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From Barnes & NobleLearning About Lobster with Jasper White
Boston chef Jasper White came to New York cooking school De Gustibus at Macy's recently to demonstrate techniques and recipes from his impressive new book, Lobster at Home, to a rapt audience of lobster lovers. White is recognized as today's foremost authority on the foods of New England, and if anyone could convince apprehensive home cooks that cooking lobster in their own kitchens is a manageable proposition, it's this self-effacing, calm, and personable chef.
White prepared a number of luscious lobster recipes, offered tips on choosing and buying live lobsters, and demonstrated each step in the process of steaming them and extracting their meat. By the end of the class, we were convinced: Cooking lobster at home is not only possible, it's affordable, celebratory, and easier than you might think, once you've mastered the basics.
About Jasper White and Lobster at Home
Jasper White's Boston restaurant, Jasper's, was rated one of the top restaurants in the city every year of the 12 it was open. White closed the restaurant in 1995 at the height of its success (he says it became too difficult to run the business and have any time at all to spend with his three children), but the reputation he established there as a master chef endures. Today White is a consultant for Legal Sea Foods, a well-known Boston seafood restaurant and company. He's been working on Lobster at Home for the past five years, and it shows in the care that so obviously went into every detail.
White writes in the book that "good cooking means understanding the food you prepare; no fact or idea about lobster is unrelated to its cooking." He shares his years of accumulated knowledge about this revered crustacean through impeccable advice on cooking techniques; detailed illustrations showing lobster anatomy, how to select and prepare the beasts, what equipment to use, and how to dismantle them after they're cooked; charts with cooking times for lobsters of various sizes; information on how the seasons affect the quality and price of lobster; recommended mail-order sources; and wonderful tidbits of lobster history and lore.
And of course, White shows readers how to bring out the best in lobster through his mouth-watering recipes. Chowders and bisques, canapés and casseroles, potpies and pastas, salads and sandwiches—the dishes in Lobster at Home will keep lobster lovers happy for years to come, both for special occasions and for everyday meals. Many of the recipes call only for already-cooked lobster meat, commonly available at better fish markets—a great option for anyone who'd rather avoid dealing with and killing a live lobster (see below for White's tips on how to judge whether cooked lobster meat is a good deal at your market). White says his kids will testify to how well-tested the recipes are: For months, he said, "They'd come home from school and ask, 'Daddy, what kind of lobster are we having for dinner?' They never got tired of it."
About the Menu
We started with a decadent lobster canapé that White described as "definitely bucking the olive-oil/Mediterranean trend—this is pure New England, with its mix of dairy and seafood." Delicate lobster salad made with homemade, tarragon-scented mayonnaise and diced cucumber and scallions for crunch was spooned onto squares of toasted pumpernickel bread, sprinkled with shreds of white cheddar cheese, and popped under the broiler until the cheese was bubbling and browned but the salad still cool within. Utterly luscious. Next came a frittata made with lobster and leeks—an elegant dish that highlights lobster's sweet flavor and succulent texture to perfection. White suggested serving the frittata cut into small squares as an hors d'oeuvre, or sliced into larger wedges and served with a simple green salad for a sublime light lunch. The Taittinger Brut La Française champagne we drank was the ideal accompaniment—light-bodied and fresh, to contrast with the rich dishes, but with enough round, toasty, buttery flavors to perfectly complement the sweet lobster flavor.
Next came a break from dining while White demonstrated "Lobster 101": steaming whole lobsters, extracting the meat, and using the shells and body to make lobster stock. That stock was used to fantastic effect in the next dish, Gazpacho with Lobster. This fresh and crunchy cold soup, made in the traditional way, with pureed stale bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, was suffused with lobster flavor from the lobster stock used as its base and from the chunks of meat studding it. Lightly pan-fried lobster dumplings followed—wonton wrappers were stuffed with a mousselike forcemeat made from pureed shrimp and scallops combined with diced vegetables and lobster meat, and served drizzled with gingery soy sauce and sprinkled with scallions. With both dishes we drank a wonderful Mersault from Louis Jadot. It was reasonably dry and fresh but satisfyingly creamy, rich, earthy, and mouth-filling—a classic match with lobster. Delicious secret-recipe fresh ginger cookies, served alongside buttery chocolate-chip shortbread, were our fittingly simple finale.
Tips from Jasper White
- When you're using cucumbers in a salad like White's classic lobster salad, there's an important trick to keep in mind. "Cucumbers contain a lot of water," he said, "and it will release and make the salad soggy if you don't get some out." He recommends dicing them, sprinkling them lightly with salt, letting them drain in a colander for 15 or 20 minutes, and giving them a gentle squeeze before adding them to the salad.
- Buying cooked lobster meat can be a great deal, and a great option for dishes that call only for the meat, especially if you shop at a reputable fish market that deals in high-quality lobsters. Here's White's standard for judging whether the cooked meat is a deal or a steal: "It's a good deal is if it's five times the price of whole live lobsters or less—because the average yield on lobster is about 20 percent," White says. "So if you go into a store and lobsters are about $5 a pound, if the cooked meat is $23 a pound, it's actually cheaper for you to buy the lobster meat, and you don't have to do any of the work." It works out for the lobster vendor, too, because he can use up lobsters with only one claw or no claws at all—lobsters he can't get full price for.
- White knows many people are concerned about causing lobsters undue pain before they're killed. He's consulted a neurologist who has worked on lobsters for 25 years for the final word on the most merciful methods. "Splitting the lobster down the middle is an instant kill," he says, "and it's a great thing to do if you're going to grill them." But for the more common steaming or boiling, White learned that the largest ganglion in the lobster nervous system—the equivalent of the brain—is extremely close to the surface of the shell in the head, and that means the lobster is dead within 30 seconds of being plunged into steam or boiling water. They likely detect a temperature change, but nothing more extreme. The infamous thrashing around, if it happens, results from muscle spasms as the meat cooks, not desperate attempts to escape.
- White has a number of terrific tips for getting the last shred of meat out of cooked lobsters, but here's my favorite: Some of the most succulent bits of meat come from the walking legs, the eight little appendages on each side of the body. If you're eating a whole lobster, you can suck the meat right out—but if you want to use it in a dish, it's not quite so easy. That is, unless you know White's trick. He snaps each leg in half and lines the halves up on a cutting board, broken end up. Then he takes a rolling pin and rolls it gently over the legs, moving from the bottom up towards the broken end. The meat just pops right out. Voila!
- A last trick that's not lobster-related: White discovered on a trip to China that cilantro stems are often used as an ingredient of their own in some dishes and stay tender and flavorful. Since then, he's stopped bothering to separate the stems from the leaves when chopping cilantro for a dish. He just washes the bunch, lays it on a cutting board, and chops the leafy part whole.