“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.”
— William Shakespeare
My initial plan for our “Less Scary” series focused on liver. If you’ve read my profile, you pretty much know how I feel about filters as food. The problem is, as much as liver gave me nightmares as a kid, and though I’ve refused to eat it as an adult, a recent experience at Cedar in D.C. thrust the stuff into a new light.
Executive Chef Aaron McCloud prepared a lovely farm-to-table dinner for the farmers he buys from at Penn Quarter Market, inviting them into his restaurant to see what becomes of their wares. He served foie gras au torchon with apples purchased from Black Rock Orchard, banana nut toast and pomegranate molasses. I can’t top how a fellow diner described it: meat butter. The foie gras was so smooth and creamy, literally melting in your mouth.
Don’t get me wrong — I still think liver is gross. The difference is, I would eat liver like that again.
Given this development, writing about liver as “scary” started feeling a little disingenuous. And with my trip to Maine fast approaching, I decided to switch to something that truly does send me running to hide, shaking uncontrollably, under the covers.
I’ve never made it, and have never wanted to. I mean, don’t lobsters scream when you drop them into boiling water?
OK, I’m smart enough to know that lobsters don’t have vocal cords. They can’t scream. But that doesn’t mean the thought of killing one doesn’t make me want to.
The sky is overcast when my grandmother and I arrive
in Bar Harbor, Maine, mimicking my mood about the task ahead. Undeterred, I got on the phone and placed my order : three 1- to 1.5-pound lobsters for each of the next two nights (I’m hoping to make enough to have leftovers for lobster rolls).
I decided to steam for that first night of lobster debauchery. After reading that lobster is best when cooked in the water it was plucked from, I devised a plan to dredge some Atlantic into a lobster pot. But my little scheme didn’t account for the tide. It was out — by a good city block — at supper time, leaving a swath of treacherous, slimy, seaweed-covered rocks between me and my salty brine.
What am I going to do with Larry, Mo And Curly now? (Yes — I named the lobster.)
Committed to the cause, I rolled up my pant legs, Gram pleading behind me to be careful. I made it about five rocks into the slimy minefield of muck before I burst out laughing. This treacherous mission was impossible. It was so slippery, I wasn’t even sure how to get back to where I started! Stuck, I dipped the pot into some standing water, praying as I crawled carefully back across the death trap of slick stones that it wouldn’t make us sick.
Back in the kitchen, irritated by Mo’s attempts to crawl off the counter, I decided he’d go first into the stainless steel tomb. Poor Larry and Curly played dead, hoping I wouldn’t notice them (or perhaps resigned to their scalding fate). I piled them in atop their writhing ring leader, and felt a bit bad as they squirmed in the heat.
So I did the only natural thing: plopped on the lid and ran away.
In 10 minutes, their shells had turned bright red. While Grandma waited patiently nearby, I transferred the three stooges to a plate and moved everything, including a spicy coleslaw with fennel and cilantro, as well as some roasted baby potatoes, to the table.
Gram attacked her crustacean with glee, as if possessed by some deep-seated vendetta against all lobster-kind. Guts, water and meat particles flew through the air, making me thankful for the kitchen-towel “bib” she’d tucked into my sweater.
And I wasn’t doing so bad myself — until I got to what Gram called the “tomalley.”
That’s pretty much the liver.
Yeah … I’m done.
Though it may sound cruel, killing a lobster by dropping it into a pot of steam or boiling water is so much less traumatic than what I tried next. If you are of weak constitution, or prone to fainting or spells of hysteria, I highly suggest you skip along to the recipe section.
On the second night of my great lobster adventure, I planned to grill my crustaceans. That meant splitting them … live.
My instructions from a variety of Internet sources said, when facing the beady-eyed creature dead-on (no pun intended — you’ll see in mere moments why), cut from just above the tail forward through the head, turning the lobster 180 degrees do the same though the tail. All this while avoiding cutting through the shell on the back side. That’s so that the lobster can basically be folded open when put on the grill. I get the idea that somehow, if I stab the creature directly between the eyes, and thus the brain, first, it will be killed instantly.
Sadly, I have no real understanding of lobster anatomy. Do these things even have brains?
I can’t explain to you how horrifying first plunging the knife through that shell is. The lobster began writhing madly. My theory having failed miserably, I moved on to the next steps outlined in my instructions. I kept cutting, splitting the first spiny monster in two.
The problem? This poor little beast kept thrashing long after he’d been halved. Grandma chose this moment to tell me an incredibly unhelpful story about about chickens running around with their heads cut off.
I’m grossed out. I feel horrible. And at this point, I’m just about in tears.
Why won’t this thing die? You can see the question resonating on my face in the pics Gram snapped while I tackled this ominous task. Or rather, helplessly watched the nightmare unfold right in my own two hands. Once it’s over, and the beast is still, I can see its innards in slimy and horrifying technicolor. Great. Now I’m queasy, too.
I’m not sure how this woman makes it look so easy. Maybe it’s putting them in the freezer first? It does appear from her video that I had my lobster upside down, as you can see in the picture above.
The good news is, after lobster number one (I refrained from naming them this round, thinking it would make it easier), lobsters two and three were a breeze. It’s a cut and a cut and a scoop. Then season with some olive oil, salt and pepper. It’s still a little weird when the flesh reacts to the salt, but my nerves had miraculously acquired a new coat of steel. After a few minutes on the grill with some lovely artichokes, it’s to the table for Lobster Part Deux.
And the taste? Oh, my. Grilled lobster is absolutely delicious. Paired with a Bobby Flay recipe for basil butter that I souped up with my own garlic and lemon twist, it was literally a smoky, luscious treat I won’t soon forget.
In Conclusion …
Over the past year, I started trying all kinds of new things in preparation for becoming a proper food blogger. Liver was part of that. I also tried sweetbreads. Bone Marrow. Tongue. Even street food in Mexico — which may not seem like a stretch, but given my propensity for foodborne illness in foreign countries, trust me: Eating tacos el pastor from a road-side stand was more than brave.
Taking this sense of adventure into the kitchen was only natural. Lobster might have been biting off a bit much, but I’m glad I did it. I will admit, however, that it’s given me two new rules to add to my cooking playbook. First: Whatever you do, do it humanely. There’s just something about being on the giving end of a long, seemingly tortured death that does nothing for your karma. When it comes to lobster, I found a lot of great tips here.
Second: Embrace your reality, whatever that might be. For me, that means I could do this again and not be scared of it. But, to be quite honest, I’d much prefer someone else cook lobster and pick it clean for me.
And if it’s not asking too much … can I have it in a bisque?
Lobster & The Fixings
Place an inch or two of water in the bottom of a large lobster or stock pot fitted with a steaming basket or small rack to keep the lobster above the water. If possible, use liquid from the same body of water the lobster was caught in, but keep in mind collecting it — it’s good to know when the tide comes in and out! If this isn’t practical, plain old salt water will do just fine.
Once the water starts boiling, you have two choices. Either drop in your crustaceans, or opt to put them out of their misery first. Check here for tips on dispatching the sea monsters. One tip: leave the rubber bands on the claws until they are cooked.
Steaming time starts at about seven to eight minutes for a lobster up to 1 1/4 pounds. For each additional 1/4 pound, steam up to an additional two minutes (i.e., 1 1/2 pounds would be eight to 10 minutes.) It will turn bright red when done. Turn the stove off and, using tongs, pick lobster up by the tail. Holding over the pot, crack the claws slightly to drain water from the body.
Serve with melted butter and sliced lemons.
Prepare your lobster using the method outlined in this video. Once the lobster is split, brush the meat with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Using either a gas or charcoal grill, place lobster meat-side down, following the same cooking times for steaming listed above. The shells will again be bright red and the flesh firm, but not rubbery, when done.
I used Bobby Flay’s Basil Butter recipe, adding my own twist with fresh garlic and a little lemon juice. The tweaks also make the butter perfect to brush on steamed, halved artichokes before thowing them on the grill, too.
When steaming or grilling lobster, cook some additional to have extra for leftovers. They make perfect lobster rolls. One 1 1/4 pound lobster makes about two good-sized rolls. These are super easy, and taste amazing topped with the fennel slaw recipe below.
Simply toss the picked and slightly chopped (bite-sized pieces) lobster meat with a little mayo, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Brush both sides of New England style lobster rolls with butter and toast in a pan. Fill with lobster meat, top with slaw and serve.
Spicy Fennel & Cilantro Slaw
1/2 head red cabbage, diced
1 large fennel bulb, diced
6 green onions, chopped
1 jalapeno with seeds, chopped
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup mayo
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Splash of apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
Dash of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper
Place chopped vegetables in large bowl and set aside. In a small bowl, combine milk, mayo, vinegar, lemon juice and honey. Scrape garlic against cutting board to form a paste and add to liquid mixture. Pour over vegetables, adding cayenne, salt and pepper to taste. Gently stir to coat. Let sit for several hours to incorporate flavors prior to serving. If less heat is desired, omit cayenne, and/or remove some or all the seeds from jalapeno before chopping.