April 20, 2015
le petit pain avec homard et beurre
It was my first encounter with lobster. It was on the plate of the person to my left. It was on the plate of the person to my right. It was on the plates of the people across from me at the long, communal table. Dave, a business acquaintance from Seattle, was sitting across from me. We happened to be in Boston on the same evening. He was introducing me to Durgin‑Park, a restaurant that was established 1827, and had changed little since the forties.
I had no idea as to what to expect that evening as we climbed the steep steps to the second‑story restaurant. It was located over the an old warehouse in Quincy Market, which had yet to become the rehabilitated, touristy place it is today. I later learned that the surly waitress that greeted us was a tradition. She seated us across from each other at one of the long tables. Initially there was a couple to my left but the seats in the other direction were empty. Although the menu was relatively extensive, Dave told me that people generally came for either the lobster or the prime rib. Having never eaten lobster, I chose the prime rib. He ordered the lobster. By then, another couple had been seated to my right. I was soon surrounded by lobster eaters.
As brusque as our waitress was—back then they weren’t called servers—our newfound dining companions were nice. We were all from somewhere other than Boston. Dave and I, both being from the opposite coast, probably looked out of place. He sported a buzz cut, and looked like the hero from a war movie. I was fat with dark, unkempt hair and a bushy mustache that mostly covered my mouth. We really didn’t look like we belonged together.
By the time the other occupants of the table had all been served their gargantuan lobsters, the waitress had become our best friend and the whole table was in a merry mood. My cohorts twisted and ripped the lobster tails from the bodies, removed the meat from the tails, and discussed the pros and cons of the tomalley while dipping the meat in melted butter. Those who didn't want to eat the tomalley passed the bodies to those who did.
The prime rib—listed on the menu as a “roasted rib of beef”—was huge. It was a perfect medium‑rare and draped over the edges of the plate. The accompanying French fries had to go on a separate plate. There was no white space on the plate with the meat. I not only managed to finish the beef, but I also had room for Durgin‑Park’s baked Indian pudding. This was served with a scoop of delightfully melting vanilla ice cream in it. As we strolled around the Faneuil Hall neighborhood after dinner, I was conscious that I was waddling a bit as I walked.
When I returned to Durgin‑Park a few years later, the whole area had been rehabilitated into the tourist area it is today, and the restaurant was a disappointment. I was now traveling to Boston regularly, and often eating dinner with one of the surgeons I was working with. They tended to avoid the tourist areas for dining and preferred expensive, white‑tablecloth establishments with my company picking up the tab.
One night in 1988 at one of the surgeon’s home, I attended a dinner party hosted for a number of other surgeons who had come to Boston to attend a conference. The party was catered as a traditional New England boiled diner. I had heard how great this style of cooking was. This would be the first time I would experience it. As my fellow dinners gobbled up everything in sight—clams, mussels, lobsters, shrimps, various types of fin fish, potatoes, and corn—I sat and wondered how people could eat food that was so badly over cooked. The lobster was possibly the worse item on my plate. It was like eating chalk dust. I was so disappointed. By then, if it was on my plate, lobster had become something that I ate and usually enjoyed. It was still not something I sought out on its own. I couldn’t eat the lobster this evening. I told the other guests that I wasn’t feeling well and made my exit.
A few years ago, when I started to hear about lobster rolls coming to the west coast, I didn’t give them much thought. I figured they’d be expensive, designed for hipsters, and the lobster would be overcooked. Because of a sale at the market three blocks further down the one‑way street I live on, I had to alter my attitude slightly.
Whole Foods was selling three‑ to four‑ounce, frozen lobster tails for five dollars each. Not knowing what I would do with them, I bought four to take up residence in my freezer.
My first thought of a lobster‑based amuse‑bouche
was that it would be similar to a dish that I was taught to prepare when I staged
in Riquewihr in 2001. There, we extracted the meat from the tails of freshly cook lobsters. The meat was sliced crosswise, dipped in melted butter, and stacked over a layer of blanched spinach inside a plastic ring. The stacks, still in their rings were refrigerated until service. Then they were gently reheated, topped with an herb salad and a fancy slice of fried potato with more herbs embedded in it, and served with a fennel sauce. A simple version of this dish never came to mind. I kept thinking of lobster rolls.
So I decided one afternoon to research lobster rolls on the Internet. Sure enough, I found lots of complicated, versions that didn’t fit my style for amuse‑bouche
. I decided to read the history
of the lobster roll on Wikipedia. The first sentence told me all I needed to know: “A traditional lobster roll is a sandwich filled with lobster meat soaked in butter and served on a steamed hot dog bun or similar roll, so that the opening is on the top rather than on the side.” It was nice to know that maybe the dish dates back to 1929, but I could ignore the rest of the details. I had my recipe.
For the lobster, I decided to cook a single tail using a low‑temperature cooking method. I had individually vacuum‑packed and frozen the lobster tails when I brought them home from the store. To cook one, I placed the still‑bagged and frozen lobster in 50 °C (122 °F) water for an hour. I started the timer when the water came back to temperature after adding the lobster. I used scissors to cut the shell down the middle, and carefully extracted the meat as a single piece. This was washed to remove any unwanted specs of shit. The meat was then cut in half both lengthwise and crosswise to produce four, close‑to‑equal pieces. These were arranged on a plate, covered with plastic wrap, and refrigerated until needed.
While the lobster was cooking, I baked some biscuits to serve as the rolls. I looked at a bunch of recipes on the Internet and in some of my old books. From these I got a feeling of the quantities I would need. After baking the biscuits, I looked up the recipe in Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio
app on my iPhone. I found that I was very close. I only differed in the amount of baking powder, of which I used half as much as Ruhlman, and salt, which he didn’t add.
140 g (1 c)
45 g (3 T)
chilled, unsalted butter, diced into 4‑mm (5⁄32‑in) cubes
110 ml (1⁄2 c)
1. Preheat oven to 200 °C (390 °F). Grease an 11‑ by 14‑cm (43⁄8‑ by 51⁄2‑in), or similarly sized, cake pan.
2. Measure the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. Stir with a spoon to combine. Add the butter. Using your fingers, knead the butter and flour together until the butter pieces can not longer be felt. Add the buttermilk, and stir with a spatula until mixed.
3. Turn the moist, sticky dough out of the bowl onto a floured surface. Flour your fingers, and pat the dough into a rectangle to match the size of the cake pan. While keeping the biscuits together, use a wooden bench scrapper, or similar tool, to divide the dough into twelve individual pieces, three along the narrow side and four along the wide side. Gently press the dough back together, and transfer it to the prepared cake pan. Brush off any loose flour from the top of the dough.
4. Bake until the biscuit tops are beginning to brown, and the dough is cooked all the way through, about 20 minutes.
5. Wait a minute or two after removing the cake pan from the oven. Turn the biscuits out on to a cooling rack. Let the biscuits cool thoroughly before separating.
Note: These biscuits freeze very nicely.
Yield: 12 biscuits.
For service, wrap the biscuits in aluminum foil and reheat for 10 minutes in a 180 °C (355 °F) oven. For four portions, melt 60 g (1⁄2 stick) of unsalted butter in a shallow pan until just warm. Reheat the lobster pieces in the melted butter while the biscuits are being prepared. Slice the biscuits from the top, most of the way to the bottom, but not all the way through.
Open the slit in each biscuit slightly. Insert a single piece of butter‑dripping lobster meat into the slit. After plating, slowly spoon the remaining butter over the lobster in each biscuit. It’s fine if a little butter runs off onto the plate, but most should be absorbed by the biscuit.