Ideally lobster should be purchased on the way to the pot
This column’s title “We Ate Well and Cheaply” means that I try to present ideas, dishes and ingredients one can use to do just that, without spending a lot of money. We do, however, like to jump on the chance to splurge a little when it appears, or at least invite better-heeled friends to dinner with pricier ingredients in hand.
My secret is out.
But things can go awry. I was once invited to a lovely celebratory evening with friends, and one of the guests was charged with bringing lobsters for the dinner. Well, the person hadn’t done such a thing before, and it was a bit of a disaster.
You see, storing the little monsters from purchase to table isn’t difficult, but you do have to do it right. As my friend learned that day, you can’t do the seemingly logical thing and put them in a bathtub of water. I mean, they are water-dwelling creatures, right? Yes, but they make their home in the sea. Putting them in fresh water means they promptly drown, and cooking a dead lobster is quite inadvisable, especially one that expired surrounded by a selection of shampoos and soaps hours beforehand.
Lobsters, which appear sporadically in tanks at area grocery stores, should ideally be purchased on the way to the pot. Check to see that the store actually has lobsters that day, then go get them as close to cooking time as possible. Once you get them home, leave them in the box the store supplies, and put the box in the refrigerator. The cold will slow their metabolism and keep them sluggish but alive for a few hours if need be. Longer storage can be accomplished by adding some newspapers dampened with water from the store tank— again, not fresh water. Don’t store them with fresh water ice, either.
Also, don’t put them in your aquarium, even if you have a salt-water tank, unless it is empty. Your prized fish will likely become dinner for the lobsters. In any case, you don’t want to warm them up and get them active.
They’ll come with their nasty, but delicious, front claws tightly closed by tenacious rubber bands. Most cooks claim you should slide the bands off before dropping them into a pot to avoid adding a rubbery flavor to the water, and this makes sense. I have to admit I’ve never been brave enough to do this, even if the little buggers are sluggish and shivering.
The squeamish will wince to know that lobsters are normally plunged into the pot alive and protesting. The humane thing to do, I suppose, is to off them just before cooking — and I mean immediately beforehand. With a large chef’s knife, drive the blade tip straight down into the lobster’s head, and then cut downward through the front. If you’re brave, you can then slide the bands off the claws, but they’ll likely have a few vengeful snaps up their sleeve so be careful.
Steaming yields the tenderest finished meat. To cook them, put two inches of salted water in a large pot with a steaming rack, though the rack is not critical. You need a tight fitting lid, however. The pot should hold all the lobsters without crowding. Bring to a boil and add them one at a time, clapping the lid on tightly and holding it down for a moment in case of a tail flick inside. Steam one-pound lobsters for 10 to 12 minutes. They’ll turn bright red and the meat will be opaque white.
With temperatures in the 90s every slogging day, who wants to be outside?
When you look at the number of calories the average fellow of a certain age needs to maintain a decently healthy life, it’s not that much, especially with a rather sedentary lifestyle. By sedentary I mean necessarily planted in a chair with a computer for a big chunk of every day.
If the average guy takes in about 2,000-2,500 calories per day and burns perhaps 500 calories sitting for six hours or so, the math is quickly evident: We can form an equation here that looks something like Sitting over Sandwiches equals Middle Spread.
Getting away from averages for a minute, the sheer number of calories being consumed for the Olympics in Rio by all those skinny kids is hard to even imagine. The human body is certainly adaptive if nothing else.
An Olympic swimmer, for example, can apparently eat 10,000 calories a day. That’s like eating a henhouse full of chickens or one and a half Big Macs. Of course they’re eating that much because they’re burning that much in hours spent in the water in vigorous exercise.
Cyclists, rowers, marathon runners and other endurance athletes all are taking in 8,000 calories or more a day while training. They must be as constantly hungry as a coven of vampires in a Spokane suburb.
The choice for the rest of us is pretty obvious: Either we hit the pool and start prepping for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, or we really start to watch our fuel-to-activity ratio.
I bring this up because for whatever reason this summer is not cooperating. I’m looking back at a dependable cycle, which I’ve mentioned here before. Once Halloween is behind us and the cold weather and holiday eating begin, I tend to gain some insulation. This is apparently normal for our species: males gained some spare fuel around the middle for the hunt and for warmth. It must be true. I’ve been truly thin and a bit chubby, and chubby is warmer.
But reliably, come spring and summer, the insulation always melts away with the greater activity of being outdoors more often, doing chores and hopefully enjoying the weather.
This year not so much even though I’m certainly not raiding henhouses to gobble the residents or anything nearly so gluttonous as that. I can’t even blame the summer project of trying new craft beers I wrote about in the spring because I haven’t kept up with it.
I think it’s just the unpleasant heat of this humid, sticky summer. With temperatures in the 90s every slogging day and humidity in the 80 percent range, who wants to be outside feeling like you’re breathing through a damp sponge?
I live in a lovely, quiet old neighborhood where everyone tends to look after their lawn and plant plenty of flowers, and I’m not seeing many neighbors outdoors doing much of anything this summer. We’re all inside, clinging to our air conditioners and watching the electric meter spin like a record album.
Something has to give before the cooler blessings of fall arrive. It’s time to play Greek Island and eat more fish, more vegetables and a lot less bread.
In the miserable heat when it’s just too hot to crank up the oven to cook, it’s the perfect excuse to grill salmon, try a good paella recipe and ramp up the water intake.
Let’s try not to eat ourselves into the problem of shedding two years worth in the presumably cooler summer of 2017.
Forget your manners: A raw oyster is an absolute culinary delight
“He was a bold man who first ate an oyster.” This quote, which I mistakenly believed came from Mark Twain, as all quotes do, is from Jonathan Swift. No matter who said it, it’s so.
The first person to look at an opened oyster and think it might taste OK was a braver person than I. But that person is so far back in time as to be among the earliest of our species, probably close to 200,000 years ago if ancient shell dumps in caves are a proper indication.
It makes sense as oyster reefs were easy pickings, and the little bivalves packed plenty of nutrition with no need to chase them down or avoid snapping jaws or flailing hooves. Just wade out, grab an armload and scurry back to the cave couch. Give those distant ancestors wine and Netflix and they’d be indistinguishable from you and me.
In taking a little time to learn about oysters, their environmental impact is surprising. The largest producer of edible oysters in the United States remains the Chesapeake Bay region, but production is far less than it once was.
Oysters are filter eaters, taking in tiny animal life and filtering it through their bodies. They also filter the water while they’re at it. When Native Americans ran the show, the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay completely cleaned all the water of the bay every three days or so. Now because of over harvesting and various pollutants, it would take more than a year to accomplish the same effect.
Oysters are found in virtually all of the world’s waters, but not all are edible. The old adage that they must only be eaten in months whose names have an “r” in them doesn’t mean they’re poisonous in other months. It means that we need to back out of their natural reproductive schedule for those months to allow them to repopulate.
And oysters do keep a tight schedule. Their valve activity is tightly tied to the tides and the rhythms of the moon cycles.
Oysters are commonly sold already shucked and packaged in the liquor from the shells. This is a perfectly acceptable way to get them for a stew or to be fried, but I’d never attempt to eat them raw that way. Consuming a single bad oyster will put you off the little devils for life.
If you find them offered in the shell, you should only accept those which are closed tightly and, like most all seafood, should smell of the sea, not fishy. A raw oyster is an absolute culinary delight when eaten as they must be, alive. I would be remiss if I didn’t advise you of our government’s stern warnings about consuming raw shellfish, but you may find it’s worth the risk.
Getting the shells open is a chore and a half. You need a special oyster knife and a small stack of heavy kitchen towels. In my experience you’ll also need a box of bandages.
Place the oyster flat shell side up (one side is rounded) nested in a folded towel and hold it steady. The tip of the oyster knife goes into the hinge, and the shell is popped off. Carefully transfer the opened bottom shell and oyster to a waiting tray of crushed ice without spilling any of the liquor. Try not to dig off a hunk of your own flesh in the process.
Sauces of shallot and red wine vinegar are popular, but I prefer a tiny squeeze of lemon and a shot of Tabasco. Forget your manners, slurp and enjoy.