Boiled or baked? Hard shell or soft? Large or small? Male or female? Eaten with fingers or with a delicate seafood fork? There's not much consensus about Maine lobster except that the meat of Homarus americanus is always delicious. Veteran Maine lobsterman Bob Putnam, who tends 800 Casco Bay traps, prefers recently molted lobsters that weigh about a pound and a quarter as their new, softer shells are easy to crack. "We begin to harvest those in mid-June and continue through December," he says. "The texture! The sweetness!"
Putnam feels large lobsters have tougher meat because they shed their shells less frequently. (Maine law forbids landing lobsters longer than five inches, which usually corresponds to 4 1/4 pounds, though they have been caught in the 40-pound range.) Nevertheless, soft shell lobsters don't travel as well as hard ones and most are at least partially cooked for shipping.
Chef and culinary arts professor Wilfred Beriau, on the other hand, prefers a lobster "caught in the dead of winter," despite one obvious downside: they are less plentiful and thus more expensive.
"Its hard shell will be packed with sweet and succulent meat," he insists, noting no taste difference between the meat of male and female lobsters. The distaff lobster has one possible advantage: she may carry eggs that can be reserved for sauces and salads.
Downeast types boil or steam lobsters. (To boil them, bring water to a full boil, add salt and a bay leaf. After immersing the lobster, bring water back to a boil for no more than six minutes, for a one-pound lobster. To steam them, heat half an inch of water in a tightly covered vessel and cook the lobster for 10 minutes.) Beriau touts baking. "Remove the tamalley and sand track. Then stuff them with more lobster meat, shrimp and scallops. That's real value added." Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes.
For those who don't have a lobsterman neighbor, Harbor Fish, a family business on the Portland Wharf, ships nationwide. Owner Ben Alfiero buys much of his stock from "local boys" along the Cape Elizabeth Shore, just south of Portland Head Light. With a day's notice he'll express ship hard shell lobsters, which keep longer than molted ones. Store in a refrigerator's crisper covered with the seaweed they are shipped in or seawater-dampened towels.
Chef Beriau enjoys his lobster meat straight from the claw. For a butter dip, he suggests immediately melted, not clarified, butter. Season with chives, Italian parsley and a tiny bit of tarragon.
Visit www.harborfish.com or www.mainelobsterpromo.com.
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