Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Food and drink: Back to the future past

A good ol’ lobster dinner can traverse time and place

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Surf ’n’ turf; steak ’n’ lobster: the very notion of eating lobster has a whiff of the 1960s about it, replete with wine-coloured vinyl banquettes, walnut panelling and gentlemen in suits adjusting cuff-linked shirt sleeves as they order Pink Ladies for their bouffanted princesses and scotch on the rocks — make that a double — for themselves.

Sure you can still order lobster at some seafood restaurants, but over the years the glean has pretty much gone off the crinkly white lobster tail once served up by the platterfuls in its bright red shell along with a tiny cup of melted butter and a companion chunk of beef.

That is unless you are from Trepassey, Newfoundland or Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, in which case the mighty lobster may well be saving your diet and your hide after the collapse, no, downright death of the cod fishery.

I’d pretty much forgotten about lobster ’til a fundraising “lobsterfest” dinner the other night, and I must say I was duly impressed. This was a traditional Nova Scotian-style ’fest — green salad, coleslaw, potato salad, a lobster the size of a cat, with fruit pies and Screech to boot.

Being the prairie girl I am, I had no idea how such an evening would unfold, so I wore my best beat-up jeans, a woolen shirt and my bright yellow sou’wester hat right from Newfoundland, just in case.

Perfect attire: I was the belle of the ball, for the first thing we unraveled was a funky plastic bag complete with a pair of pliers, I mean lobster cracker, a couple of chocolate bars (for post-dessert) and directions on how to tackle a lobster.

Getting into a lobster is one matter; choosing the right one to start with is another. East Coasters are aficionados at this, so we lobster-bereft West Coasters just have to follow along.

First off, do you want a soft-shell or hard-shell lobster? A big or small one? Boy or girl (girls are called hens)? Or a green or red one to start?

For sure you don’t want one that’s dead. Live Atlantic lobsters ( Homarus americanus ) are blackish or brownish green so that’s where you want to start; it’s the cooking that turns the shell bright orange-red.

Ours had been plucked from Nova Scotian waters and flown across the country in a day in Styrofoam containers with gel packs to chill them, so we had hard-shells, which ship better than the soft shell lobsters or “shedders”, as they’re called. Some people prefer shedders — they claim the meat is sweeter. But maybe what they really like is the fact that their shells are easier to break apart to get at that delicious meat.

Either way, you can pretty much go for a lobster any size up to 5-7 pounds and have a great meal or three. After that, the meat gets stringy, and you probably won’t have a pot big enough to cook one, anyway. In the good ol’ days they got even bigger, hauling in lobsters that hit 40 pounds, but those are rare now.

People who prefer the tail meat over that of the claws — and there are supporters in both camps — advise choosing a female, whose tail section is wider than a male’s to provide space to carry her eggs. One lucky guy at our table even got a female with eggs and feasted on the bright red roe.

If you’re up for a picky good time, and why not at a laid-back lobsterfest, then take apart the walking legs and back and you’ll find little tid-bits in there, too — some say it’s the best.

As for the green stuff inside, that’s the “tomalley” — the lobster’s liver and digestive what-nots. While some people swear by it, at least in bygone days, you won’t find many recommending it now for that’s where pollutants from the lobster’s own dinner will be stored.

These nocturnal bottom-dwellers scavenge for dead animals that have sunk to new lows, but they eat live fish, other animals like mussels, crabs and sea urchins, and seaweed, too. Keep in mind that lobsters are related to wood lice and other crustaceans, then you’ll understand where they’re comin’ from.

Whatever you choose, make sure you get a live, whole, healthy lobster to cook up your own ’fest. This isn’t some sadistic ritual cranky East Coasters thought up — lobster meat goes off very quickly, so it’s important to cook it while it’s alive. And, no, don’t store it in a tub of cold, fresh water when you get home — fresh water will kill the poor thing.

Here’s another tip: don’t eat cooked lobster with a tail that isn’t curled as that means it was dead before it was cooked.

A two-pounder should do an average person fine. Our fishmonger sells them (live) at $17.99 a pound so this is no cheap treat but, oh, is it fine. And you don’t need a drop of melted butter to enjoy it, but go ahead — lobster is naturally healthy with only 98 calories per 100 grams (beef has 200 calories by comparison) and low levels of cholesterol and saturated fat.

So are you ready to grab one up and cook your own? To steam it, you only need an inch or two of salted water at a rolling boil in the bottom of a big kettle. Put in your live lobsters one at a time, head first — and, no, they don’t scream. If you hear anything, it’s steam escaping from the shell.

My fishmonger recommends cooking a two-pounder for eight minutes on one side; flip it over and cook it for five more minutes on the other, then turn off the heat and let it sit five minutes.

Alternatively, you can boil them, allowing about 2 1/2 quarts of boiling water salted like the sea. Dunk in the live lobster, bring it back up to a boil, then cover and simmer it for about 10 minutes a pound. It’s done when you can easily pull out the antennae.

If you only eat the tail and claw meat, no worries. You can gather up the rest to make a lovely lobster bisque with cream, sherry and butter. Depending on what you’re channelling right now, it will take you right back to either the East Coast or the 1960s, but then maybe they’re one in the same thing.

 

TO EAT OR TO KEEP?

True lobsters are found in all the world’s seas except polar ones. Because lobsters kill each other in close proximity, they aren’t the greatest candidates for aquaculture, but we were promised that the Nova Scotian lobster fishery is sustainable.

SeaChoice rates the Atlantic lobster fishery as “yellow”, that is, as having some concerns for sustainability.

Although the spiny lobster really isn’t a lobster, you can eat it with a clear conscience if it comes from Australia, the U.S. or Baja California.

 

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who just made her first lobster bisque, a taste of ambrosia.