By MELISSA CLARK
Published: December 10, 2008
I'M a sucker for a sale, the kind of shopper who tallies the amount ''saved'' rather than spent. My arithmetic goes like this: It makes more sense to buy the $125 cashmere sweater marked down to $95 than to pay full price for the $80 one. Following this logic, when I heard on the radio that lobster prices were the cheapest they had been in 25 years, I decided that the sensible thing to do was to run over to the fish store and buy a couple for dinner. So what if I spent nearly $30 on lobster for two on a weeknight when we weren't celebrating anything? It cost a third less than it would have last year.
While fantasizing about ways to cook my bargain crustaceans, I asked Lewis Spada, the manager of Fish Tales in Brooklyn, why prices were so low. ''The economy,'' he said. ''People just aren't buying, but in Maine their stocks are loaded. It's all about supply and demand.'' At his shop, lobsters go for $10.99 a pound, about $3 less than last year -- a trend seen all over town. Balducci's is selling them for $14.99 to $16.99 a pound, $4 less than last year, and at Wild Edibles they are $2 to $3 less, or $13.99 to $15.99 a pound. The Lobster Place, with locations in Chelsea Market and Greenwich Village, is the cheapest of the markets I surveyed, at $7.95 a pound.
Act quickly, because, according to Trevor Corson, the author of ''The Secret Life of Lobsters'' (HarperCollins, 2004), this situation is probably not going to last much longer. ''The lobster fishermen are victims of their own success,'' he said, explaining that because they have managed to make lobster fisheries so sustainable, they have recently had record catches. Until now, the excess catch was funneled to Canadian processing plants, which sold them frozen to chain restaurants. But the bad economy hit the Canadian plants hard enough to shut down operations. That means cheaper lobsters for you and me -- at least temporarily. ''It's gotten to the point where for the fishermen, it's not worth their while to catch lobsters, so the supply will decrease,'' Mr. Corson said.
My timing on my little lobster splurge was even better than I'd realized. Generally, when serving lobster, I stick to the tried and true: steaming them, then serving with melted butter. I've been afraid to experiment; who wants to gamble with ruining such a pricey purchase? With fire-sale-priced lobsters, I had no such inhibitions.
Visions of more opulent lobster dishes swam across my mind. I saw rich bits of pink lobster meat coated in creamy sauce over soft egg pasta. I remembered how marvelous broiled lobster, mottled with charred bits, tasted when dipped in garlicky olive oil. And finally, I thought back to a sauté of lobster with lobster mushrooms I had at a friend's house, the dense, meaty texture of the mushrooms echoing that of the shellfish. But before I could cook my lobsters, I needed to end their watery lives as quickly and humanely as possible. In the past, I would always drop them into a pot of boiling water and clamp the lid on tight.
Trevor Corson had another suggestion. ''The best way to kill them, according to animal welfare agencies, is to put them in the freezer first for 15 minutes,'' he said. ''It slows their metabolism.'' After that, Mr. Corson suggested, put the lobster on its back and slice lengthwise through its soft underbelly. ''Lobsters have a decentralized nervous system,'' he said. ''The tail may still twitch, but the claws will go limp so you'll know it's dead.'' Killing a lobster this way before boiling. steaming or broiling it, he added, makes for less rubbery meat. So I tried it.
After freezing and slicing up my lobsters, I ran them under the broiler. My plan was to serve them with garlic oil. But their scarlet hue reminded me of blackened redfish. Making a vibrant, spicy Cajun butter to souse the lobster seemed like a good idea. As Mr. Corson promised, the lobster meat cooked up tender yet firm, and the spicy butter gave it a fiery kick without diminishing its sweetness.
The mushroom sauté was my next foray. My local market didn't have lobster mushrooms, but it did have oyster mushrooms, which were at least thematically the same, and maitakes. Seasoned with sesame oil, ginger root and soy sauce, this lobster variation was bright and boldly flavored, with the mushrooms adding a woodsy earthiness to what's now my favorite version of surf and turf.
Last, I indulged in a luscious lobster pasta topped with a savory sherry sabayon. It was slightly more labor-intensive than the usual cream sauce, but more ethereal, too. As an extravagant, final touch, I crowned the pasta with glowing beads of salmon caviar. True, this wasn't on sale. But I couldn't resist celebrating how much money I saved on the lobster.
Time: 15 minutes
Salt 2 live lobsters, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds each.
1. Fill a large lobster pot or stockpot halfway with water; season generously with salt. Bring water to a boil. Drop lobsters into pot headfirst and boil, covered, 10 to 12 minutes, until bright red all over. Remove with tongs to a cutting board or sink to drain.
2. Once they are cool enough to handle, remove lobster meat from tails, claws and knuckles. If lobsters are female, remove and reserve any red coral (the strip of roe that runs along the body just behind the head) and serve as garnish on any lobster dish.
Yield: 1 1/2 to 2 cups lobster meat.
Alternative method for killing lobster:
Place live lobster in a bag in freezer for 15 minutes to slow its metabolism. Then put lobster on its back. Use a sharp knife and quick movement to cut the body in half lengthwise from the base of the tail through the head (leave tail intact). The back shell need not be cut through. Boil as directed above.
Broiled Lobster With Cajun Butter
Time: 25 minutes
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon onion powder
3/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/8 teaspoon mustard powder
4 live lobsters, about 1 1/2 pounds each
1. Preheat broiler. Arrange an oven rack 4 inches from heat source. To make Cajun butter, stir together all ingredients except lobsters in a small bowl.
2. Place lobsters in bag in freezer for 15 minutes to slow their metabolism. Place a lobster on its back. Using a sharp knife and quick movement, slice lobster in half lengthwise from head to tip of tail. Grab both sides of shell and split open body, cracking through its hard back. Scoop out its gray-green innards. Use back of a heavy knife to crack open both claws. Repeat with remaining lobsters. (You can have a fishmonger do this for you as long lobster meat is cooked within an hour.)
3. Arrange lobsters in a single layer in a large roasting pan (or use 4 large gratin dishes). Coat body and claw meat generously with Cajun butter. Broil, basting once halfway through with pan juices, until lobster meat is cooked through and slightly charred, about 12 minutes. Remove lobsters from oven. Spoon pan juices over lobsters and serve.
Yield: 4 servings.
Lobster With Herbed Egg Noodles, Sherry and Salmon Caviar
Time: 40 minutes
For the sherry sauce:
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup dry (fino) sherry
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the lobster:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons dry (fino) sherry
3 1 1/4- to 1 1/2-pound boiled or steamed lobsters, meat removed and cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 pound fresh egg pasta, cooked and drained (or cooked spaetzle)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Salmon caviar, for garnish (optional)
1. To make sauce, in a heatproof bowl, beat together yolks, 1/3 cup sherry, garlic, salt and pepper. Place bowl over a pot of simmering water. Do not allow water to come to a boil or eggs may curdle. Whisk constantly until light, frothy and thickened, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
2. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook until butter turns nut brown (do not let it burn), about 4 minutes. Immediately add 2 tablespoons sherry and stir. Add remaining ingredients, except caviar. Toss well and cook until heated through, about 2 minutes. Gently toss in sherry sauce.
3. Divide among plates and serve, topped with salmon caviar, if desired.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Sautéed Lobster With Oyster Mushrooms and Ginger
Time: 20 minutes
3 tablespoons peanut or safflower oil
2 inches ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 fat garlic clove, finely chopped
6 ounces oyster mushrooms, sliced
2 ounces maitake or shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1/3 cup sliced scallions, white and light green parts only
2 1 1/4- to 1 1/2-pound boiled or steamed lobsters, meat removed and cut into bite-size pieces
1/3 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon soy sauce, more to taste
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar, more to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Cooked rice, for serving (optional)
1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add ginger and garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in mushrooms and scallions and cook, tossing occasionally, until soft and golden, about 4 minutes.
2. Stir in lobster, stock, soy sauce, vinegar and sesame oil. Cook until most of liquid has evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. Stir in cilantro and serve immediately, over rice if you like.
Yield: 4 servings.