Monday, May 17, 2010

Get To Know Your Lobsters

I remember the beginning of my love affair with lobster. My grandmother took me out to a San Francisco restaurant all by myself and said I could order anything I wanted. So I asked for lobster! When the waiter set the blazing orange crustacean before me, I just gaped. The waiter astutely offered discreet help in cracking it open for me. Simple boiled lobster with clarified butter—I was hooked!

Since then I’ve discovered that in addition to the well-known Maine variety, there are other sweet, succulent lobsters to enjoy, be they boiled broiled, sauced, souped, or in salad. Basically they fall into two main types, the clawed lobsters (like those from Maine and thereabouts) and the spiny lobsters.

Two different species of clawed lobsters can be found, the American and the European. While overall size is similar, the European lobsters are usually darker and with smaller claws. Their American cousins are found in the cold waters of the North Atlantic Coast from Newfoundland and allegedly as far south as North Carolina. They head for deeper waters in fall and shallower in spring. Their camouflage greenish black shells turn a characteristic bright orange when boiled.

While they may be called “Maine lobsters” in sea food markets and restaurants, I’ve eaten many caught right of the coast of New Hampshire, where I vacationed for several summers, and Cape Cod folks do the same! You get more meat with the clawed lobsters, which is a plus. You can buy the lobster whole, one-clawed (you’ll have to guess what happened to the second claw), just tail, or just claws.

Scientifically speaking, these are not “true” lobsters, nor even closely related to them, and are called “crayfish” in some countries. These denizens of warmer waters can be identified by their very large antenna, lack of claws, and a harder shell.

The spiny lobsters are found in Caribbean waters and off the coast of California as far north as Santa Barbara, as well as in New Zealand and South Africa. They have gained particular fame as the famous “Australian lobster.” They are the most important food export of the Bahamas. Whole, they weigh about two pounds, and the meat is found just in the tail. Gastronomically speaking, they are delicious and tender!

If you want to buy a whole live lobster in the US, you are likely to find the Maine and California lobsters the most easily available when placing a seafood order. You can buy frozen and fresh lobster tails, often called “Australian,” all year long.
The great thing is that they all work just fine in most any of your favorite lobster recipes, from chowder to lobster Newburg. Bon appétit!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Get Cheeky for the Halibut!

Everyone loves halibut -- that firm, white, mild fish that gives the chef great option as it can be grilled or baked, smothered in tasty sauces. But did you know that the most  succulent part of the Pacific halibut is the CHEEK?

That’s right, the cheek. Have you ever seen the head of a halibut? If you have, was it probably an adult, whose developmental pattern is rather incredible. At birth they have one eye one each side of the head and swim rather like a salmon. But when they reach six months, one of those eyes migrates to the other side, and they take on a flounder appearance.

Among flat fish, halibut is truly king, averaging some 24 to 30 pounds (and one monster halibut was recorded at a whopping 734 pounds). You can appreciate why these are favorites of sport fishing!

But I digress. Each halibut also has two cheeks, and this explains why halibut cheeks might at times seem a bit pricey compared to halibut fillets (which are just a wee bit less succulent). Sometimes you may have difficulty finding any, after all, cheeks are only two to a face! If you’ve ever seen these medallions from an Alaska halibut, you might think they were giant scallops. And indeed you can use them like scallops. Popular ways to fix them include sautéing, grilling or baking.

I love to buy fish and seafood, and the season for fresh halibut cheeks is now upon us (March – November). My own philosophy for these tender, savory morsels is that “less is more.” I just toss them in some seasoned flour and sauté them in a 2:1 mix of EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) and unsalted butter until lightly golden (just takes a few minutes). I squeeze a bit of fresh lemon over it, and sprinkle some capers and fresh ground pepper. With a leafy salad, or perhaps tender asparagus sprigs, and some orzo or rice, I’ve got a five-star meal in my own kitchen with a minimum of time investment and one simple seafood order.

halibut fillets and cheeks, I guess you could say that I am hooked!

When it comes to Pacific
seafood market, real or virtual, keep in mind that the respected environmental organization Seafood Watch has the Atlantic halibut on its “Avoid list,” and the wild-caught Pacific or Alaskan salmon on its “best choice list.” California halibut from hook-and-line and bottom trawl are on their “good” list. So make your choice—and bon appétit!

Note: When you are at the