Q: I want to take some Maine lobsters with me to Europe. They and I will be in transit for approximately 48 hours. What packaging method would you recommend? My original plan was to cook them first, then carry them frozen.
A: First, you should ask the consulate of the country you are visiting whether it is legal to take lobsters into that country. If the answer is yes, and you want to impress someone with the flavor and texture of the Maine lobsters, do not carry them frozen. First, they won't remain frozen unless you package them with dry ice. And second, freezing toughens and dries their tissues.
The better way of carrying such fruits of the sea is refrigerated, live, in Styrofoam containers. There are businesses that specialize in packaging seafood for shipment; almost every city has a seafood market that sells and ships lobsters. Some of them advertise regularly in cooking magazines.
Provided they have oxygen and are kept cold and wet, lobsters will survive a 48-hour trip. They are often shipped in Styrofoam with wet rockweed or newspaper surrounding them. If they do not survive the trip, they should be discarded, as their flesh deteriorates rapidly after death.
Q: Why do recipes call for skimming the froth off soups and stews as they start to cook? Why not just stir it in?
A: In the days when refrigeration was rare and food spoilage rampant, the froth was a common occurrence with old and spoiled meat relegated to the stockpot. Skimming the froth was then considered as much a method of purification (actually, only a cosmetic purification) as removing unsightly particles of coagulated protein.
A portion of the protein in meats (and beans) is water-soluble. That means, at room temperature, the protein dissolves in water and forms a clear solution. This is what happens at the beginning of stock preparation used in soups and stews.
As the stock or broth heats, the structure of the protein molecules changes and the proteins become insoluble. They tend to associate and form clumps that float to the surface and cause foaming.
If you were to stir the particles of coagulated protein into the soup or stew, the sauce or stock (depending on the amount of foam) would acquire a somewhat granular appearance. This is a problem in clear soups or stews. It is less of a problem in roux- and cream-thickened products.
Q: Chestnuts are now in season. For the 30th year, I will be cutting an X on the flat side of each nut, filling the pan of chestnuts with water and boiling until the tough outer layer is easily peeled away. Also for the 30th year, I expect that the parchment-like brown skin will adhere to the meat in its usual, feisty fashion. Why does this part stick to the nut? Any suggestions for a more efficient removal?
A: The flesh of chestnuts is at least 30 percent starch. The difficulty with peeling is related to that starch. If that starch absorbs too much water, the parchment comes off, but the interior disintegrates into mashed chestnut. If the external starch dries or cools, it acts as an efficient glue, making the surgical removal of the brown skin necessary.
The secret to boiling chestnuts is to cook them 15 minutes to soften the leathery shell, remove it, then pop handfuls of parchment-covered nuts back into the boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds. Remove each handful with a slotted spoon or skimmer and gently peel away the parchment.
This works better than the one-shot method of chestnut peeling, as it allows the nut's interior to cool, then reheats only the external starch granules. These soften and the parchment can be peeled, not cut, away.