One of the few culinary precepts that simplifies life in the kitchen instead of making it more complicated is the oft-repeated statement "It would be a shame to do anything to that lobster! Just boil it and serve it with butter."
The folks who believe in that approach frown at the suggestion of broiling lobster (the meat may dry out and become tough) and shake their heads in anguish at the mere mention of lobster fra Diavolo. Those fancy ingredients, they say with a shudder. It's a conspiracy to mask the most luxurious of all fish tastes - the sweet purity of lobster meat.
Until recently I was one of their number. I would join an argument about the true derivation of homard a l'americaine, but never select the dish itself if I could obtain a lobster that had kept its shell and not been tampered with. To turn a lobster into a souffle, a thermidor or even a salad represented arrogant meddling by a chef who probably didn't have enough to do. If lobster costs so much - and it does - let it be served in a pristine state.
The change came one day in Provence. It was sunny, of course, and we were having luncheon on the terrace of Roger Verge's Moulin de Mougins. It is a lovely, exceedingly well-run restaurant just above Cannes that has been crowned with the Guide Michelin's top honor, three stars. Verge is one of the foremost innovators among the chefs of the much publicized nouvelle cuisine movement. His local food resources are considerable, but he was not born in Provence and often experiments with foods from other regions as well.
On this occasion he had made a "fricasee" with lobsters from Brittany and insisted not even a lobster purist could resist his creation. We didn't. We couldn't. Incredibily, it was better than lobster itself. It was the ambrosial lobster.
The breeze and the wine sang soft songs. Curiosity wilted and I left without a recipe. Recently the void was filled thanks to a new book by Roy Andries de Groot. Called Revolutionizing French Cooking (McGraw-Hill, $15.95), it is the best book yet published on the ideas and recipes of the chefs who have made la nouvelle cuisine. Many of the ingredients are expensive and the recipes are pointed toward those who have purchased a food processor. Among them is Verge's ambrosial lobster, cooked with vegetables and infused with the haunting flavor of sauternes, the golden sweet dessert wine from Bordeaux.
Here is a shortened version of de Groot's interpretation of the recipe. Roger Verge's Fricassee of Lobster Serves four 2 or 3 female lobsters (to weigh 4 1/2 to 5 pounds) 3 tablespoons sweet butter 1/2 cup Armagnac brandy 1 1/2 tablespoons finely minced shallots 3 medium tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped 1 tablespoon freshly chopped tarragon (or 1 teaspoon dried) 1 bottle sauternes 2 cups light cream coarse salt and freshly ground pepper 1/2 cup each diced carrots, celery and leeks
Allow about two hours to complete this recipe. Considering the cost of the lobster, the sauternes should be of good quality and of a good vintage; 1970 or 1971 will do.
Kill the lobsters by cutting through the nerve cord where the tail joins the body. Using a cleaver or heavy chef's knife, cut across each tail section to make three or four pieces. Crack the claws after separating them from the body. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large saute pan over medium high heat. Before it turns brown, sear both sides of lobster pieces. Add claws to the pan, pour on Armagnac and, when it boils, flame the brandy. Shake pan until flame dies.
Add shallots, tomatoes and tarragon. Stir these around, pour in sauternes and cream. Stir again and bring to a gentle simmer. Cover pan and cook until lobster meat is opaque and barely firm, twenty to twenty-five minutes. If some pieces are out of the liquid, move them around from time to time.
Cut small legs from body and add to the pan. Cut heads and bodies in half lengthwise. Remove sac and discard, but reserve red coral eggs and green tomalley in a covered dish. Add shell pieces to the pan.
When lobster meat is ready, remove all lobster pieces from the pan. Strain juices and return to pan. Reduce over high heat until taste and aroma have sharpened and sauce has a velvety texture. Remove meat from cooled shells and, where necessary, cut into small pieces. (This takes some time.) The recipe may be done ahead to this point, if you wish. Resume after the guests arrive.
Add vegetables to hot sauce and simmer until cook but crisp, five to eight minutes. Work coral and tomalley with remaining tablespoon of butter (at room temperature) into a paste. Add lobster meat to sauce to heat through. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning, then slowly work butter paste into the sauce (which must not be boiling) with a wooden spoon.
Serve at once on hot plates. The best wine accompaniment would be a white burgundy or a fine pinot chardonnsy from California.