Lobster, you’re on a roll.
Recent news reports have chronicled your rise — or fall? — citing sustainability, affordability and sheer bounty. In Maine alone, marine biologists are happy to report that your numbers have grown “unbelievably” over the past 25 years. Will that diminish your white-tablecloth profile?
If I’d known our friends were buying, I’d have ordered the lobster.
You’ve had your ups and downs in America; plentiful enough to bore Colonial palates in the 1600s, and popular enough to support a canning industry in Maine 200 years later. The condition in which you were transported made a difference; once fishermen figured out how to hold fresh Homarus americanus in recirculating-water tanks (pounds), you clawed your way into the “lobster palaces” that catered to the glitterati of Edwardian New York.
Fast-forward through lobster booms and busts of the 19th and 20th centuries: Here you are, gobbled up as fast food and as high-end fare, at restaurants and at home. In the post-“Annie Hall” era, amateur cooks became downright squeamish about how to dispatch you properly. Now we’re worried that you’re feeling pain, so we move you to the freezer for 10 or 15 minutes to slow your metabolism, before the chef’s knife and heat are applied. Experts say stress can adversely affect the texture of the flesh.
If we’re doing it right, that knife goes in at the top of the vertical slit on the underside of the head, and you don’t see it coming.
Those of us who are moved yet unwilling to give up the taste of your sweet, snowy-white meat are defaulting to the time- honored consumer preference for animal protein that’s easier to deal with in parts — claws and tails — or at least without a face.
“Tails, people cook at home,” says Dave Pasternack, longtime fisherman and chef-restaurateur of Esca and Barchetta in New York. “Doesn’t make a mess.” Pasternack has cooked a lot of you guys over the past three decades, and he swears that he can still remember the taste of a blue lobster (your close cousin, species-wise) he had in Scotland. At his restaurants, it’s Canadian hard shells all the way. “They’ve got 20 percent more meat than new shells,” Pasternack says.
Do people understand the differences among your lobster brethren? When you’re placed side by side they can. An uncooked or cooked carapace of a new shell — the middle body part that includes the head — will give a little when squeezed between thumb and forefinger. New shells are practically synonymous with Maine lobsters, where seafood is so important that it rates a cabinet-level agency .
New shells, so named because the lobster has recently molted, have their upside. They’re easier to crack open than hard shells, and they’re less expensive. With the height of the season approaching — delayed a month or so by 2014’s colder winter — Washington area residents can pick up Maine new shells at farmers markets these days, in the Mosaic District, Reston, Chantilly, Bethesda, Rockville (1 1 / 4-pounders, $12.50) and have them steamed while they shop. Restaurants and Maine denizens are paying $4 to $5 per pound.
Locavores don’t have to be disappointed; about 100,000 pounds of your nearby kin (same kind as in Maine, down to North Carolina) are pulled from Maryland coastal waters each year, according to Steve Vilnit, fisheries marketing director for the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
“A live lobster right off my boat is just as good as any Maine lobster,” says John Gourley, an Ocean City fisherman who made news when he pulled one of your rare blue kin — 1 in 2 million or so — from 900 feet of coastal water in 2012. A three-day run in his 60-foot Pot Luck can haul in 2,000 pounds of lobster, in addition to 6,000 or so pounds of crabs. Pay no attention to marketing claims that colder waters make for better lobster. Gourley’s right. From Canada down the Atlantic coast, you’ll taste sweet.
So what’s a classy restaurant to do? Lobster used to be the lah-dee-dah thing. Beyond seafood and steakhouse places, the serving of a whole steamed or butter-poached lobster is getting harder to find by itself.
“I’ve never been a big lobster eater,” admits chef Robert Wiedmaier. “It’s rich.” (How’d people get that idea about you? Nutritionally, you’ve got less fat and cholesterol than a boneless chicken breast.) His customers at Marcel’s demand that the lobster bisque he opened with 16 years ago, topped with a decadent crown of golden puff pastry, remains available in all but the hottest months.
Another option: Go big. At the Palm in District, a three-pounder’s the smallest lobster on the menu, and it runs $75 at this time of year. There’s some debate about whether size affects the meat’s tenderness. Wiedmaier expects it to be tough, while fishmonger Anthony D’Angelo of Samuels and Son Seafood in Philadelphia says the bad rap’s more likely due to overcooking. The consensus among chefs seems to be 12 minutes in a boiling pot for the 1 1 / 4-to-1 1 / 2-pounders, and 10 minutes more per each additional pound.
Gourley agrees: “There’s no difference between the taste of a 1-pounder and a 20-pounder,” he says. “You just have to cook it right.”
Some aficionados find your tail meat tastier and sweeter, while others prefer the relative silkiness of the claw. Here’s the thing, though: Because the shell on the underside of the tail is so much thinner than the claw shells, people who cook the tails also tend to overcook them. Bottom line: For efficiency, you’re better off when dismantled — not unlike the way a Thanksgiving turkey benefits from similar treatment. But, like that big roasted bird, something’s lost when the sum of parts is presented at the table instead.
D’Angelo’s a hard-shell-claw man all the way. His family has been seafood-savvy since Anthony’s great-great grandfather harvested the waters around Sicily. The 35-year-old has been in the business half his life. He says lobster has lost some of its luster, but mostly because Americans have more sophisticated, adventurous palates — ordering the high-end likes of cigala (a North Atlantic crustacean) and buri, a Japanese kingfish.
When live lobsters check into their special room (capacity: 20,000 pounds; temperature, 40 degrees) at Samuels and Son’s 70,000-square-foot warehouse, they’re sorted by size and separated into roomy, slotted plastic bins. The showering water that is recirculated through the bins is triple-filtered and chemical-free, running through a state-of-the-art reservoir that’s 12 feet deep.
As impressive as the operation is, the Louisville tanks you chill out in are said to be the largest in the world. It’s all about location; a central spot for North American lobster distribution. And they make you a surprisingly affordable dining option smack in the middle of the country, where prices are as cheap as high season — roughly July to October — in Maine.
On hold in such tanks, the lobsters are basically hibernating; no feeding is necessary.
Back at Samuels and Son, thousands of boxed lobster tails await shipping orders in a 5,700-square-foot freezer (minus-10 degrees). Tails have become a huge part of the lobster trade, D’Angelo says, with most of the processing done in Canada when that nation’s lobster season is off and its facilities are available.
Technically speaking, he says, much of the tail meat we buy at supermarkets is not true lobster, but crayfish instead. Lobster has two heavy claws — a crusher and a “seizer,” with serrated edges. The crayfish varieties, including so-called spiny lobsters and rock lobsters of Australia and Brazil, for example, generally have thinner, less powerful pincers.
The exception would be those tails from wild-caught rock lobsters of the Tristan da Cunha islands in the South Atlantic. They are the most expensive (6 ounces, about $36), sweetest-eating, and they are deemed sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.
Maybe that’s another answer to maintaining a luxury profile, if that's what you want. Fill “lobstah” roll orders with fine North American lobster, get the word out about Tristans and rely on those steak- and seafood houses to cook your 5-pounders the right way.
Local lobster is sold, among other places, via Martin Fish Co., in West Ocean City (410-213-2195) and served on Thursdays at the Shark on the Harbor in Ocean City, Md.
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