All the ingredients for a homemade lobster feast with saffron beurre blanc: sea salt, white wine, shallots, butter and dark red Greek Kozani saffron--and the lobster of course. See the recipe at the end of this post.
You would be forgiven for thinking that B and I ate nothing but lobster in Maine.
That’s not exactly the truth.
Twice we downed bowls of buttery chowder, thick with luscious clams. I loved the spicy cuttlefish at Primo, seared on a plancha and served with harissa, roasted peppers and salty black chickpeas. And one night Serendipity cooked the perfect summer supper of sole in brown butter with capers, boiled Maine new potatoes and the last local strawberries with fresh ricotta.
But as to the lobster, well, we ate it every which way—and we never tired of it.
We began the Week of Eating Lobster with supper at Francine where B’s herb-roasted crustacean came with courgettes, buttermilk potatoes, chanterelles and caramelized garlic. Seven days later we ended it at Hugo’s where we tucked into a creamy lobster risotto studded with Parmesan cubes and flecked with black dehydrated olives. Sorry to say, with all those tasty but competing flavors, the lobster somehow disappeared.
Simple lobster rolls were more to the point. You can find them everywhere, in shacks by the water, at the stand-up counters of roadside trucks, next to piers stacked with traps. Even Linda Bean, of the state’s most famous family, has started a franchise called, yes, Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Lobster Roll. Prices for the rolls were all over the lot, ranging from $8 to $16—but generally you get what you pay for. Really fresh lobster—and lots of it—with just a whisper of mayo and the right toasted bun naturally costs more.
Maine lobstermen are still suffering mightily from the economic downturn. In 2008 the Icelandic bank crash shut down Canadian processors which normally handle 70 percent of the state’s lobster catch. This year, boat prices for hard-shelled lobsters have ranged from a low of $3.25 per pound to $4.50, less than most fisherman need to turn a profit. Price manipulation by big dealers is another issue. In Working Waterfront, a trade publication, Sandra Dinsmore writes that “monopoly dealers,” who stocked up at the lower price and held lobsters “in cold-water storage systems or tidal pounds,” flooded the market around Father’s Day “to ensure that Maine fresh-caughts were not cheaper than their pounded product.”
We tried our best to help out.
Just minutes after crossing the Maine state line, our foursome detoured to Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier in Kittery Point, where, shivering at a waterside table, we ate the first of many lobster rolls as other sweater-clad customers motored in by boat and tied up at the dock for lunch—mostly boiled lobster with corn on the cob.
The Mariner, a 1950s-ish coffee shop in Camden, was the scene of two lobster roll splurges--best eaten on the back deck where you can watch the schooners glide in and out of the harbor. (It is also the home of that delicious clam chowder.)
One day we drove to Waterman’s Beach Lobster, a family-run operation in South Thomaston that won a James Beard America’s Classics Award in 2001. The lobster roll was ultra-fresh, if a little skimpy on the meat, but you couldn’t beat the location: a picnic table on a deck overlooking the rocky beach as the fog drifted slowly over the water and surrounding countryside.
The very best lobsters? Without a doubt, the four 1-1/4 pounders we cooked at home.
At $7 a pound at Graffam’s Seafood Market, the lobsters were cheap eats, echoing the days when they were typical jail house fare—back in the l9th century when there was a lobster glut—and prisoners complained of “cruel and unusual punishment” when they were served too often.
Well, bring it on. Succulent, sweet and still tasting of the salty ocean, these were possibly the best lobsters I’ve ever eaten.
They were feisty, too, flipping their tails up and down, thrashing their claws and waving their antennae--menacing in spite of the rubber bands around their pincers. To calm them, I resorted to a technique from our Nantucket days: stroking the lobsters gently between the eyes with the tip of my index finger. This seems to lull them into a trance: tails flop, claws hang limply and the lobsters become very still. I hope they became one with the universe because, after a silent prayer for forgiveness, I plunged them headfirst into the pot of boiling water.
When you are committing murder in order to eat, you must have total respect for the animal. In the case of the lobster, that means cooking it for just the right amount of time, preferably in seawater or at least in water sprinkled with sea salt. (As Angus remarked, the path from the rocks below the house to the porch was “not made for humans.”)
The proper time? Eight short minutes if you’re cooking one lobster, 9 or 10 if you’re cooking two in the same pot. And when lobsters are local and therefore utterly delicious, there’s no better, simpler way to serve them than with a little melted butter…
Unless it’s a saffron beurre blanc.
Saffron adds a sultry touch to this classic sauce made with white wine, shallots and sweet butter. When it’s very fresh, the spice has a bright, pungent aroma. Sometimes it smells sharply metallic, almost like seaweed, but Kozani saffron from Greece, which I used, has a sweetly floral taste. Just a pinch of the red threads stirred into the reduced wine and shallot mixture works a magical transformation. The color of the sauce intensifies to a vivid golden-orange and the flavor of the saffron, in combination with the tangy reduction, underscores the sea-sweetness of almost any fresh shellfish.
It’s a natural with lobster—a feast for the eyes, as well as the palate.
That night, with the rain pounding on the roof of the cottage, waves crashing over the rocks below, we devoured our quartet of lobsters with the rich beurre blanc. What else? Crusty bread, a lightly dressed green salad and ice cold beer.
Don’t forget the napkins.
Boiled Lobster with Saffron Beurre Blanc
To serve 4
4 1-1/4 pound live lobsters
For the beurre blanc:
A good pinch saffron (about 20 threads)
1 tablespoon warm water
1 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons shallots, minced
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1. Bring a large pot of water to a furious boil. Add sea salt to taste.
2. To tranquilize the lobsters, stroke them gently between the eyes until they relax. (You can do this, two at a time, by grasping the lobsters firmly from behind, one in each hand, and stroking their heads with the tips of your index fingers.) You’ll know they are relaxed when they stop thrashing and their tails and claws droop.
3. Plunge the two lobsters headfirst into the pot of rapidly boiling water. Cook them for 9 minutes from the moment they enter the water. (If they are closer to 1-1/2 pounds, add an extra minute or two.) Do not wait for the water to return to a boil to start timing, or they will be overcooked.
4. Remove the lobsters from the water and set them aside. Repeat with the other two lobsters. When they are just cool enough to handle, ask a helper to crack the claws with a hammer or the back of a heavy cleaver. Using kitchen scissors or shears, slit the underside of the tail up the middle. Cover with several dishtowels to keep the lobsters warm.
5. In the meantime, you are making the beurre blanc: Crumble the saffron threads into 1 tablespoon of warm water and set aside. Combine the white wine and minced shallots in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil until the mixture is reduced to about 1/3 cup.
6. Remove from the heat and whisk in the saffron and its soaking liquid. Add salt if desired.
7. Over a low flame, whisk in the cold butter one piece at a time, adding each successive piece as the one in the pot begins to melt.
8. To serve, put one cracked lobster on each plate. Be sure to have lobster picks on hand for digging out the sweetest meat. Serve the beurre blanc in a communal bowl for dipping, with plenty of paper napkins on the side.