When Fidel Castro came to New York recently, one of the first questions he was asked was about food. Had Castro brought home to roost (to the city where he had once lived) any live chickens? The answer was, "No, no chickens, but, instead, several sea-feed-packed cases of live Cuban lobsters," which he had caught himself and would serve to guest and the Cuban mission in New York.
The mention of live chickens was a reference to his last New York visit 19 years ago, when his gastronomic devotion to freshly killed chicken freshly fried in red achiote oil got him into a bit of trouble.He and his colleagues managed to smuggle up to their Manhattan hotel rooms some live chickens bought from a poultry store. Castro and company then proceeded to wring the birds' necks, pluck them with pocket knives and flush the remains down a toilet. Next, they produced the red oil and other essential spices they had brought from Cuba, plugged in a small battery of electric frypans and prepared dinner.
The gorgeous smells invaded the entire floor. Other guest complained to the front desk. The cleaning ladies were not pleased with the feathers on the floor.
Bringing lobsters this time was a brilliant idea. The Cuban lobster is one of the sweetest-eating, most luscious in the world. It isn't your magnificient Maine lobster, the homarus Americanus, but a lobster with no claws -- the French langouste and the langosta of the Mediterranean coast of Spain. It also is caught off the other Caribbean islands, but it is gobbled up so greedily by hordes of tourists that it has become almost as expensive and rare as gold.
Cuba, on the other hand, has developed some of the largest lobster fisheries in all of Latin America and, lacking the tourist flood, has a lobster glut and would be glad to increase its exports.
The next question follows naturally. How did Castro prepare and serve his lobsters? I called the Cuban cultural and press offices at the United Nations, where my question was received with disdain. How could anyone dare to raise a question so minuscule as a lobster recipe? I persisted. I called my best Latin American contact, through whom some slight degree of friendly persuasion might be applied to the Cuban office. Fianlly, through a "trustworthly source," I got an "informed statement" (including a recipe) from the chef of the Cuban mission.
The recipe is called Langosta Cubana Sasa Field, which means, simply, lobsters Cuban-style with Fidel sauce. The recipe is a slight variation of a classic Cuban lobster dish in which the shellfish are very lightly sauteed in that famous "red oil," then quickly poached in an aromatic, delicately peppery sauce and served in their shells. The sauce is a variation of a basic Spanish frying mix historically called sofrito.
The red oil takes its color, a reddish orange-yellow, and its flavor from achiote, the seed of the tropical "annatto" tree, which is to Caribbean cooking roughly what saffron is to European -- the most important of coloring spices. In this recipe, the achiote adds to the red of the shellfish dramatic extra color.
I could never hope to persuade the Cuban chef to let me have a few of his longstas, so I bought four fine female Maine lobsters with which to test the recipe. I consider the flesh of fresh lobster so wonderful that it should always be eaten straight, boiled broiled, poached, or steamed, served with melted butter. I simply don't go for a la newberg, or thermidor, etc.
But this Cuban method is just about the best variation from straight preparation I have ever tasted. The tiny touch of pepper somehow seems to open and sharpen your taste buds, so they savor the sea-taste the succulence, the secreted juiciness of the flesh as you have never sensed it before. The basic trick, of course, is to have just that little touch of pepper without ever overpowering the lobster.
There is nothing particularly difficult about the recipe. You make the red oil in advance -- the achiote or annatto seeds are available in most Latin American groceries. You prepare the sauce in advance -- a simple matter of blending, sauteeing and simmering a few chopped ingredients. The final cooking of the lobsters, just before serving, is a metter of minutes. When you get it dead right and it comes to your table with its tropical, vivid colors, taste and textures -- red shells, orange flesh, multicolored sauce in aromatic and chunky bits -- you can hardly fail to admire the brilliant skills of the Cuban cooks who invented the superb recipe. BRAISED LOBSTER CUBAN STYLE WITH SAUCE FIDEL (4 servings) 4 female Maine lobsters, each about 1 3/4 pounds, kept alive until the momment before cooking For the red oil: 1/2 cup whole achiote (annatto) seeds 1 cup corn oil For the sauce: 1/2 cup diced, fairly lean salt pork 5 medium yellow onions, peeled and finely chopped 4 medium-sweet green bell peppers, seeded, deribbed and coarsely chopped 1/2 pound sliced Canadian bacon, coarsely chopped 2 1/2 cups drained Italian canned plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped 5 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced 1 tablespoon shopped fresh coriander leaves (optional) 2 teaspoons curmbled dried oregano Coarse crystal or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste For the lobster: 2 cups delicately soft white wine -- not sweet, but not completely dry 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh or canned hot chili peppers, possibly Mexican canned whole green serrano, jalapeno, or poblano
Equipment: a 1-pint heavy saucepan or frypan for red oil; a 12-to-14-inch covered saute pan for sauce and then for lobster; kitchen tongs; wooden spatulas and spoons; food processor (or, less effective, electric blender); chopping board and sharp knives; measuring cups and spoons; Chinese cleaver or chopper or big heavy knife for cutting lobster; small fine sieve; slotted spoon.
Average time required: In advance, about 5 minutes work, plus about an hour or two of waiting, for the red oil; plus about 15 minutes work and about 25 minutes unsupervised simmering of the sauce; finally, just before serving, about 10 minutes to prepare lobsters, plus about 15 minutes to cook them.
In advance: Prepare the red oil. Put 1/2 cup of achiote seeds into the saucepan, just cover them with hot water, then gently boil for about 5 minutes. Take them off the heat, cover, and leave them to soak for a couple of hours.
Then transfer them, with a slotted spoon, to a mortar and crack them coarsely. Next, put them into the work bowl of a food processor and, with just enough of the soaking water added, grind them into a smooth red puree.
Put this back into the red liquid in the suacepan and boil off the excess water until you have fairly stiff, concentrated paste. Now smoothly work into it the cup of oil and heat it, stirring, over high temperature. At first there will be heavy bubbling as the last of the water boils off. Then, when the liquid becomes still, make it very hot, so there is a light haze over the surface of the oil.
At once take it off the heat, cover it, and leave it to cool to room temperature. Then filter out the ground up seed-solids and store the red oil in a screw-top jar in the refrigerator. (Beyond its use in today's recipe, this is an excellent, general-purpose coloring and frying oil for chicken, fish, various meals, and different sauces.) gently fry the 1/2 cup of diced salt pork, moving the pieces around, until they have given up their fat and are brown and crisp. With a slotted spoon, remove the pork pieces and hold them aside.
Stir into the pan, for color, 1 tablespoon of the red oil. Work in the chopped onions and green peppers, cooking them, stirring now and then, until they have just softened -- usually in about 5 to 7 minutes. Do not let them brown. If necessary, lower the heat. Then add the chopped Canadian bacon and stir it around for only a second or two -- just long enough to cover the bits with the red oil. Now work in the 2 1/2 cups of tomatoes, the minced garlic, the chopped coriander leaf and the oregano. Taste for salt -- remembering that the salt pork will have provided a certain amount -- and adjust the salt and pepper as needed.
Get everything gently simmering, cover the pan and keep simmering, stirring now and then, until the flavors are thoroughly blended and the sauce is smooth -- usually in about 25 minutes. It doesn't matter if the sauce remains a bit chunky. Let it cool, then refrigerate it in a covered storage jar. This sauce, like the red oil, is multipurpose and can be kept for weeks.
Cutting and cooking the lobsters: Prepare the lobsters. If you have never done this before, now is the moment to learn one of the most essential lessons in the art of eating well. Using the Chinese cleaver, first kill each lobster humanely with a single sharp stroke, cutting the tail off from the body. This cuts the main nerve and death is instantaneous. Set the tail on its back and neatly cut it in half lengthwise. Do the same with the head and body. Chop off the two large claws.
From the tail, scrape out the back intestinal vein. Now clean the head by first removing the stomach, or "lady," the hard sac where its chin would be if it had a chin. Also scrape out the intestinal vein from the head and body. The red stuff inside the head is the "coral," the eggs of the female -- the green stuff is the "tomalley," or liver. Both of these are prized delicacies and should be carefully scooped out with a small teaspoon and held aside for later use. Finally, with the back of the cleaver, bash and crack open the flat undersides of the large claws. The lobster is now ready for cooking.
In the large saute pan, heat 1/2 cup of the red oil over high temperature until a light haze forms just above the surface. Now, arming yourself with a pair of tongs and working very fast, put all the lobster pieces (bodies, claws and tails) into the hot oil and moving them and turning them almost continuously, saute them until their shells just begin to turn pink -- never longer 3 or 4 minutes. Overcooking is a constant threat. Then, instantly take them out and hold them in a large bowl.
Now pour off the oil from the saute pan, leaving only a thin coating, then add 1 1/2 cups of the wine, heat it to boiling and work into it the sauce, which should be about 4 cups. Use the remaining 1/2 cup of wine to thin the sauce if, at any time, it shows signs of becoming too thick. Now work in, little by little and tasting continuously, the chopped hot chilli peppers. This is a crucial and delicate maneuver. You must achieve a taste of pepper, but not too much. To allow the pepper to over power the dish would be to invite diaster.
When you have it just right, put back the pieces of lobster with any juices they have released while waiting. Turn them around in the sauce to cover them evenly, then simmer very gently, covered, basting, and turning about every 3 minutes, until the lobster flesh is perfectly done -- usually in about 5 to 7 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat a handsome serving platter in a keep-warm oven at 160 degrees.
When the lobster is ready, place the pieces artistically on the platter and keep them warm while you complete the sauce. Rub the coral and tomalley through the fine sieve directly into the sauce and amalgamate them by steady stirring. Bubble the sauce to concentrate and smooth it. Taste, finally, for salt and pepper. Then pour the sauce over the lobsters, sprinkle with the crisp salt pork dice, and serve at once.