Thursday, June 18, 2009

Creepy crawlies can be tasty!

Well, I suppose a lobster isn't really a 'creepy crawly', but it sure does look like one!

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I don't really know what to say about lobsters. I don't know that there is much to say about them really that you don't already know.

Lobsters are tasty. Like a lot of seafood, these crustaceans are a mouthful of flavour that you cannot find in land-based flesh: it's sweet; it's salty; it can have a touch of iodine (like oysters), though only if it comes from salty ocean floors (crawlers from Gaspésie and the Magdalen Islands tend to be less iodine-y.)

Lobsters are plentiful enough. And as long as you only eat them in season, you are not endangering the species. Seasons vary from region to region: in the Atlantic provinces, lobsters are caught from late April to late October; early May to late July in Quebec. Maine claims not to have a season, and there are worries that lobsters are over-fished off the New England coast.

Lobsters seem to have always been plentiful: in the 19th century, they were said to be food for the poor, and children were quite embarrassed to find lobster sandwiches in their lunch pail. To think that nowadays, a restaurant lobster dinner can set you back as much as 100$!!!

Though lobsters on the eastern side of the Atlantic have healthy populations, you should avoid eating them off-season for the simple reason that it corresponds to their growth season: the cooked lobster will have little meat. And whatever you do, stop eating at seafood chain restaurants: they often use spiny lobsters from South America, a severely over-fished species.

Lobsters grow slowly. A 1¼lb lobster -the size most often served as an individual portion in restaurants- is somewhere between 10 and 12 years old. A 1¾pounder (which is, btw, the perfect size for a nice meal, all you need is some salad and bread) is somewhere around 15 years old. A teenager.

Lobsters are fetching lower prices this year than they were last year: two 1¾ pounders will set you back about 40$ in Montreal (last year, I paid the same for two 1½pounders.) Though much more pricey than actually picking them up dockside (60$ for four 1¾lbs specimens in Gaspésie), it is still more affordable than eating them at a restaurant. And you have control over the cooking.

I know, I know, many of you would rather never eat a lobster than have to cook one yourself Because they have to be alive when thrown into the pot of boiling water, or dispatched only shortly beforehand. But you don't know what you are missing: I have yet to eat or work in a restaurant that did not overcook lobsters. Fishmongers will cook lobsters for you, but if you choose to go that route, then ask them to cook them fresh, and to shave off a couple of minutes.
Overcooked lobsters are very chewy, bordering on gummy. And they tend to get stuck in your teeth.

Tips on boiling lobsters

-Keep the lobsters in the fridge until you are ready to cook them. The lobsters become sedated in cold temperatures, and you won't have them staring at you while you prepare their death.

-Use the largest pot you have: the lobster needs to fit comfortably and keep the boiling water inside. If you have a pasta pot with a fitted inner colander, use that, otherwise you will need really long tongs to take the lobster out. When you fill the pot with water, keep in mind the space your lobster will take, you don't want to flood your kitchen!

-It is best to cook lobsters individually because a)not all lobsters are the same size and thus have different cooking times, b)male and female lobsters require different cooking time, and c) if your pot is big enough to fit more than one lobster, it will take forever to come up to the boil (and use more electricity.) Make sure you bring back the water to a rumbling boil before throwing in the next lobster.

-You do not need to salt your cooking water: you will be better able to taste the lobster's actual flavour, and you will be able to water your garden with it when it cools down (it's a great fertiliser!) If you do salt your water, it will only be good for soaking your dirty dishes, and somehow that doesn't sound very clean. Though opinions vary on this one: some people like to use sea water to intensify the iodine-iness.

-Use a timer. If your stove has one, use that. Otherwise buy one. Digital or old school wind-ups are fine. Either way timers are a must in any good kitchen.

-Bring the water to rumbling boil before plunging the lobster in. Cover with the lid, and start your timer. When you hear the water coming back to the boil, turn down heat to medium or medium high, depending on how efficient your stove is.

-When your timer rings, take the lobster out of the pot and let it rest until it is cool enough to handle. If you use the following timing, you do not need to cool your lobsters in an ice bath.

-Females tend to have meatier tails (because they are wider), but you will have to deal with the roe. If you have no use for lobster roe, buy only males as they are easier to clean out. Ask your fishmonger to show you the difference between males and females: if he doesn't know, you should buy your lobsters elsewhere. The cooking time I use does not fully cook the roe, so you can save it for a sauce or a bisque (shellfish soup) or throw it in your compost.

Cooking time:
1¼lbs (563g) male 7min female 8min
1½lbs (675g) male 9min female 10min
1¾lbs (788g) male 11min female 12min
2lbs (900g) male 15min female 17min (personally, I do not recommend this size for boiled lobsters)


You will need a heavy chef's knife to cut the lobster in two. When the lobsters are cool enough to handle, uncoil the tail and hold flat on your cutting board. Start by cutting the head in two: lobsters are beautifully designed in that they have a line marking out where you should cut. Just behind its head there is a point where its 'spinal' seam meets the head seem: stick the point of your knife there, bring the blade down. Turn it around, and cut the tail.
 

You should have two lobster halves. Take out the intestine: it will be black if recently caught, otherwise it will be pinkish. If you have female lobsters, the roe will be a black sack with (perhaps) bits of vibrant red, pull it out and save for later or compost (conventional or worm). The creamy green stuff (like pistachio custard) is the tomalley: some people love it (I do), others don't (my boyfriend). If you are in your 30s or older, you might have vague memories of canned lobster that didn't really taste of lobster: it was tomalley. Try it, you might like it (on toast), if not, compost.

Boiled lobster is delicious with mayonnaise, garlic butter or a mustardy vinaigrette.

Bon app'!

By the way, if you have an enclosed conventional composter (wood or plastic), you can compost the lobster shells. Just make sure you bury them deeply in the pile to keep down the smelliness. If your pile is very active (steamy and very hot) the shells will decompose within a couple of months. Unfortunately, shells in a loose compost piles will attract all sorts of wildlife, but you can always try direct composting: dig a deep hole (30cm/12") near a hungry plant, throw in the shells, mix in some fresh compost and cover with soil. Worms have no interest for lobster shells, but they do like shrimp shells!

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