussy alternative, we treat our guests to lobster rolls. Fortunately, a lobsterman and his wife run a convenience store just down the road from me in Brunswick where they make some of the best ones around. These days, though, it's getting to be more affordable to make your own lobster rolls. There were a record number of lobsters harvested in 2012, and the price for shelled meat dipped as low as $24 a pound. A lobster roll with a quarter pound of meat can cost $15.
Lobster rolls are all the rage this summer, everywhere from New York City food trucks to high-end establishments. They're even on the menu at many fast-food restaurants throughout New England. (Whatever happened to that elusive McLobster roll?)
Fortunately, you don't have to limit yourself to dressing lobster with heavy mayonnaise. My father, who has been coming to Belgrade Lakes since childhood (the same spot E.B. White extols in "Once More to the Lake"), has experimented wildly in recent years. He has married lobster to tangy coconut milk in a Brazilian moqueca seafood stew, a fusion dish he now enhances with Thai eggplant and green curry paste. Dad still makes rolls, too, with lobster in a lighter bath of butter. I tend to favor vinaigrette lobster salads, made with light rice wine vinegar and citrus juice.
Lobster lends itself to most cuisines, especially Vietnamese and Thai. There's hardly a Maine restaurant that doesn't have lobster on the menu. I've recently seen lobster tikka masala, lobster jambalaya and lobster-chanterelle mushroom tacos advertised. There are, of course, many Italian preparations such as lobster fra diavlo, lobster ravioli, truffled lobster mac 'n' cheese and lobster risotto, a dish made for early summer's fresh peas. This winter, I watched chef Tim O'Brien of Brunswick's Trattoria Athena and Enoteca Athena make stunning squid ink pasta purses stuffed with chopped lobster and fennel pollen.
Now that it's peak lobster season, I thought it was high time to cook up a load of live soft-shells (or shedders), to mark the conclusion of my first full year in Vacationland. I have managed to dodge the task until now. When my grandmother wanted lobster for her birthday, we asked the seafood counter to cook them. Nonny would meticulously pick the bodies for every last morsel, even devouring the green tomalley and coral roe. My vegetarian-leaning mother-in-law says she only cooked lobster once, when she live on Cape Cod. Those crustaceans skittering about in the fridge, as if sensing their impending doom, unnerved her.
I now understand. It was stressful enough just transporting the lobsters home without having them die in the car from heatstroke. Then there was the question of whether to kill them first or boil them alive. I had the option of cutting up a live, raw lobster. Julia Child says the French do for bisque de homard, and it's the preparation Eileen Yin-Fei Lo uses before she stir-fries lobster in black bean sauce in Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking. Then, there was the question of how long to cook them. Not to mention a smelly mess of shells to discard.
I made the humane decision to first briefly numb the lobsters in the freezer, then kill them belly up, with a plunge of a knife into the head, drawn down into the midsection. I then consulted Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook for tips on how to gently steep the lobster so it can then be butter-poached, slow-roasted or chopped for a filling without toughening up. Keller steeps lobsters in boiling water (with 1/2 cup of white distilled vinegar added for every 8 quarts) for only 2 to 3 minutes, then returns the claws to the hot bath for an additional 5 minutes. I kept mine in longer, per the 6-minute boil recommended by former Chez Panisse chef David Tanis in his New York Times column. "It's essential to work with the 'steeped' lobsters while they are still hot," Keller says in The French Laundry. "If they cool, the fat in the meat will congeal and the meat will be difficult to remove from the shell." Use gloves. Heavy-duty kitchen shears often work best for shelling.
Lobster roll outfits only go after the meaty claws and tails, and don't waste time on the bodies. But it's worth reserving them at home for lobster stock. To save money, ask your seafood counter for culls, lobsters maybe missing a claw that are otherwise healthy. My waterfront source in nearby Harpswell sold them to me for only $3.25 a pound.
It's a rite of passage to cook live lobster, a way to make peace with where your food comes from. But buying shelled meat is an efficient treat. Now you can even cook with raw whole meat separated from the shell by centrifuge.
So eat your Maine lobster now, while it's still plentiful. Though "wild" Maine lobster recently earned certification as a sustainable, well-managed fishery, the state's iconic seafood, now practically farmed as a monoculture, is increasingly vulnerable to disease and other threats from climate change. Time to get cracking.
A side benefit of shelling lobster is simmering those meaty bodies down into a sweet stock or consomme. Maybe a seafood shack would even give you their discards for free. This recipe is adapted from the luxurious canape soup in Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook (Artisan, 1999). The tarragon here is a natural pairing with lobster. I added boiled chunks of new potatoes, steamed corn cut off the cob and chopped scallions at the end to make a meatless chowder of sorts.
Makes 6 to 8 servings (2 cups)
1/4 cup neutral vegetable oil (I used grape-seed)
3 lobster bodies, reserved after eating tail and claws (12 ounces total, cut into quarters)
1 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes (I used canned)
1/2 cup chopped carrots
1 bunch tarragon (1/2 ounce)
2 cups heavy cream
5 small new potatoes, boiled and cut into chunks
1 ear of corn, steamed and kernels cut off cob
1/4 cup scallions, chopped for garnish
Heat the oil in a large rondeau, or deep straight-sided braising pan. Add the lobster shells and sear over medium-high heat for 1 to 2 minutes per side, until they turn red. (If your pot is not big enough to accomplish this easily, do it in 2 batches.)
Add the tomatoes, carrots and tarragon, cover the shells and vegetables with water and bring to a boil. Skim off any impurities that rise to the top. Reduce the heat and simmer over low heat for 1 hour. Strain the stock through a large strainer or chinois into a clean saucepan, smashing the lobster bodies with a wooden spoon to extract all the liquid.
Return the strained stock to the stove and simmer until it is reduced to 1 cup. Add the heavy cream, return to a simmer, and cook, skimming occasionally, until the broth is reduced to 2 cups. (At this point, you can cover and refrigerate the broth for several hours to chill, or for up to 3 days.)
To serve, whisk the broth vigorously on a medium burner as you reheat it. Add the chunked potatoes and corn and stir in until warm. Pour the rich, hot broth into demitasse cups or other small mugs and garnish with scallions.
This recipe is from John Atkinson, my parents' neighbor in Belgrade Lakes. He uses small Maine shrimp instead of lobster. Any seafood combination is delicious here, so feel free to experiment. John says he first discovered moqueca at the Bargaco restaurant in Recife, Brazil, in 1989. My Brazilian brother-in-law Salo Coslovsky says there are endless variations on moqueca — in Bahia, it must be garnished with red palm oil, while in Capixaba (in the state of Espirito Santo) no palm oil is used. Palm oil can be found at ethnic markets, high-end grocers and ordered from AmigoFoods.com. Brazilians also always serve moqueca over rice, though I didn't. "Other than that, it's a free-for-all," Salo says. My father has made a combination dish using this recipe and Ivy Manning's for zebra eggplant green curry in her Farm to Table Cookbook (Sasquatch Publishers 2008). The fragrant Thai basil here is a nod to that influence.
Makes about 6 generous dinner servings (over rice)
2 pounds fresh or defrosted white fish fillets, cut into spoon-size chunks (I used hake; John recommends cod)
1 pound shelled lobster meat (slightly undercooked if possible), cut into chunks
2 to 3 limes, juiced (or bottled lime juice)
Salt and black pepper, to taste
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 medium onions, finely diced
1 large green pepper, finely diced
1 large red bell pepper, finely diced
4 to 5 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
4 tablespoons basil, chopped (preferably Thai basil)
14-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice (or use fresh ones)
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste (or substitute smoked paprika)
14-ounce can coconut milk
3 tablespoons dende (red palm) oil (optional)
Portuguese piri-piri or other hot pepper sauce, to taste
Place fish and lobster pieces in two separate shallow pans or bowls, coat with lime juice, sprinkle with salt and black pepper to taste, toss gently to combine, cover and refrigerate for about an hour.
Put olive oil in a large Dutch oven or wok over medium heat. Add onion and chopped bell peppers. Cook until the onions are nearly translucent, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Added chopped cilantro, parsley and basil (reserving some for garnish) and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Add diced tomatoes and juice, salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper to taste.
When the vegetables begin to steam, add the marinated fish and cover for 10 to 12 minutes, until a low boil is established. Add marinated lobster chunks and cook another few minutes. Remove lid and gently stir in the coconut milk. Add red palm oil over the top (optional) and garnish with chopped cilantro and Thai basil. For a kick, shake on some piri-piri or other hot sauce. Serve over rice (recommended).
In the midst of lobster recipe testing, my Chinese friend Leah Zuo brought her fried rice to a dinner party. As I dallied in the kitchen, my husband brilliantly suggested topping her rice with sauteed lobster. Thus, a great dish was born.
Makes about 6 servings
2 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon cornstarch, dissolved into 2 tablespoons water
4 tablespoons grape-seed or peanut oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 cup carrots, cubed and parboiled for 5 minutes
1 cup corn, freshly cut from cob, drained from can or defrosted
1 cup peas, defrosted or freshly shelled
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
4 cups cooked jasmine rice, cooled
Ground cumin or Moroccan seasoning blend, to taste
Minced Chinese pickled vegetable (available at Asian market) or kimchee, to taste (optional)
1/4 cup minced scallions, green parts only
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1/2 pound shelled lobster meat, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
A quarter lemon or lime
2 tablespoons Thai basil, chopped
Beat eggs with cornstarch-water solution. Add 1 tablespoon oil to wok or skillet and turn heat to high, covering hot surface with oil. Add egg and cook, folding over into an omelet, until done. Transfer with a spatula to a plate and cut into bite-size pieces.
Put a second tablespoon of oil in wok and return heat to high. Add onion and sauté about 10 minutes, until softened and beginning to brown. Add parboiled carrots, corn and peas to skillet and stir-fry with onions until hot, about a minute or 2. Transfer cooked vegetables to a bowl.
Put remaining oil in skillet, followed by garlic and ginger. Stir-fry briefly, then add the rice, bit by bit, breaking up any clumps.
Return vegetables and egg pieces to skillet and stir to integrate. Season with Moroccan spices or cumin, and if available, minced Chinese preserved vegetable (mustard plant stem) or kimchee to taste. Add salt and pepper if necessary. Remove from heat and stir in scallions and cilantro.
In a separate pan, melt butter and add shelled lobster meat, heating until fully cooked. Season with fish sauce, soy sauce, a spritz of lemon or lime and Thai basil. Incorporate with fried rice and serve.
Dan and Tina Libby of the humble Libby's Market in Brunswick, Maine, make some of the best lobster rolls around. Their formula: Scissor-cut the freshly shelled meat into even chunks, coat with a thick and heavy mayo and pile onto griddled Italian sub rolls fresh from Sorella's Bakehouse in nearby Portland's East Bayside neighborhood. Former Bar Boulud chef Damian Sansonetti, who recently opened Blue Rooster Food Co. in the Old Port, also uses these choice Sorella's buns on his lobster roll banh mi. His feature crispy pork skin and a house mayo made with a rich lobster. Saigon Sisters in Chicago also is known for its lobster banh mi. Joe Ricchio,as a waiter back at Portland's original Food Factory Miyake, gave us a tip to always pair lobster with Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise, tangy with rice vinegar (never mind the MSG). It's widely available at Asian markets.
Makes 2 to 3 sandwiches
4 tablespoons Kewpie mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 pound lobster meat, cut into bite-size morsels
1 French baguette, two Italian sub rolls or split-top hot dog buns
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1 fresh jalapeno pepper, thinly sliced
Thai basil, cilantro, tarragon and/or mint, chopped, to taste
Mix the mayo, Sriracha and lime juice together. Combine with lobster meat, stirring to coat.
Butter bread and toast, face down in a cast-iron pan. Layer with lobster salad, Vietnamese daikon-carrot pickles, sliced jalapenos, chopped herbs, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
I had a magical compressed watermelon and butter-poached lobster tail rice paper roll at Tao Yuan's monthly dim sum brunch in Brunswick. Unfortunately, I lack the chamber vacuum sealer and sous vide cooker chef Cara Stadler employed in its creation. So here's a simpler version, inspired by a recent David Tanis recipe. See this Kitchen Window on rice paper rolls for more inspiration. You might prefer a lighter nuoc cham fish sauce-based dipping sauce.
Makes 4 medium-size rolls
1/2 pound cooked lobster claw meat, sliced in half lengthwise
1 lime, zest grated and then juiced
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
Fish sauce, to taste
2 tablespoons butter, melted in a pan
Kewpie mayo, to taste
Sriracha sauce, to taste
1 ripe avocado, flesh cut into strips
1 ripe mango or 1 cup watermelon, flesh cut into strips
1 cucumber, peeled and cut into julienne strips (preferably less seedy Asian variety)
Rice paper wrappers (I used 8-inch rounds)
1/4 cup basil leaves (preferably Thai)
1/4 cup spearmint leaves
1/4 cup cilantro springs, destemmed
1/2 cup scallions, slivered
2 tablespoons black sesame seeds (optional)
1/2 cup cashew nut butter (or just use natural peanut butter)
1/8 cup water
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
3 teaspoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon maple syrup (or honey)
1 teaspoon Sriracha sauce
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
Combine lobster meat with lime juice, zest, ginger, rice wine vinegar and a couple of dashes of fish sauce in a bowl. Let marinate for at least 30 minutes.
Whisk together dipping sauce ingredients and set aside.
Prepare cucumber, avocado, mango and fresh herb leaves.
Melt butter in pan, turn off and add marinated lobster. Toss in warm butter to bring to room temperature. Add some Kewpie mayo and Sriracha to taste and toss again.
Individually dip rice paper wrappers in bowl of lukewarm water, then transfer to a towel-lined plate or cutting board. Use two wrappers for a sturdier roll.
Lay one-quarter of the lobster mixture on the lower third of the softened wrapper, then lightly cover with herb leaves. Layer on cucumber, avocado and mango strips. Top with scallion slivers.
Roll up burrito-style, folding in the left and right edges and pressing down to help them stick. Roll away from you, compressing the enclosed ingredients. Sprinkle rolls with black sesame seeds as an optional garnish. Eat whole (if you are lazy like me), or chill first and then slice in half before serving.