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Lobster à l’Américaine


Starting with a live lobster is paramount for the success of this dish. It's equally important to kill the lobster humanely according to RSPCA guidelines. I recommend you place it in a container in the freezer for 45 minutes. Check after 30 minutes to make sure there is no movement in the legs and to ensure the flesh isn't beginning to freeze.

You'll need

1 800gm-1kg rock lobster 2 tbsp olive oil 1 small onion, finely diced ½ small carrot, finely diced 1 large golden shallot, finely diced 1 garlic clove, finely chopped 40 ml Cognac 500 gm ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped 150 ml dry vermouth, such as Noilly Prat 120 ml fish stock 2 tbsp veal glaze (veal stock reduced to 20% of its volume) 2 tsp finely chopped French tarragon 80 gm softened unsalted butter 1 tbsp finely chopped curly parsley

Method

  • 01
  • Remove lobster from freezer and place it underbelly down on a large chopping board. Pierce the head between the eyes with a large, sharp chef’s knife to ensure it dies instantly.
  • 02
  • Using a thinner-bladed knife, sever the tail from the body by inserting the blade into the body and work around the top of the shell where the head and body meet, turn over and sever.
  • 03
  • Hold head with a clean tea towel and twist head and body in opposite directions, detaching body from head.
  • 04
  • Use the chef’s knife to cut through tail sections, cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
  • 05
  • Use a spoon to scoop coral from the head into a bowl and set aside.
  • 06
  • Cut claws from body with heavy scissors or poultry shears, then crack each joint with the back of the chef’s knife.
  • 07
  • Preheat oven to 175C. Season lobster to taste. Heat oil in a large ovenproof frying pan over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add lobster tail, legs and claws in batches and cook, turning occasionally, until lobster turns red (6-8 minutes), then transfer to a plate.
  • 08
  • Add onion and carrot to pan, sauté until starting to soften (4-5 minutes), then add shallot and garlic and sauté until fragrant (1 minute). Return lobster to pan, add Cognac, ignite with a long match (careful, as flames may be fierce) and shake pan until flames die down.
  • 09
  • Add tomato and stir occasionally until tender (2-3 minutes), then add vermouth, fish stock, veal glaze and tarragon, cover with a lid and place in oven until cooked through (10-15 minutes).
  • 10
  • Meanwhile, work reserved coral and butter into a paste (I find it easiest to do this with my hands). Season to taste, pass through a fine sieve to remove any fragments of shell and set aside.
  • 11
  • Remove lobster from oven, transfer lobster pieces to a plate and cover with foil. Press pan juices through a conical sieve into a clean pan, pressing on solids to extract all liquid, then simmer over medium-high heat to reduce to around ½ cup or 125ml (6-8 minutes).
  • 12
  • Whisk in coral butter over high heat to thicken sauce, then add parsley, season to taste, return lobster to pan and serve hot with saffron pilaf.

A relatively modern part of the French canon, lobster à l'Américaine has a confusing provenance. It was known as early as 1860 in Paris where, one popular theory has it, it was created by a French chef named Pierre Fraisse who had lived and worked in the US, hence the name. Elizabeth David, however, points out in her French Provincial Cooking, that chef Fraisse was from the port town of Sète in the Languedoc, where olive oil, tomatoes and garlic were traditional ingredients, so his birthplace was the more likely inspiration. Other sources suggest it was called à l'Armoricaine from Armorica, the Gallic name for Brittany and surrounds, but those ingredients, as David points out again, were not part of that region's cuisine.

I've found a number of recipes for lobster à l'Américaine with slight variations, but they all agree that live lobster is critical to a genuine result. Olive oil, onion, carrot, shallot, white wine or vermouth, fish stock, meat glaze, flamed Cognac and tomatoes are common to all professional recipes. Cayenne pepper is often used, and French tarragon and parsley, but what really makes the difference is using the tomalley or "coral" (the greenish delicacy found inside) from a female lobster to make the composite butter that binds the sauce.

While "elaborate" seems an appropriate description of this dish, one shouldn't be frightened of cooking it - this is one of the most delicious dishes I have ever eaten and well worth the effort. One needs to adopt the restaurant approach in the mise en place, or preparation: cut, dice and measure all the ingredients first so once the cooking starts it flows smoothly. Ask your fishmonger for a female lobster; check that the legs next to the tail have two claws since males only have one. If you need to buy the rock lobster up to a day in advance of cooking don't refrigerate it; simply place it in a secure container and cover it with a bath towel, then store it in a coolish dark place. Before you start, put the lobster in the freezer for about 45 minutes or until it shows no movement. I take the extra step of piercing the head between the eyes to be sure the creature is dead.

The main difference between European and American lobster and rock lobster is the absence of pincer claws on the latter; these large weapons contain generous amounts of flesh. Rock lobsters are also known as spiny lobsters or crawfish in the US. In Australia we use the names lobster, rock lobster, crayfish and I have also heard the term crawfish, which seems odd.

There are minor differences in the weight, structure and texture of the shells between animals in waters from the north, south and west of the country. Tasmanian or southern rock lobsters have a thinner shell than those found in Sydney Harbour and Western Australia, both of which are very hard and tricky to portion neatly. All have a little sac in front of the eyes, which is the stomach and needs to be discarded. Have a little bowl and a teaspoon on hand to collect the precious tomalley, and it's a bad idea to pre-portion rock lobster since it oxidises, so make this the final step before cooking.

Serve lobster à l'Américaine in a wide shallow dish, preferably with a lid to create a little theatre at the table upon opening it. The traditional accompaniment is a pilaf and the ideal wine match is a flinty sauvignon blanc or a good Chablis or Graves. Don't forget to have fingerbowls on hand and extra linen napkins, since everyone will want to devour this stunningly delicious dish.


At A Glance

  • Serves 2 people
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At A Glance

  • Serves 2 people

Featured in

Oct 2013

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