Lobsters: Cook 'Em, Don't Free 'Em

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Photo by Flickr user mocmoc
Don't eat if chewy.
I didn't know about surgical gloves when I was cooking. Tune into any cooking show these days and you'll eventually see a chef who looks like he's about to perform an unpleasant exam on someone. That surgical glove is likely being used to keep a Band-Aid on, and raw chicken out.  And I can tell you right now, there's at least one person out there who wishes I'd known about that trick back when I was 19 and cooking at The Lobster Roll, a restaurant in the Hamptons.

A simple, stand-alone roadside joint between Amagansett and Montauk, with a sign that simply said "Lunch," the center piece of the menu was, as you might guess, lobster rolls. Huge chunks of freshly cooked
lobster, mixed with mayo, a few mild spices, and, incredibly, a little pink food coloring (there's a secret I've kept for decades), piled on a soft, lightly toasted hot dog roll.

I was a fairly new prep cook back then, which meant I had to peel onions, chop veggies, and mix huge vats of the lobster concoction. Which also meant that I tended to have a lot of cuts, and therefore Band-Aids, on my fingers. Fingers that I needed to dig deeply into those vats of lobster meat while I mixed it.

In retrospect, it's not surprising that I'd eventually come out of the lobster mix short a Band-Aid or two, but somehow at the time, I didn't expect it. So when it happened, when I looked down at my hands and saw one uncovered cut in a field of wrinkly, white skin, I almost freaked. I looked left and right like a guilty 12-year-old to see if anyone had noticed, but everyone was busy. I grabbed a giant implement of some sort and started to dig through the salad, but it was hopeless; Band-aids are naturally camouflaged in 30 or 40 pounds of lobster meat and pink mayo. So I checked once more to make sure no one was taking a particular interest in my work, then put the lobster in the walk-in, re-Band-Aided my hand, smoked some pot, and got back to work.

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Photo by Flickr user Kelly Nigro


An hour or two later, the screams from the dining room were pretty fucking loud. The waitrons freaked. Management demanded to know who had made the lobster salad that day. The kitchen crew acted disgusted until the coast was clear, then laughed about Band-Aids being chewier than lobster meat (and way easier to spot in food you've just spat out than in a vat of fresh lobster salad, I thought). I was questioned and released, and the chef made the lobster mix for a while.

That was my most dramatic lobster-related experience, though not nearly my last. I've boiled, broiled, chopped, diced, and eaten tons of them, even set a few free from a restaurant I worked at. Why?  No idea; probably to try and impress a girl. Waitresses at most restaurants I cooked at back then were genuinely disturbed that we actually had to kill the poor things before serving them. They exhibited no such worries when I laid a freshly steamed tail and a bowl of clarified butter on a plate for them.

Personally, I think it's really worthwhile to be reminded that meat is more than just ground-up red stuff, or slabs of something that resembles a fish. You'll never convince me to agree with the Italian town of Reggio Emilia, which banned boiling lobsters (but not slaughtering cows, I'd guess), nor would I waste time and money to design something like the Crustastun, effectively an electric chair for shellfish. But I do think it's important that you don't kill little pinchy (or spiny, in the case of local Florida lobsters) in vain. Overcooked lobster sucks, and if you waste one by overcooking it, you suck too.

So this week, let me help you not suck by passing along some lobster cooking tips. I'll stick to boiling, because properly broiling a lobster really requires the kind of heat generated by a restaurant salamander. Cooking instructions hold for both Maine lobsters (with claws) and local spiny lobsters (which aren't technically lobsters at all).

Start with fresh, live lobsters (select the liveliest damn lobsters in the tank). Fill a large pot (a lobster pot, for example) with about two to three quarts of water per average sized lobster.  Add a quarter cup of sea salt per gallon. I'm a purist and stop there, but some folks like to season the water with everything from lemon to a quartered fresh fennel - that's up to you.

Bring the water to a full boil and add your lobsters, head first, with the bottom of their tails facing away from you (to avoid water being flicked at your hand).  Start timing right away, and leave it uncovered. Stir half way through cooking. A one pounder should cook for about seven minutes; for each additional quarter pound, add about two minutes, give or take a minute. The exceptions: a two pounder will be done in about 13 minutes, a three pounder in 15 to 18.  Remove the lobsters promptly, drain, and let them rest for five minutes. When they're done, the shells should be bright red, and the meat will be opaque and creamy white.

There are tons of ways to serve lobster, but I have yet to find a better method than traditional:  in the shell, with a generous bowl of clarified butter for dipping (made by slowly melting butter in a pan, then skimming the solids off the top and drawing the clear butter out, leaving behind the milk solids that have sunk to the bottom). If there are any leftovers, which I never have, I'd suggest making your own lobster rolls; they're great. Just keep an eye on your Band-Aids.


Bradford Schmidt is The Meatist. He's also author of the blog Bone in the Fan. He lives in northern Palm Beach County and hopes that one day the freed lobsters will return to him. So he can eat them.
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