Like most things in the kitchen as well as in life, there’s the right way to do something and the wrong way. Take lobsters, for example. No matter what you’re going to ultimately do with these crustaceans, the first task is getting the lobster meat out of the shell, and that usually involves putting the lobster in boiling water. What you need to do before poaching or boiling a lobster (or placing it on a grill or in a pit at a beach clambake), is to first kill it. Performing any other subsequent techniques before dispatching the lobster is cruel and unusual torture.
If there is bad karma for killing lobsters, I’m in deep, deep trouble. Throughout my cooking career, and as a private chef, I have dispatched more lobsters than I care to think about. Last night, however, was Rosaria’s first hands-on experience with it. She’s watched me do it for years, each time grimacing and averting her head. Fortifying herself with a glass of wine, and having some sort of last rites moment with the live lobster on the cutting board, she picked up a heavy kitchen knife with a sharp point, positioned it at the back of the lobster’s head, took a big breath, and drove the knife through the lobster’s shell, bringing the knife blade forward in a slicing motion toward the front of the lobster’s head, right between the eyes.
That’s actually the easy part. The lobster is now dead, but these creatures possess a remarkable nervous system so they continue to twitch and flex their tails, while their legs keep moving. It can be unnerving for the faint-of-heart. Over the years I learned not do this in front of people, especially if I have a lot of lobsters to slaughter.
Next, take the lobster(s) and place them in a large stock pot filled with boiling water. Once you’ve got your lobster(s) in the stockpot, turn off the heat and let them steep for a minute. Remove the lobster(s), and break off the tails and the claws. If you immersed five or six lobsters, turn the heat back on to high while you remove claws and tails, and return only the claws and the still attached knuckles to the hot water so they can continue to poach for an extra minute or two. Meanwhile, get a pair of kitchen shears or poultry shears and insert the lower blade into the underside of the lobster tail, snip it towards the fanned tail, careful to just cut through the soft undershell, not the meat inside. Once cut, take the lobster tail in both hands and crack it open a little; then take a narrow fork and work it towards the fanned tail and slide the meat out all in one piece. The lobster tail meat is semi translucent, not cooked at all, and it’s ready to be used in any lobster dish you plan to make.
Take a pair of tongs to remove the claws from the hot water and run them under cold water. Remove the knuckle from the claw. Place the claw on the cutting board and carefully crack open the shell with a nut cracker, kitchen shears, or the back of a cleaver. The idea is to extract the claw meat all in one piece; something that may take a little practice, and no harm if you don’t succeed, a couple of pieces of meat is fine. (Interestingly, Rosaria got it on her first try.) Take the knuckles, crack them open and extract the meat inside. Again, the claw meat should not be thoroughly cooked, although the knuckle meat probably will be.
A final reminder: even if you’re going to boil/steam your lobster, I urge you to steel your resolve and “mercy kill” your lobster first. Oh, and remember to save those lobster shells for making lobster stock (see Lobster Bisque post on 12/01/2009).