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Seven Hills

Boston-area exploration, travel notes, crafty things, and other Somervillainy.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Cooking Your Own

It's no secret that I'm a bit of a lobster addict. Just last week two friends emailed me the same New York Times article within hours of each other. The subject? The best lobster rolls in Maine, of course.

Since we've moved to New England, the knowledge that lobster is so readily available, especially during the summer months, has driven me a little crazy. I find myself constantly scheming how to get my next serving. But despite its ubiquity in Boston, this is not so easy to arrange. For one thing, my No. 1 dinner companion does not eat lobster, nor any other creature of land or sea, and the types of places that serve it tend to specialize in seafood, or, if anything else, perhaps offer a little turf to go with the surf. So that's a problem.

Also, lobster is of course very expensive. Not only do I feel guilty about overindulging in it myself, I'm hesitant to suggest such a pricey meal to friends who might not be as lobster-crazy as myself.

After a week of particularly keen cravings, I decided it was time to take control of the situation. Time both to save a little money and to earn my dinner by doing the dirty work of preparing it myself. In short, time to step up and cook my own lobster.

I suppose the best thing would be to go to some fish market, but I figured this is Boston and none of them come from too far away, so for several days I scoped out our local supermarket's lobster tanks. As of Wednesday there were just a few small ones huddled at the bottom, not moving much and therefore possibly what's known in the trade as "sleepers" (basically, half-dead specimens, and not what you want to be putting in your mouth). But yesterday evening, once I had gathered up the courage to begin the project, the tank was newly filled with several dozen strapping critters madly scrambling over each other's backs.

I marched up to the seafood case and, trying to pretend I do this all the time, told the young man behind the counter, "I'd like to get a lobster." He looked alarmed. "Okay ... just one?" (I knew I might be outing myself as a solo lobster eater by only buying one, and actually had considered cooking two and using the second one for lobster salad, but once I saw these beasts I knew I could only handle one for the first try.) He trawled around in the tank with a three-pronged rake, freaking out a little each time he snagged one and dropping it. Clearly I was not the only one intimidated by the whole live lobster concept. But finally he got one securely under the claws and held it high up in the air, where it flexed and curled its tail, waving its legs around.

"Ooh, that's an ugly one!" he exclaimed. "He is not happy."

A woman walking to the deli cases stopped to admire the lobster flipping on the scale. "That's a big one!" she commented. "He's pretty angry."

"Can we not talk about the lobster's feelings?" I pleaded.

I then confessed I had never cooked a lobster before. "Really???" The woman was amazed, as was the seafood counter guy, despite his trepidation when actually handling the creature. As the woman walked on down the aisle, she tossed out a parting word of advice. "Just remember: Head first!"

The flailing creature was bundled into a plastic bag with a little sticker on it marked "Chicken and Lobster," with its poundage, 1.4 lb. A woman behind the counter pulled out a large knife, and I thought they might have a policy about humanely slaying all seafood rather than allowing customers to plunge them barbarically into pots of boiling water, but instead she used it to carefully punch holes in the plastic bag. Then I popped it in my shopping basket and headed up to the registers.

I chose the most Boston-looking cashier I could find, figuring she would be the least ruffled by my purchase. One of the regular cashiers on duty was a recent immigrant from Kenya, and I didn't know if she was familiar with the custom of consuming angry crustaceans. I picked the line one over from hers.

First I put the inanimate items on the conveyer belt: a vine-ripened tomato, a cardboard tube of Poppin' Fresh crescent rolls. And then, the clear plastic bag containing the brown, writhing thing. I waited until the last minute to put it down, but my cashier still flinched when her eye was caught by the novelty of something on the belt moving on its own volition.

Again I felt the need to confess. "I've never cooked one before." Like the others, she expressed surprise at this, even while she reacted to the lobster in front of her with gleeful horror. I guess this is part of the whole ritual of it? She gave me a wicked look and informed me, "When you put them in the water, they scream!" The elderly Portuguese woman packing the groceries swung the lobster bag gently above her head and called to the Kenyan cashier, who looked stricken and softly shrieked. This was the most fun any of them had had all day. I assume they must sell these things all the time, but you wouldn't guess it.

I'd read you're supposed to store live lobsters in the refrigerator, ideally on "a bed of wet seaweed," but I didn't want to engineer this so I just hurried home and got the pot boiling. My "Joy of Cooking," on the subject of boiling vs. steaming, says, "There is no good reason not to steam the lobster." Well, how about the comfort of believing the lobster will die faster if plunged head-first into a deep pot of boiling water? Nevertheless, I followed instructions and prepared a hot steam bath for my victim.

I then got him out of his bag, already kicking less vigorously than when he first emerged from his tank, grasped him at the base of the foreclaws, and snipped the rubberbands off his claws. This was to give him one last flex, and more practically to avoid the unsavory flavor of rubber in the lobster stock. Then into the pot he went, where he (eek!) clattered around for a few long seconds (I tried to rationalize it as steam making the lid rattle, but then the sound completely stopped). There was, at least, no audible "screaming." I turned the radio off to listen for it - I wanted to fully expose myself to the realities of the process.

Fifteen minutes later (10 minutes per pound), the timer went off and I peeked under the lid. There it sat, bright red and motionless (phew).

I drained off the excess water, let it cool a little, and cracked into a claw. What can I say, it was excellent, as good as any lobster I've had outside the home. Plus there were the added amenities of as much drawn butter as I wanted, and being able to get up every few minutes to wash my hands. I made sure to eat plenty of "sides" (the crescent rolls plus a caprese salad) in between bites so as to finish this lobster dinner, for once, fully satisfied, rather than already plotting my next lobster conquest.

And it worked. By the end of the night I was completely stuffed and worn out from the ordeal, not wanting to think about eating lobster again ... at least for a little while. I'm sure the lobster would be glad to hear it.



At 8/11/2006 2:26 PM, Blogger marshmallow soup said...

I am so proud of you! You have more gumption than I. I am afraid I fall into the "New Englander who has never actually cooked a lobster at home, but sure talks about lobster a lot" camp myself.

At 8/11/2006 2:58 PM, Blogger Chrissa said...

Thank you! I suspect there are a lot of New Englanders who may have had lobsters at home, but it's always prepared by a salty aunt or someone else who isn't squeamish about it.

At 8/11/2006 8:17 PM, Anonymous Julie said...

If I must do one thing by the end of the summer, it is cook a lobster! How can one live in Maine and not cook lobster, nor, gasp, not have eaten lobster this summer at all?

You are brave indeed, and have given me strength. Again, I tell you, you must read "Julie and Julia". SHe has a great chapter on lobster and describes at length ferrying them home on the subway.

At 8/11/2006 8:21 PM, Anonymous Julie said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 8/13/2006 11:20 AM, Blogger RBG said...

One of your best posts yet! Very entertaining to read, especially the reactions at the store. I think there's something a little S&M about New Englanders in general (no offense to any locals reading this) and the whole ritual of cooking something live falls perfectly under that personality trait! Well done!

At 8/13/2006 11:52 AM, Blogger Neal Grigsby said...

Challenge well met, Chrissa! Steaming is also the preferred method for the editors of Cook's Illustrated (that is, to cook lobsters, not the editors), and they have empirically explored the ramifications of cooking live vs. killing first. You should take solace in the fact that, though slow death-by-steam may seem the most cruel method, killing first may have ruined your lobster meal. And then the lobster would have died in vain, which would be the cruelest fate of all. For a lobster.

You can read their baroque scientific treatise

My favorite lobster-ish meal is still the controversial "lobster burrito" at So-Cal fish taco joint Rubio's.

At 8/16/2006 6:29 PM, Blogger Chrissa said...

Lobster by subway! I think I might have lost my nerve if I had to get them home by public transportation. And maybe eating lobster in Maine is kind of like visiting major tourist attractions in the town where you live - not done by locals? I do hope you can find a place in your tummy for at least one lobster roll before fall though.

Becky, you are so right about the New England S&M. Can that be a new reality show? The perverse pleasure in weathering a bad winter, the pride in death-defying traffic manuevers. You are onto something there.

Ooh, Cooks Illustrated, I love them. I keep hoping to glimpse the main guy around Cambridge sometime. I am glad to know they back me up on my cruel choice.

Thanks, folks!


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