LINCOLN, MASS. — Around town, noted chef Jasper White blends in easily with the other dads. He cheers from the sidelines of his children's soccer games, ferries them around in his pickup truck, and cooks burgers for Little League gatherings.
Mr. White hasn't always been so involved in his three children's lives. In fact, from 1983 to 1995, when he and his wife, Nancy, owned Jasper's restaurant on the Boston waterfront, he often saw more of his sous-chefs than his kids.
Running a restaurant as successful as Jasper's was the fulfillment of his dreams, he says. He was there five to six days a week greeting patrons and cooking up his popular seafood dishes.
During those years, he also appeared on his friend Julia Child's television series, "Cooking With Master Chefs" and won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northeast (1991).
All was humming right along, until one day he overheard his daughter Mariel, then 3, refer to him as "that guy."
"It crushed me," he recalls.
At that moment, he was dashing out the door to renegotiate the lease for Jasper's. "I drove in, broken-hearted, angry, and confused." He decided not to renew, and a year later, Jasper's closed.
"I'm glad I did it," he says. "I'm very close to all three children now. I'm not an absentee dad. It's one of those things that if you're alert in life you get messages ... if they come from God or wherever they come from."
After closing Jasper's, White's reputation as one of America's leading chefs and authorities on contemporary American cooking remained intact. He took a more family-friendly job (fewer nights and weekends) as executive chef at Legal Sea Foods in Boston. And he wrote his third cookbook, "Lobster at Home" (Scribner, $30), which just arrived in bookstores.
Why lobster "at home"?
"Too often we reserve lobster for eating in a restaurant or pass over it in the market in favor of what we think of as more easily prepared food," he writes.
With its primer on everything from selecting lobsters to time charts for boiling or steaming them, "Lobster at Home," could even put a toddler at ease. Says White: "People are intimidated because of the hard shell, the claws, the spike on the tip of its head, and mostly, the fact that it's alive. So they don't bother with it, which is a shame because it's really less complex than a chicken."
His is the first major cookbook about lobster - a niche that had White's name all over it. "I've probably cooked as many lobsters as anyone on the planet," he says. At Jasper's, his signature dish, "Pan-Roasted Lobster," was the favorite item on the menu.
During the three months he tested recipes for the book, his family ate lobster five nights a week.
"The kids never got tired of it because I cooked it so many different ways," he says, adding that lobster is extremely versatile. "It can handle as wide a range of flavors as any food I've dealt with. It loves tomatoes, garlic, sweet flavors, intense heat like chilies, avocados...."
For kids who are more finicky eaters than his, he offers this advice: "If they say they don't like something, it just means they don't like it right at that moment. Reintroduce the food - not the next day, but maybe two weeks later."
Most kids love lobster, he says. But how can a family afford it? "You don't have to spend a week's paycheck every time you serve lobster," he insists. "It's not necessary to buy 2-pound lobsters. You can buy a couple of little lobsters and make lobster salad, pasta, risotto, quesadillas, or split the lobsters and grill them."
Recipes for these lobster dishes - and many more, including those from other well-known chefs such as Daniel Boulud, Emeril Lagasse, and Larry Forgione - can be found in White's book.
What's White's all-time favorite lobster dish? "You can't beat the Maine lobster roll," he says. "It's exquisite. One of the best dishes in American cuisine." But, he adds, "It's always presented so cheaply." So even this honest Yankee food gets an elegant makeover in White's book - on a saffron roll with homemade potato chips.
New England-Style Lobster and Corn Chowder
2 live 1-pound lobsters
2 to 3 ears fresh sweet corn
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
4 ounces slab bacon or salt pork, finely diced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium onions, diced
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
1 pound all-purpose potatoes, diced
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper Chopped fresh chives, or parsley for garnish
Parboil or steam lobsters for 8 minutes. When cool, remove meat from tails, claws, and knuckles. Cut meat (and roe, if there is any), into bite-sized pieces and refrigerate. Split carcasses in half; discard the head sacs. Leave some of the gray-green tomalley# in the bodies to flavor stock. (Too much tends to make the broth bitter.)
Husk corn, cut the kernels from the cobs, and set kernels aside. Chop the corn cobs in several pieces and place them in a 6-to-8 quart pot along with the lobster shells, carcasses, peppercorns, and bay leaves. Cover with 2 quarts of water. Bring to a boil. Turn down, and simmer for about 1-1/2 hours. Strain stock; there should be about about 3 to 4 cups.
Fry bacon (or salt pork) in a heavy 4-quart soup pot until crisp. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of fat, leaving bacon or salt pork in the pot.
Add the butter, onions, and thyme leaves (stripped from stems). Simmer onions until tender but not brown; stir in paprika.
Add diced potatoes, corn kernels, and enough lobster stock to cover ingredients. Boil until potatoes are tender - about 15 minutes; remove pot from the heat.
Add lobster meat and heavy cream. Let chowder sit off the heat for about 30 minutes to mellow. Taste, and add salt and pepper if necessary.
Reheat chowder before serving, divide into bowls, and garnish with a tablespoon of chives or parsley.
Serves 4 or 8 as a first course.
- Adapted from 'Lobster at Home'
The Lobster Lowdown
* Buy lobsters the day you cook them. Make seafood shopping your last stop. If possible, have a cooler ready to store the lobsters for the trip home. Refrigerate immediately upon returning. Keep lobsters moist but never on ice or in fresh water. If you cannot avoid extended storage, wrap lobsters in damp newspaper. Do not store more than 36 hours.
* Be flexible at the market. It is better to buy the best lobsters than to be stubborn about the size you want.
* Choose a lively, freshly caught lobster. Look at the length of the antennae. If they are short or show signs of algal growth, the lobster has probably been stored in a pound for a long time and may taste bland. Hold the lobster up. If its claws droop, do not buy it. If the lobster shows a frisky disposition by flapping its tail and swinging its claws, buy it.
* Always buy the hardest-shelled lobsters you can find. Give a gentle squeeze to the carapace. Shake the lobster gently. If it "rattles," it may be extremely soft. Check for comparative weight. If the lobster feels heavy compared with a similar-size lobster, it is meaty - an extremely desirable quality.
* Be environmentally responsible. Never buy shorts (lobsters under 1 pound), an action that is both illegal and immoral. Avoid canned or frozen meat imported from Canada, where the regulations against using baby lobsters are much less stringent than in the US. Avoid jumbo lobsters over 5 pounds - they should be kept as breeding stock.
- From 'Lobster at Home,'
by Jasper White