Maine lobster for Christmas

Two recipes to take advantage of low lobster prices.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

When taken home, lobsters should be kept in the refrigerator for no more than a day, and never put in fresh water.

If you're squeamish about preparing a live lobster, have your fishmonger do it. (There are those who feel that placing lobsters in the freezer for about 15 minutes numbs them and makes their demise more humane. The jury is still out on this.)

As a rule of thumb, steam a 1-1/4-pound lobster between 9 to 12 minutes; a 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 pounder between 13 to 15 minutes.

Lobsters may also be purchased online where some companies offer to ship them live with seaweed and even a pot to cook them in. Complete clambakes are also available. This may be fine if you're nowhere near the sea, but it's usually no bargain.

Delicious and deceptively simple to prepare, this classic stew should be a part of every lobster lover's repertoire. You can make it even richer by substituting more cream for the milk and by adding a few pinches of tarragon during the last minutes of heating. Most important, it should be made a day ahead of time and refrigerated for the subtle flavors to meld. Serve with oyster, or common crackers, or a bowl of potato chips. Try to get female lobsters for this dish. They contain an extra dividend, a sack of red roe, called "coral." This makes a colorful addition when crumbled up in the stew. Your fishmonger should be able to sex them for you.

2 lobsters, 1-1/4 pounds each, cooked

6 tablespoons butter

4 cups half-and-half

3 cups milk

1/2 teaspoon dried (or 1 teaspoon fresh) tarragon (optional)

2 tablespoons chopped chives

1/2 teaspoon paprika

Shuck lobsters over a bowl to catch any juices. Remove meat from shells and cut into bite-size pieces. Reserve the sack of red roe, if present.

Heat the butter in a large pan. When hot, add lobster and sauté until heated through and butter begins to turn pinkish, about 3 minutes. Add any lobster juices along with cream and milk. Crumble up roe, if any, and add to stew.

Gently simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Be careful not to boil it.

Remove from heat; allow to cool. Pour stew into a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.

Before serving, reheat stew. Pour into 4 chowder bowls, top with chives, and sprinkle with a bit of paprika for added color.

Serves 4.

LOBSTER AVOCADO SALAD

Lobster is wonderfully adaptable, as this salad can attest. Try it with fresh mango or papaya instead of avocado, a combination of two, or all three.

4 ripe avocados

Juice of 1 fresh lemon

3/4 to 1 cup mayonnaise

3 tablespoons chives, chopped scallion tops, or Italian parsley

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Meat from 2 cooked 1-1/2 pound lobsters, cut into chunks (about 2 to 2-1/2 cups)

Leaves from soft, tender lettuce, such as Boston or Bibb

3 tablespoons capers, rinsed (optional)

Halve avocados, remove and discard pits, peel, and cut into 3/4-inch cubes.

Place avocado cubes in a small bowl and toss with lemon juice to prevent discoloring.

In a larger bowl, combine 3/4 cup mayonnaise, chopped green herbs of your choice, and salt and pepper; add avocados with lemon juice and lobster; toss gently. Add additional mayonnaise if necessary. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Place one or two lettuce leaves on 6 individual salad plates; divide lobster/avocado mixture over each leaf; top with capers or more chopped chives or parsley.

Serve immediately or refrigerate. If chilled, remove from refrigerator an hour before serving. Salad should be served at room temperature for best flavor.

Serves 6.

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