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Lobster: An Affordable Luxury
There's a good reason why many other seafoods, from rock shrimp to monkfish, are described as "lobster-like" in flavor and texture. With its good-sized pieces of sweet, firm meat, lobster is the epitome of shellfish. It's hard to think of another shellfish with such a widespread image of luxury, at least outside of the immediate area where it is caught.
Like other luxury items, lobster doesn't come cheap, but there are ways to turn it into a relative bargain, by buying at the right time of year and extracting every penny's worth of flavor from the ones you buy.
As the name implies, Atlantic lobster (Homarus americanus in North American waters, and a closely related species on the European side) is found only in the colder waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It is easily distinguished from the "spiny" or "rock" lobsters found in more southerly waters by its large, mitten-shaped claws; spiny lobsters have tiny claws, so most of their meat is found in the tail.
In the U.S., Atlantic lobster is mainly identified with Maine, although it is found in other New England states as well, and considerably more comes out of Canada. Much of the harvest is shipped live, but a small amount is packed in frozen cooked form, as whole lobsters, tails, or meat.
Although live lobster is available all year, canny buyers know that shopping for lobster is a bit like visiting Yosemite or other national parks: it's likely to be most enjoyable and affordable before Memorial Day or after Labor Day than anytime in between. The reasons for this cycle have to do with the weather, of course, but also with seasonal migration -- not of lobsters, but of people.
A month-by-month graph of lobster prices typically shows the highest peak in the early spring, then a precipitous drop from April to May, a steady rise through the summer, another drop in September, and a steep climb into the winter months. Winter ice deters some, but not all, lobster fishing effort, making lobster increasingly scarce and expensive early in the year. The fishery picks up in spring, with nearly a third of the total annual Canadian catch typically landed during May. As supply temporarily gets ahead of demand, it's not unusual for the retail price to drop suddenly by two or three dollars per pound in April or May. As a bonus, the lobsters are generally at their firmest and meatiest after the cold weather months.
The New England fishery peaks somewhat later. Lobstermen from Maine to Massachusetts bring in their greatest catches in summer, which happens to coincide with a major influx of tourists and summer vacation residents. Most summer-caught New England lobsters stay in the local market, where heavy demand gradually drives prices up to a peak in August.
By another coincidence, the summer months are when lobsters typically molt, shedding their shells and growing larger ones. (The connection between molting and peak catches may not be coincidental; after molting, the lobsters feed voraciously to build themselves up, and this may make them more likely to be trapped.) After molting, the meat of a lobster swells to fit the new shell, but it takes a while for it to become firm and flavorful. Some consider the lobsters inferior in this "soft-shell" stage, finding the meat on the soft and watery side, while others actually prefer it for its tenderness. In any case, the molting season does little to ease the summer demand in New England.
After Labor Day, when the vacationers have gone home, the lobstermen usually have a month or more of good fishing conditions, except for the occasional hurricane. As a result, September generally brings the other annual low point in lobster prices. The price heads up again sharply as winter weather sets in.
Where lobsters are locally abundant, sitting down to a whole lobster per person makes sense, but elsewhere it remains a bit of a splurge. Fortunately, there are other ways to enjoy a more modest serving, as in a pasta dish with a sauce based on a classic French entree.
The original homard "l'americain", which despite its name has roots more Provencal than American, is a substantial entree of a small lobster per person, or half of a larger size, served in the shell halves in its fragrant tomato sauce. The following dish uses a similar sauce in higher proportion to lobster, to be served sans shell over fresh pasta.
Lobster shells contain a lot of flavor, so don't discard them after picking out the meat; chop them up and freeze them for your next batch of fish stock. Even 15 minutes of simmering in the broth will add a subtle lobster flavor to a seafood risotto or paella. If you already do this, by all means use lobster-flavored stock in this dish.
When buying live lobsters (and live is the best way to buy them, if you have a choice), look for those that are especially lively. Like crabs, lobsters do not feed in captivity, and while they can survive for several weeks, they gradually lose weight and shrink inside the shell. The most active are generally the freshest. Avoid any that are dead or extremely sluggish.
Fettuccine with Lobster Sauce Americaine
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a first course
1 live lobster, 1 to 1-1/2 pounds
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 carrot, 1 small onion, and 1 stalk celery, all finely diced
1/4 cup minced shallots or scallions
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
1-1/2 ounces brandy (preferably Armagnac or Cognac)
1 cup canned diced tomatoes, or 3/4 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 or 3 sprigs parsley
1 sprig fresh tarragon, or 1/2 teaspoon dried leaves
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup lobster stock, fish stock, court-bouillon or water
1 tablespoon softened butter
1/2 pound fettuccine or other fresh egg noodles
Kill the lobster by plunging it head first into boiling water or stock for 30 seconds. Rinse with cold water. With a sturdy French knife or Chinese cleaver, cut off the claws where they join the body and crack each shell section with a mallet. Split the lobster lengthwise from head to tail. Discard the translucent stomach sac just behind the eyes and the white intestinal tube running the length of the tail; reserve the greenish liver (tomalley) and, if the lobster is a female, the roe. Separate the tail pieces from the body and cut the tail halves into two or three sections each.
In a deep covered skillet or flameproof casserole, heat the oil to near smoking. Add the lobster pieces a few at a time and cook over medium-high heat until the shells turn red, removing them as they are done to a plate. Reduce the heat to medium, add the shallots, garlic and cayenne, and cook until the vegetables soften. Season the lobster pieces lightly with salt and pepper and return them to the pan. Add the brandy, bring to a boil, and cook until nearly evaporated. Add the herbs, tomatoes, tomato paste and liquids. Cover and simmer on top of the stove or in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes.
While the lobster is cooking, mash the tomalley and mix it with the butter. Have a pot of water ready for cooking the pasta.
Remove the cooked lobster pieces from the pan and set aside. Over high heat, reduce the sauce by two-thirds. Meanwhile, remove the lobster meat from the shell and cut into bite-sized pieces. (Save the shells in the freezer for making stock or lobster butter.)
Check the sauce for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Stir in the butter mixture, return the lobster meat to the pan, and keep the sauce warm. Cook and drain the pasta and place it in a serving dish. Top with the sauce and toss lightly to combine.
Jay Harlow is a Bay Area cookbook publisher and author of ten books including Once Upon a Bagel, The California Seafood cookbook & Beer Cuisine.