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All-American Lobster

Forget the bald eagle, mom and apple pie-here's the real symbol of our country's bounty.

October 4, 2007
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Ben Franklin believed the turkey should be America’s national bird, but to me the lobster-homarus americanus-is by far the best symbol of our country’s beneficent bounty.

Indeed, when the first English settlers got to the New England beaches they were astonished at the number and size of lobsters clogging the beaches. “The very multitude of them cloys us,” wrote one of the Mayflower immigrants, referring to lobsters that weighed up to 40 pounds and stretched to six feet in length. By comparison most European lobsters are puny things, endowed with tiny claws. A good five-pound American lobster could crack its Euro counterpart in two with one claw tied behind its carapace.

Lobster has always been a symbol of American largess, and well into the 19th century its numbers were such as to be a staple on dinner tables from Bangor to Charleston. Trenchermen like tycoon Diamond Jim Brady would dispatch several at a sitting (sadly, washed down with orange juice). Lobsters are no longer as wantonly available as they once were, and overfishing has compromised the population for many years. Still, lobsters confound scientists by bounding back in good years, and there seems no reason to worry they will be on an endangered list any time soon. But they also aren’t getting any cheaper.

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To my mind, any lobster smaller than two pounds isn’t worth eating. A pound-and-a-half lobster has so little meat in it that you can polish it off in about four morsels. Three pounds are good and five pounds make sharing the crustacean a capital idea. Or, if you can’t finish it by yourself, save it for tomorrow’s lobster salad or have it with pasta.

Now to put the kibosh on some lobster myths:

First, there is no such species as a “Maine lobster.” All the lobsters from Nova Scotia down to the Carolinas are the same species; those taken off the continental shelf of the colder North Atlantic, including Maine, tended to be larger and fatter, and so got a reputation all on their own. But there are plenty of lobster shacks up and down the New England coast where you can get the best examples of the critter, steamed or boiled right in front of you and served in the most rudimentary fashion, with melted butter, some coleslaw, a bag of potato chips and plenty of ice cold beer.

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Second, it is not true that the larger the lobster the tougher the meat. The larger the lobster the older the animal, but that does not affect its tenderness unless you overcook it, which many people do. Boil (or steam) your lobster in salted water for three minutes per pound.

Third, sex doesn’t really matter. Well, I suppose it does to the lobsters, but the amount of meat in a female versus a male is negligible. Females do have roe, which many people like and others do not.

Before preparing any lobster, clip off the tips of its claws, which will help drain liquid out and also show you if the animal has much meat in the claws. If the meat has pulled away from the claw and leaves a cavity, it indicates the lobster has been in captivity for too long and started to starve, feeding on its own tissue. Run the critter back to the place you bought it and complain; at these prices you can’t afford a skinny lobster.

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I don’t know why many people are puzzled about cooking a lobster (Woody Allen in Annie Hall notwithstanding), though I do understand the squeamishness about plunking a live lobster into hot water. To be fair, the scientific jury is still out on whether the lobster feels pain upon submersion, but it is an instantaneous death. In any case, there’s no trick to cooking them. As I said: boiling water plus a handful of salt plus the lobster, and that’s it.

Broiling lobsters isn’t much more labor intensive, though you run the risk of drying out the meat if it is not removed from the broiler quickly enough. In this method, you must insert a very sharp knife in the back of the head and slice downward (do this in a spot where the juices can run freely into the sink). Butterfly the lobster, remove the head sacs and intestines, and spread a layer of toasted breadcrumbs on the chest cavities and tail. Drizzle in olive oil or butter, salt and pepper, and broil for about 10-15 minutes, but do not burn. (The timing will depend on the heat of your broiler, so monitor the progress carefully.)

What to drink with lobster? I think crustaceans were just made for a big buttery California chardonnay, or vice versa. Stay clear of very oaky chardonnays, however, which will kill both the flavor of the lobster and of the wine’s fruit. Some producers I find consistently good include Grgich Hills, Clos du Bois and Acacia. If you want to go the route of a white Burgundy, try something with some real body, like a Vosne-Romanée or a Clos Vougeot, though they won’t be cheap.

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On the side I love coleslaw and fried potatoes. I don’t recommend any sauce at all with lobster except a little canister of melted butter, preferably clarified of its milk solids by skimming them off the top. Gussying up lobster with sherry and thick white sauces and cayenne destroys the meat’s flavor, which should be unabashedly all on its own.

Finally, if you don’t want to go to any trouble at all, here are some places around the U.S. where I think you’ll find lobster done right (including a couple of places where they do gussy it up, but the results are worth it):

Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough-117 Pearl Street, Noank, CT; (860) 536-7719. From May through Labor Day, Abbott’s reigns as the quintessential lobster shack on the New England coastline. You eat outside at rude wooden tables, you watch the lobster boats pull right up to the dock, you put in your order, then you wait in hungry agony as they cook it in huge pots in a shed right there. Sweeter meat you’ll never find.

Summer Shack-149 Alewife Brook Parkway, Cambridge, MA; (617) 520-9500. This huge, colorful seafood restaurant may have the look of a fisherman’s shack but it’s homeboy Chef Jasper White’s true paean to the great bounty of the North Atlantic, including wood-grilled lobster, wok-seared lobster with ginger and scallions, baked lobster with shrimp, and pan-roasted lobster. You also get lobster as part of a $26 clambake, which is a great way to have fun with your friends.

Clarke Cooke House-Bannister’s Wharf, Newport, RI; (401) 849-2900. No more romantic table exists in New England than one overlooking the water at Clarke Cooke House’s Porch restaurant, where you can begin with a duo of lobster and jumbo sea scallops with a jardinière of vegetables au beurre de crustaces, or perhaps lobster ravioli with morels and leeks in a mushroom butter. Next choose an entrée like sautéed lobster with a roast corn crespelle and sauce poivre rosé, or perhaps twin lobsters steamed in an aromatic court bouillon. End off with a chocolate and banana torte with macadamia nut brittle and butterscotch run raisin ice cream, and stroll along the seashore in the moonlight.

Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant-Grand Central Terminal, New York City; (212) 490-6650. Since 1913 this extraordinary architectural marvel-set in the belly of Grand Central Terminal, and whose tile work was done by the man who did Ellis Island’s Great Hall-has been the granddaddy of all great American seafood houses. Nowhere will you find better access to better, bigger lobsters, as well as superb oysters and chowders, either at the counter or at a table in the huge dining room.

DC Coast-1401 K Street, Washington DC; (202) 216-5988. The emphasis here at this bustling eatery for Washington’s young professionals is Asian-style seafood, none better than the Chinese-style smoked lobster, which comes with stir-fried vegetables and crispy spinach. The delicious, rich lobster bisque comes with leeks and a “beggar’s purse” filled with wild mushrooms; also, don’t miss the warm buttermilk beignets with café au lait crème brà»lée for dessert.

Crustacean-9646 Little Santa Monica Boulevard, Beverly Hills; (310) 205-8990. The Vietnamese An family, headed by materfamilias Helene, have maintained this seductive Beverly Hills restaurant (with a glassed-over river running through it) as a major celeb haunt, many of whom come for Helene’s ginger lobster on angel’s hair pasta made in her “secret kitchen.” It is regarded as one of the finest dishes in all southern California.

The Forge-432 41st Street, Miami Beach; (305) 538-8533. Still the place for the big celebratory blow-out meal, the Forge’s baroque architecture and lavish presentations of food and wine makes an ideal setting for a grand lobster feast, which might begin with squid ink fettuccine with South African lobster tails, olive oil and cilantro, or a Lucullan dish you rarely see anymore-lobster Thermidor, topped with a rich cream sauce made from a careful marriage of mushrooms, shallots, tarragon and white wine, then sprinkled with Parmigiano and gratinéed under the broiler.

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