Wednesday, July 02, 2008

How do you cook a 13-pound lobster?

If you want to know about how to cook a large lobster and don’t care about my personal life, scroll down to the bold type that says “How to cook a big lobster.” If you have questions, feel free to ask me.

July 2

I turned 41 last April, but last weekend my dear friend Michael Gerber decided he wanted to throw me a 40th birthday party.
Michael’s brilliant, but deliberative. Sometimes his plans take awhile.

“I have a lot of marine protein and the biggest lobster you’ve ever seen,” he said. He’s a science teacher, having majored in biology in college, and so he talks like that.

So does my buddy Birdman, aka professor David Krauss, who teaches college biology and has a new girlfriend who has an internship in Boston this summer. Michael lives in Gloucester, Mass., so it was convenient for Birdman to drive me up. And he was invited to Michael’s party, too.

So was good old Shane Curcuru. Loyal, good company and with a comfortable couch to sleep on, which I did on Friday.
Shane also took the picture of the lobster that you see above.

The party was on Saturday, and involved the four of us standing around drinking and preparing food.

Michael’s an innovative cook, so, not having horseradish, he used wasabi instead to make cocktail sauce (by adding it to ketchup), which we could use with the raw clams that he and Birdman shucked. Then they went outside to hack up scrap wood to light a fire (Michael has a stove, but he wanted to make a fire as it is more manly) over which he put a cast-iron skillet to sear scallops, which he just dusted with Old Bay.

Eating scallops in New England makes me angry, because it reminds me of how humdrum they often are in New York. Michael’s were sweet, rich, and with a great texture — just cleaving from our teeth as we bit into them.

I gave Michael grief for buying a 13-pound lobster, because, you see, large lobsters like that are important for the lobster gene pool. Unlike the smaller ones, which kind of stay put, big lobsters wander up and down from Cape Cod to northern Maine, breeding as they go. Also, large female lobsters are extremely fecund. They’re so important to the fishery that in Maine it’s illegal to sell lobster that’s longer than five inches from the rear of the eye socket to where the tail starts.

Michael says Massachusetts bans catching big lobsters in traps, but if they happen to be dragged up in a trawler, they can be sold.

“Is it male at least?” I’d asked.

“I haven’t checked,” he said, and then turned to ask Shane, who was half-dozing on a couch, ”is he serious or is he just giving me shit?”

It was a good question. None of us really had an answer.

Then he brought out the lobster. It was gigantic and paleolithic and...

... “That’s pretty!” said Michael's four-year-old son, Gilad, who was not invited to the party but he wandered in anyway.
“I want to set it free,” Michael said, suddenly squeemish, and not because of Gilad’s reaction. We’re just not accustomed to eating animals older than we are.

I suggested it probably wouldn't survive if we set it free. It had been out of the water for awhile. It seemed to still be alive — some of its parts were moving a bit — but it was sluggish.

We ended up taking it to the nearby harbor and setting it in the water to see if it perked up, but instead it started dripping something oily into the water, which isn't something healthy, living lobsters do.

So we took it back and cooked it.

(By the way, the lobster was a male.

Birdman sexed it for us. You know those little rows of fan-like appendages on the bottom [ventral] side of lobsters? On females they're all about the same size and shape, but on males the front [anterior] pair is smaller, skinny, and can be brought together to form a sort of channel for squirting reproductive material into the females, which is exactly what it’s used for.

So now you know.)

All four of us are good cooks. Shane’s a terrific baker, but he also had made me delicious omelets for breakfast that morning. Birdman’s the biggest purist of us — fish with beurre blanc, lamb with garlic, perfect crème brûlée — but also the one probably to have thought the most about the science of cooking. Michael’s into finding cool flavor combinations (wasabi and ketchup, as discussed, but he also made three different fish pâtés for us to play around with, and really, why not flavor white fish with single malt?). I’m the only one in the group who went to culinary school, but so what?

How to cook a big lobster

None of us knew how to cook a 13-pound lobster.

Birdman suggested we par-steam it and then pull out the meat and cut it up for cooking, which we did.

The little legs were perfectly cooked once the lobster turned red, and so we ate those, and they were delicious. So was the knuckle meat. Michael sautéed the claw and tail meat in butter, but some of it was quite tough. But at that point we were full anyway, so I suggested it be cooked in moist heat at low temperature until the meat softened.

August 18 update: I asked Charleston Grill chef Bob Waggoner about how to cook a 13-pound lobster when we were at the Chef’s Garden’s Food & Wine Celebration. He’s a terrific chef, but he said he wouldn’t even try to cook it.

May 20, 2010 update: I recently spoke with Michael about our lobster experience, and he surmised that the main problem was that it wasn’t a very good lobster, having recently moulted its shell, making for watery, stringy meat. Our method probably would have worked better on a better lobster.


Lamanda said...

Fascinating information about "marine protein." I'm from Georgia, so while I greatly enjoy seafood it is a greivous fact that fresh seafood is not often readily available except in coastal areas like Savannah (which has some excellent restaurants if you are ever traveling this way).

I have recently taken the bold dive into the world of sushi and have thus far enjoyed the journey. I'm not sure if raw clams and oysters are considered sushi, but I am curious as to what it is about them that attracts people. Surely it isn't their visual appeal, is it? I have seen raw oysters and am frankly not impressed. I have not actually tried them, however. So, in your opinion what makes raw oysters and clams a good thing?

Bret Thorn said...

Raw oysters and clams taste good -- like the ocean, but often with an added minerally bass note. They're not considered sushi if they're served on the half shell as serving them that way is part of Western tradition. Also, sushi includes rice and other accoutrements (if you're just eating thinly sliced raw fish, that's sashimi).
I love Savannah. It's one of my favorite places in the world -- the integrated, gay-friendly south.

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