Steamy and easy
The once plentiful American lobster is now a delicacy that plays a starring role in this easy, one-pot clambake

By John Carafoli 
Contributing Writer

I like to celebrate the Fourth of July with a clambake on my deck or back yard. If it is a beautiful day, I transport it to the beach. Here is my one-pot mini clambake any one can do any time, summer or winter.

Did you know that the American lobster, Homarus americanus, was so plentiful in the Colonial times that when lobsters were washed up onto New England beaches by storms, they were harvested by basketfuls and used as fertilizer?

Today, we consider lobsters a delicacy. If we are adventurous enough, we can trap them ourselves, but for most it is easier to buy them at the local fish market. The price varies according to the time of year. During the summer months, they are more plentiful and less expensive because they come closer to shore and are easier to catch. They spend the winter months in deeper, safer water, protecting themselves from the waves and currents of winter storms.

Lobstermen have names for the different sizes of lobsters. Chicken lobsters are between 1 and 1 1/2 pounds, select are 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 pounds and the jumbos are 3 pounds and up. Culls, which have only one claw, are usually available in all sizes. They are also less expensive per pound than chicken or select.

In choosing lobsters, look for the most active ones. The tail should curl under the body, not hang down, when the lobster is picked up.

Some consider the meat of the female, or hen, lobster finer than that of the male. To tell the difference, look at the two swimmerets nearest the solid shell on the lobster's underside. The males are hard, sharp and bony, whereas the females are soft and feathery. The female may also have a row of coral (roe), which turns red when cooked and can be used for color in sauces or is good scrambled in eggs.

The notion that larger lobsters are tougher than small ones is widespread, but not true: It's all in the cooking. Overcooked lobsters will be tough no matter what the size. So if you have an urge to impress your guest and display your culinary talents, buy the 10-pound lobster and do a fabulous presentation without fear of the meat being tough.

Cooking the feast

The most common cooking method for lobsters is boiling, but there are alternatives. When guest come from out of town to have dinner at my home, I usually make my mini clambake that is steamed in beer. I found steaming rather than boiling seals in the juices and the lobsters and food is much taster.

While the dinner cooks, I cover the table with newspapers, set the table with individual large Fiesta ware platters (the bright blue ones make a great contrast for the bright red lobster) and bright dishtowels for napkins. I also use red and white-checkered bibs for those who want them. Small dishes for melted butter and nutcrackers for cracking the lobster shells are essential, as is a large bowl for the lobster shells.

Part of the drama of a clambake is how it is presented. When I was writing my book "Food Photography and Styling," I included a chapter on steam; I used this poster of a clambake to show how real steam is used in photography.

The star of this mini-clambake for four is the lobster, but I have found that the scene is sometimes stolen by the hot dog, which takes on the aromas of the ingredients around it and winds up with a surprising flavor - especially if it's dunked in the butter. I tell my guests there is no elegant way to eat this meal: wear an old shirt and dig in.

 

 

Steamed Lobsters In Beer

2 pounds steamers*

4 small sweet potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled

2 small onions, unpeeled

2 quarts beer

4 (1 to 1 1/2 pound lobsters

4 ears corn (remove silk, then put husks back on)

4 hot dogs

1 pound melted butter combined with 1 tablespoon lemon juice

 

You will need a large kettle with a rack that will hold the food 3 inches above the bottom of the pan, such as a preserving kettle. I use a stockpot with a few large rocks in the bottom. This is another way to keep the food above the liquid.

Put the rack upside down, so its surface is above the bottom of the pan. Place the potatoes and onions on the rack. Add 1 quart of beer; cover and bring to a boil. Steam for 8 to 10 minutes. Uncover, check to see how much beer has evaporated and add more beer or water if necessary. Be sure there is always at least 2 inches of liquid in the bottom of the pot.

Place the lobsters over the potatoes and the onions, then put the corn on top of the lobsters. Put the steamers into a cheesecloth bag and place on top of lobsters then add hotdogs. Cover and start timing the cooking from the moment steam escapes from under the cover. Cook 25 minutes. When the food is cooked, remove the ingredients with large tongs and arrange on individual platters. Serve with melted butter for dipping.

*I like steaming the steamers in beer separately and eating them while the lobsters are cooking. They are served with the broth and melted butter.

 

(Published: July 2, 2003)