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Maine lobster for Christmas

Two recipes to take advantage of low lobster prices.

By John Edward YoungCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 24, 2008

Lobster Stew: This simple and easy-to-prepare dish captures the elegance of the holiday season with red lobster and green tarragon leaves.

Paul Tople/Akron Beacon Journal/NEWSCOM

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Plymouth, Mass.

The noble lion may be the anointed king of the jungle, but beneath the briny sea, it's the lobster that's the undisputed king of the crustaceans. It's just as true today as in ancient Roman times.

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The good news for lobster lovers (and if there's anyone who isn't, I'm reserving a seat beside you at the next clambake) is that because of the economy, lobster prices are down. Lobsters just aren't selling. That's bad news for lobstermen, but savvy consumers aren't complaining. Prices for live, 1-1/4-pound lobsters have dropped from $8.99 a pound and up, to as low as $4.99 along the East Coast during the past year.

Still, lobster is an indulgence, a luscious luxury to be savored on special occasions. Certainly the holiday season is such a time. Then again, lobster has that innate ability to turn any meal into an occasion. Do you remember what you had for dinner last Saturday night? Chances are, if it was roast chicken or a steak, you've forgotten, but if you had lobster, the memory would still linger.

We in North America are blessed to have the best lobster in the world; Homarus americanus, known more commonly as the Maine lobster (although the so-called "Maine" lobster is harvested as far north as Newfoundland and south to the Carolinas). A similar species, Homarus vulgaris, is found in the chilly waters off the British Isles, Norway, Germany, and Brittany. The spiny, or rock lobsters, and others from warmer climates are fine enough, but don't have the tender claw meat so prized in the Maine and northern European varieties.

Lobster is also wonderfully adaptable, appearing throughout decades in such classic dishes as Lobster Newburg, Lobster Thermidor, and Lobster à l'Américaine.

Classics they may be, but few could argue that the best way to serve lobster is simply steamed or boiled, with a cup of melted butter to slosh the sweet, tender meat in, and maybe a bowl of potato chips on the side and a few saltine crackers to spread with tomalley, the soft, grayish-green lobster liver.

The best and least expensive way to have lobsters is to buy them live and cook them at home.

Fresh lobster is widely available throughout the year, but there are seasonal differences. Most of those caught in summer and fall are in some stage of molting and considered "soft shell." Ones harvested in winter and spring are "hard shell." Soft-shelled are easier to crack open, but can be much less meatier, whereas hard-shelled are crammed with meat, but you may have to resort to a hammer to get to it.

Some supermarkets have lobsters in chilled, saltwater tanks. These have become controversial in the past few years, as Whole Foods, among other stores, removed the tanks, saying they didn't offer humane treatment.

When you buy a lobster, freshness is key. When pulled from the tank, they should be lively. Limp lobsters – called "sleepers" – are usually taken from the tanks, quickly boiled, and sold cooked. I avoid these because there's no telling how long they've been sitting on ice. I also reject frozen lobster meat. To me, it's soggy when defrosted and can ruin an otherwise memorable dish.

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