by Dave Arnold
Fish joint in Truro, Ma.
This 4th of July weekend I visited family in the town of Truro on Cape Cod –lobster country. I stopped at a local fish and lobster shop and asked the owner how big his biggest lobsters were. The answer shocked me: twenty pounds. “Do you normally get 20 pound lobsters?” I asked him. “Yep,” he replied, “we sell ‘em all the time.”
One big lobster. This one weighs 20 pounds.
Now, conventional wisdom holds that large lobsters aren’t as good as smaller ones. They’re tough, we are told, and not as sweet. I have always maintained that there are no inherent large-lobster problems; they just need to be cooked and served properly. I have frequently enjoyed a six- or eight- pounder. Here was a chance to really put my large-lobster theories to the test, while also feeding six adults and two kids. I was excited to get started, but first I had to contend with a few issues:
The Morality of Eating Huge Lobsters:
There are two arguments against eating large lobsters:
1. Eating older animals is wrong because they have survived long enough to earn a pass; and
2. Killing large lobsters is detrimental to fishery conservation.
Let’s look at the first one. So just how old is a 20 pound lobster? The fellow in the Truro shop estimated 130 years. A similar age claim was made by PETA about a 20-pound lobster that they helped liberate from a New York City restaurant last year (read about George the Lobster here). These guesses are very inaccurate. They are derived from formulas that don’t work on older lobsters, like age=(weight in pounds)x4 +(3 years). There is no accurate way to determine a lobsters age based on weight. According to the best published accounts I could find, the upper known limit for lobster age is about 100 years and the heaviest on record is 44 pounds. A 20 pounder might be anywhere from 60-80 years old
Whether the lobster is 60, or 130, should advanced age preclude eating it? Why does age impart nobility? Newspaper articles about George the Lobster made statements like: “this lobster might have nibbled at the toes of the soldiers in Normandy.” The nobility, then, is a sentimental idea we attach to the animal based on a theoretical list of human experiences we think the lobster might have been party to. In reality, an 80 year old lobster hasn’t been getting smarter and smarter, and it hasn’t been following history. It has spent 80 years just being a lobster.
I decided the age issue was really not an issue at all. So how about conservation? Does eating a large lobster disproportionately impact the lobster population? The answer is yes, if the lobster is female. Lobsters get more and more fertile as they age. Unlike most animals, they just get randier and randier. Larger, older, females have vastly more eggs and can produce vastly more offspring than younger, smaller, lobsters. The very large lobsters for sale in Cape Cod – including the one I was eyeing — are taken by divers, not caught in traps, and are males.
I handed over my $139.
How to Cook It and Serve It Properly:
When large lobsters don’t taste as good as smaller ones it’s usually because they are overcooked. The Truro fish store, like many others, will cook lobsters for their customers. This store uses a convection steamer.
One of four steamers at the lobster store.
Steaming is a good technique, heating large batches of lobster quickly and relatively evenly. I asked the store owner how long he would cook a 20 pound lobster. 45 minutes – Ouch. The outside of a lobster steamed for 45 would be hopelessly overcooked, but it probably would take that long to cook the center. So high-temperature cooking would not be an option. Unfortunately, long-time, low-temperature cooking is also not an option; Lobster meat turns to mush if it is cooked slow and low –the enzymes in the meat keep on working. I decided that the lobster shouldn’t be cooked whole. I would use a variant of the technique we use at the school: steam the lobster just long enough to kill it and set the meat (so the shell can be easily removed); cut the meat into pieces small enough to cook quickly; Ziploc-bag the pieces with butter (technique here); cook in simmering water until done.
Overcooking is only one of the dangers of large-lobster preparation. The second is improper butchering. As lobsters grow, their muscle fibers become thicker and coarser. If you take a bite out of a large lobster tail it might feel tough, because your teeth must shear many thick muscle fibers. Avoid this unpleasantness by slicing large tails into discs. Doing so limits the length of the muscle fibers and assures your teeth bite into the grain –not against it. I knew this technique from my previous experience with 6-8 pound lobsters. But now the trick was butchering the whole lobster, not just the tail, such that all the pieces would be cut across the grain.
I couldn’t effectively par-cook the lobster in my mom’s equipment-challenged Cape Cod kitchen, so I convinced the shop owner to cook the lobster for 8 minutes in his steamer and then plunge the lobster into ice water to halt the cooking.
Picking up the par-cooked lobster.
The beast unwrapped.
After I picked up the par cooked beast I returned to my mom’s place to remove the meat. Even using metal shears, it was difficult to cut through the thick, tough shell.
One thick tough shell.
I removed the claws first. The claw joint knuckle meat was as big as a smaller lobster tail. I was pleased with the amount of par cooking I had requested, and I removed the claw meat intact. I butterflied the larger claw, and the smaller one I trimmed and basted in butter – I intended to grill that one for a little side-test.
Cutting the claw with metal shears, removing the meat, and butterflying.
A whole claw. I trimmed it for grilling.
I took off the tail, sheared the membrane off the bottom, and removed the meat with relative ease. I sliced the meat into thin discs.
Preparing the tail.
Cross section of the tail. You can see the texture of the meat in this shot. The thick fibers need to be cut across the grain to properly enjoy the meat.
Even the swimmerets on the bottom of the tail had meat in them. Below, right, you can see the first swimmeret –the one that helps you determine gender. On the left, the meat from the smaller legs:
Left: even the little legs had a lot of meat in them. Right: the first pair of swimmerets can be used to determine gender. These hard pointy ones indicate a male.
I dumped the fluids out of the body and reserved them. I ripped off the top of the carapace and removed the gills and gunk from the body. The body meat didn’t seem set enough to remove, so I cut the body in half.
Removing the gills and cleaning and prepping the body.
I bagged everything in butter. I cooked the body for 12 minutes, the knuckle meat for nine, the tail and claw meat for eight, and the leg meat for five. I didn’t time the grilled claw. After the meat was done, I decanted the butter and juices out of the bags and put them into bowls for dipping.
Bag in butter, cook, serve.
I boiled the blood and tamale (the green gunk) in a pot because I didn’t have time to do anything more proper. It curdled and turned into a fluffy omelet-textured mass with a distinct lobster-ocean flavor surrounded by clear ocean-y brine. Ugly as hell but pretty darn delicious.
Body goop "omelet." looks terrible, tastes good.
The cooked lobster meat.
The tasting panel consisted of me, my wife, my mom and stepfather, and two long-time family friends with whom I have eaten many a lobster. We all agreed that the meat was as sweet and delicious as any smaller lobsters we had eaten. We also agreed that the meat’s texture wasn’t tough, but was indeed different from young lobster meat. The claw meat fibers had the texture of pot roast. I preferred it to young lobster claw.
Cooked claw meat. The fibers come apart like pot roast --sweet lobstery pot roast.
The tip of the claw was akin to a rubber band, which no one enjoyed. The grilled claw was a revelation. The tail meat had a bit more bite than the meat from a smaller tail but was universally liked. The knuckle meat and leg meat were devoured instantly. The leg meat in particular was very sweet and umami filled –almost like crab meat. The body meat was a little mushy –maybe it took too long to get to temperature, maybe I cooked it too long in total. But it was still extremely sweet.
Done properly, a large lobster is every bit as good as a small one. Maybe better.
Special Bonus: a Wild Vegetable
Around this time of year I usually go to an island in Maine that is a forager’s paradise. I posted about it here. I won’t make it this July, which is a real disappointment – there are few things I enjoy more than foraging in a place as rich as that island. But while on the beach in Cape Cod I noticed a bunch of wild sea rocket growing just above the high tide line. I was ecstatic!
Wild sea rocket. Notice the buds on the right.
Wild sea rocket is one of my favorite greens. Intensely pungent, juicy, a little bitter. This rocket, however, had developed flower buds, a phenomenon I had never seen before. Raw, the buds tasted a lot like the leaves. I picked a bunch of them and took them home, where I boiled them in salted water till tender.
They had the texture and feeling of edamame, and the taste and bitterness of broccoli rabe. Pretty cool. Next year I’ll boil them in three changes of water and sauté them with garlic and olive oil.