Thursday, April 15, 2010


When I read that April's Culinary Smackdown (hosted by last month's winners, Heff and Donna, of Heff's Bar and Grill) would feature lobsters, I couldn't resist throwing my hat into the ring. For three reasons. 1) I love to eat lobster. 2) I've cooked whole lobster only once before and thought this would be a fine excuse to splurge and try again. 3) During the course of some 25 years of exchanging lobster gifts with my sister, I've accumulated a crazy collection of lobster paraphernalia (like the lobster welcome mat above). Seriously, how many people do you know who own a lobster pinata? (I've had this guy since the early '90s. When people ask when I'm going to break him open, I say never!)
Since I'm green in the lobster cooking arena (and frankly, a bit squeamish about handling live lobsters), I emailed my friend Cindie: "May need partner in culinary crime." Cindie was in. And, as it turned out, so was her husband, Odie. We settled on a mutually convenient Friday night for our undertaking, and when I learned they had passed up another invite for the same evening, I knew there was no turning back.

For a good week, Cindie and I googled, researched, consulted, emailed, talked, and gawked over numerous recipes and our overall menu (with Odie in the mix, we would need to satisfy diverse palates). Plus platter options, color schemes, and possible flowers to grace the table (ok, since we were cooking at her house, that would be the bar, not the table, but you get the idea). Cindie was really getting into this blogger's accomplice thing.

When it came down to it, we both had a hankering for plain old boiled lobster with butter, but that seemed a little too simple for the Smackdown (my apologies to anyone who opted to go that route). Eventually, we decided to do lobster three ways. No, not a Cincinnati three-way. Or the kind of three-way Heff might be thinking of (lol). We settled on: 1) An old-school Lobster Thermidor using Julia Child's recipe. 2) A lobster ceviche (Cindie thought it would look pretty on the platter). And 3) A straight-up boiled lobster with butter.

Time to get ingredients in place. I ordered three lobsters from my favorite local fishmonger, Kevin Smith at Lobsta Bakes of Maine.

(No, that's not Kevin.) Kevin is, however, originally from a fishing family in Maine. Each Thursday he has lobster flown in, and many other fine fish to offer as well.

On my way to Cindie's on our appointed Friday, I picked up my/her/our lobsters, some scallops, and three mini-baguettes fresh from the Lobsta Bakes oven, along with three cans of Moxie, which, as I wrote about earlier in the week, is the official soft drink of Maine.

While I had (unsurprisingly) failed to fulfill my make-ahead agenda (roasting asparagus and making its sauce), when I arrived at Cindie's at 4:30, she had completed her appointed prep work - making a blueberry pie. I don't know whether blueberry pie has achieved designation as the "official" dessert of Maine, but it is certainly associated with Maine in popular culinary culture.

First, we started the long, slow process of boiling water and white wine in a big old pot. 

We added onion, carrots, celery, and parsley. Plus bay leaves, peppercorns, tarragon, and thyme tied in cheesecloth (a bouquet garni).

While we waited for the pot to boil, we got that asparagus roasted.

And I made that sauce: Sauce Maltaise, or blood orange hollandaise sauce, which I discovered recently. Sounds fancy-schmancy, but this recipe, prepared in a food processor or blender, is a simple and close to foolproof version that doesn't entail a double-boiler. Basically it's just egg yolks, butter, lemon juice, and blood orange zest and juice (you can substitute regular orange for blood orange). Notorious for fiddling with recipes, The Intuitive Eggplant couldn't resist adding some chopped shallots and a bit of tarragon. Cindie thought I added too much lemon juice (and maybe I did, since squeezing citrus into a tablespoon is a pain in the butt and I tend to be a bit lax with measurements). Still, I thought it tasted great with both the asparagus and our (eventually) boiled lobster.

I also did my prep work for the ceviche. The lovely photo from Saveur magazine that inspired Cindie to suggest ceviche was of a recipe full of Asian ingredients I didn't have on hand or time to seek out. So I agreed to go the ceviche route and then just made it pretty much the way I always do - with lime, garlic, shallots, cilantro, serrano, a little thyme, chipotle, and tomato (I forgot the ground, toasted cumin seed this time).

I especially like the way raw scallops, thinly sliced, take to the lime juice and seasonings in "my" ceviche, and was glad I'd bought some to include. Frankly, I thought they were tastier than the (eventually cooked) lobster we added to the mix.

Here's how the finished ceviche looked (after Cindie broke the matching glass, our first debacle of the night). As it turned out, we didn't have room on the lobster platter for ceviche anyway, and after what happened with the platter, I was glad I'd gone ahead and photographed this presentation.

We also went ahead and sauteed mushrooms in butter with lemon juice, per Julia, for the Thermidor sauce.

So much for the easy stuff. The pot was boiling, Cindie's husband was home, and it was time to get serious.

We opened up the box to check out our crustaceans.

Odie was happy to remove the lobsters from their claw confines.

Photos, of course, needed to be taken.

Cindie grabbed her camera and got in on the photogging action too.

Some ritual taunting of Oscar, the overly curious Labradoodle, was also in order.

Then Odie plunged the first lobsters into the pot.

We debated back and forth about how long to cook our one-and-a-half-pounders. Cindie thought most modern recipes recommend 10-12 minutes. Julia says 20 minutes for 2-pound lobsters. I was inclined to go with an oft-repeated rule of thumb that says they're done when the antennae pull out easily. Well, we cooked them past the 12-minute mark, and maybe even past the 15-minute mark, until Odie finally yanked out a doggone antenna and we pronounced them done.
Not only done, but probably a bit overdone, we thought when we finally ate them. However, we would have a chance to improve our timing with the third, straight-up lobster, still to come, as we wanted to eat it hot.

Here are our first two, sitting for a minute in the sink, until we transferred them to a cooler. For the Thermidor, they would need to be cool enough to handle and split lengthwise. For the ceviche, they would need to be cold.

While the lobsta cooled, Cindie and I introduced Odie to blogs, by showing him mine and Heff's. We had tried to explain what a blog is, but it didn't really click until he saw one for himself. Now Odie thinks blogs are cool, mentioned repeatedly that he "likes those comments," and went on to tell his buddies all about blogs, his new discovery.

Time to get serious again. The recipe says to add the mushroom cooking juices to the kettle (aka big old pot). But since we had more boiling liquid in our big old pot than Julia called for, AND wanted to reserve some of it for cooking the third lobster, AND we were halving the recipe, AND I didn't think we had a high enough ratio of wine to water in the boiling liquid, I started doing as I usually do, adjusting as I go. We didn't have much in the way of mushroom cooking juices, so we poured some of the boiling liquid into the skillet the mushrooms were sauteed in, added some more wine, then let it reduce.

Meanwhile, Cindie began the roux in a second skillet (ok, so we used skillets instead of saucepans per the recipe, but I think we still ended up with just as many dirty dishes as called for in the original). Anyway, Cindie pointed out an ambiguity from Julia. The recipe says that once the butter and flour have been cooked together without browning, "off heat" you're supposed to beat in the lobster cooking liquid, then boil, stirring for one minute. However, you can't boil "off heat." So we returned the skillet to the burner for the requisite boiling, and moved on to the next step: splitting the lobsters.

Cindie and I realized we suck at splitting lobsters, even with our "good" kitchen knives, so after mangling one, we turned the job over to Odie and his knife. Thank goodness we had an experienced hunter and fisherman to help us out.

He did a far more successful job of cutting his cleanly in half.

Next, Cindie and I set upon the task of removing the lobster meat. To be honest, I'm not sure we actually managed to figure out which were the "sand sacks in the heads and the intestinal tubes," which you're supposed to discard, vs. the lobster coral and green matter, which you're supposed to rub through a fine sieve into a mixing bowl. But we at least set the heads aside (to been turned into lobster stock, along with the remaining shells, at a later date), so I think we're safe there. There wasn't a whole lot of "green matter" but we dutifully tried to rub it through a sieve, where most of it stuck, and combined what little we could salvage with dried mustard, egg yolks, cream, and pepper.

At this point, you're supposed to beat the previously reduced sauce into the mixing bowl stuff "by driblets." But we started to get derailed and instead did it the other way around, beating the mixing bowl stuff into the sauce. I'm sure our derailing was due to the complexity of the instructions, not the beers we'd consumed as we got hungrier and hungrier. Here's our sauce (which by that point had become quite thick) "filmed with cream," which the recipe says you're supposed to do twice, although we only did it once. I haven't a clue what the purpose of "cream filming" is, and I'd say this is more of a douse than a film, but, oh, well.
 Now, I've never felt intimidated about making recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking (not that I've made a substantial number of them). I generally like the way it methodically breaks a recipe down into sensible steps. But making this recipe for the first time, even with two reasonably experienced home cooks joining forces, the "whiles" and the "thens" seemed off. At the same time Cindie was working on the sauce, I was trying to remove the lobster meat from the shells and cut it into something resembling 3/8-inch pieces, which then needed to be returned to a saute pan (ok, we reused another skillet).

You're supposed to saute the cut-up lobster with "foaming" butter until it achieved a "rosy" color, THEN add cognac to it, and THEN reduce it by half. But alas, recipe dyslexia overcame me again, and I added the cognac before real "rosiness" was achieved (the red bits in the photo above were just as red before and after this step).

At one point, our sauce actually looked like this:

But during the time it took to accomplish other steps, the sauce broke.

Nonetheless, we persevered, combining the cognac'd lobster with the long-since sauteed mushrooms and something resembling the prescribed 2/3 of the broken sauce, stuffing the result into Odie's lovely split shells, and topping them with parmesan. Here they are before we put them in the oven and topped them with the remaining sauce.

We also boiled the third lobsta straight up. Here's its much more properly cooked tail:

Five hours after we started, we were finally ready to eat.

Fortunately I snapped the photo above before what happened next. Cindie thought it would make for an attractive photo if we set the asparagus/Thermidor platter on a blue placemat. Reaching for that placemat, she tipped the platter and everything landed on the floor. She managed to pick up most of it before I could grab my camera.

Odie said he wished he had a camera to catch the look on my face when she dumped it. But Cindie coolly pronounced it "Deconstructed Lobster Thermidor" - our inadvertent fourth lobsta dish of the night.

After the cursing and laughter subsided, we gave up on worrying what things looked like and just set in to eatin'.

Yep, the Sauce Maltaise never got transferred to a more attractive dish than that Cool Whip container, and we didn't really care.

Lessons learned:

1. Cook with friends who will humor you, especially when it comes to delayed dining for ambitious projects. Bonus points if they have a dishwasher. This evening was so much more fun than if I'd earnestly tackled this dish by my lonesome!

2. A hunter, and a hunter's knife, are your friends. If, after the knives are put away, you can persuade a hunter . . .
. . . to don the lobster apron and lobster claw oven mitts your sister gave you for your 40th birthday, so much the better.

3. If you experience anxiety trying to make a lobster (or other) dish from a Julia Child recipe, just remember this:

4. Even a challenging meal is always better if it ends in dessert, especially if it's one you didn't have to make yourself.

With thanks to the Culinary Smackdown crowd for letting me join in for my first time at this rodeo, and much appreciation to "Team Eggplant." Looking forward to everyone else's lobsta posts. And remember, Odie "likes the comments."



LaDivaCucina said...

OK, the first part of the post was kinda scarin' me Eggy. It amazes me that you've kept a freakin' lobster pinata since the early 90's?! Eeek! Diva don't have that much closet space!

Lobster pinata or shoes? Guess which one wins?

I, too, chose a lobster recipe from Juila Child and may I say that I'm happy to throw down the gauntlet and may the best bee yotch win! I made mine tonight and am in a cholesterol coma....

See ya Friday, Eggy!

LaDivaCucina said...

Wait a minute. How did I miss the blueberry pie? Please tell me you had it with ice cream? I just ingested large amounts of eggs, butta, cream and lobsta and still I want pie and cream....sigh. Looks damn good.

LaDivaCucina said...

YUMMMMMMMMMKMM! I applaud your efforts Eggy and Cindie and Odie! You went waaaay beyond what was required with the blood orange sauce, blueberry pie, gus, et al!

I found when I had to cook the lobster in the foamy butter it made it tough! I would cut down my cooking time too as mine went into the oven as well!

My first recipe out of MTAOFC and I loved it's complexity but could not eat like that very often! Although, I must admit, everything tasted delicious!

Your lobsters look incredible...and then the platter dropped! doh! How frustrating! Great job, which I was there with you!

I'm up too!

Heff said...

Wow. A very detailed post. Excellent job.

It's fun to play with your food, isn't it ?

Dani said...

Holy Lobsters!! Team Eggplant ROCKED it!!!

Christo Gonzales said...

thats one large lobster apron - all your lobster antics look and sound had quite the feast!

h said...

This was a wonderful post that really shows the fun of cooking with good friends. The little deviations from the recipe and minor unexpected speed-bumps are part of the fun.

As was, I'm sure, eating that sumptious feast!

Great job!

Anonymous said...

Great post- Great food, good friends and a dog, what else could anyone ask for! Odie loves it.

Jenny said...

is this your first Throwdown? Wow, you did an amazing job and I loved seeing all of the lobster schnizz along with the actual preparation. I love the apron!

darkfoam said...

thought i'd drop on by and see what folks are doing.
this is pretty amazing.
you all did a great job.

Sharon Rudd said...

Diva, gotta say that as experienced a cook as you are, I was surprised to learn this was the first recipe you’d made from Mastering the Art. You did a stellar job! It’s also comforting to know I wasn’t the only who struggled a wee bit with a Julia dish.

Heff, yep, playing with your food is way fun :)

Dani, Team Eggy thanks you for your support!

Doggy, I loved your dish – thanks for stopping by and checking out mine!

Troll, yeah dat!

Boxer, yep, my first Throwdown. I’ll definitely be in for more!

Foamy, thanks for the kind words!

And Anon, aka Cindie, thanks again for collaborating. Tell Odie it was worth letting us get him drunk enough to put on the lobster apron – he’s a cyber star :)

Robin said...

hey Odie..that was much work...Im impressed..I love that you taunted the dog with the lobster..I could have done that too had i bought and prepared a real lobster..I cheated...Shhhhh..!I bought mine from the fish market already cooked and cut and cleaned...simple easy and I cant bare to put them in the pot...nice to meet you EnjoY..!

Karl said...

Good evening intuitive eggplant,

Wow, what a spread! A Fine post to boot. Very well done!


Even the DROPPED dish looks good !

Sharon Rudd said...

Robin, nice to meet you too! I'll never tell :)

Karl, loved your tacos. Thanks for stopping by!

Donna, thanks for your kind words!

Making Space said...

Woah - a cooking blog post with multiple cliff-hangers, a sense of humor, and ODIE!!!!!!! Love it all!

Kymical Reactions said...

oh. my. lanta. this descriptive, detailed post is wonderful. I feel like I could follow your directions and attempt it. I just wanted to eat a bite of the lobster bits right out of the picture. nummy. :) high five!

Sharon Rudd said...

Thanks, MS. You inspired someone to cook this weekend too (stay tuned).

Kym, glad you enjoyed my post since your entry was derailed. We had our foibles in the kitchen, but fortunately no fender benders. Rest up and feel better!

Buzz Kill said...

I completely missed your posted the other day. What a great read and tremendous effort. I really laughed hard when I got to "Five hours after we started, we were finally ready to eat." Julia Child made this look so easy but as I've proved (and I think you'll agree after this) no recipe is too easy.

I liked the asparagus and blueberry pie too. Blueberries are big here in South Jersey and I think the season starts next month. Can't wait.

Sharon Rudd said...

Thanks for checking out my post, Buzz. Had a lot of fun both cooking and blogging this one, although both took a long time :) That pie was to die for. Enjoy your blueberries!