It's summertime and my thoughts turn to lobster more than any other time of year.
When eating lobster from the shell, I find it virtually impossible not to create a shambles at the table. For that reason, I find it much safer to enjoy lobster on the deck, as I get in far less trouble with the lovely Lois. I inevitably spray lobster juice as I crack lobster shells and as I savor the precious meat dipped in sweet clarified butter, I just as inevitably drip it everywhere. There's a reason why restaurants provide bibs to adults with boiled lobster dinners.
Then, there is one of life's most pleasing food pairings of boiled lobster with the all-too-briefly-available New England sweet corn on the cob. There's something so satisfyingly basic about eating boiled lobster and corn on the cob as you have little choice but to dig in with both hands with a minimum use of utensils. The table, my clothes (I refuse to wear a bib) and close environs have the potential of becoming collateral damage, as I happily gorge myself on two of the most inelegant, but pleasurable foods on this planet.
I have to admit to a mixed relationship with the species, however. I spent close to 15 years as a chef on Cape Cod, during which I killed a lot of lobsters. I've always felt there would have to be a resultant day of reckoning. A symptom of my restaurant PTSD is I've had this recurring nightmare of being sent down to lobster hell. In this nightmare, I'm forced to run a gauntlet of lobsters snapping and pinching at me as I pass. At the end of the gauntlet is a cauldron of boiling water into which I'm pitched by my ghosts of slaughtered lobsters' past. Before they yank me out of the boiling cauldron, they dance around the cauldron singing a variation of the boys' chant in "Lord of the Flies." Their chorus is, "Kill the chef, boil `em up, do it again!" It being lobster hell, this nightmare repeats for eternity.
My most memorable restaurant experience with lobster was on an evening in the 1980s when I was the chef/owner of my family's restaurant, The Captain Linnell House in Orleans on Cape Cod. It was on a Saturday evening in the latter part of September, when business was less predictable, and we had fewer staff than during the summer months. The evening in question, following Murphy's Law, turned out to be considerably busier than expected. My sous chef, Gene the Dream, and I were cooking to order some involved dishes requiring all our concentration for what turned out to be 170 customers that evening.
We were in the middle of one of the busiest times of the evening and just on the cusp of being "in the weeds" (a restaurant term meaning being overwhelmed, but before your hair catches fire). It was at that point we got an order from a table of nine celebrating the birthday of the future lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Thomas P. "Tom" O'Neill III. His father, the legendary Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, Jr., was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives at the time and was celebrating his son's birthday with him.
Speaker O'Neill decided to order a lobster salad that evening. His choice presented me with a conundrum of sorts. Lobster salad wasn't on my menu, I didn't have cooked lobster meat in my cooler, and I was distracted by my hair beginning to catch fire. I was not, however, comfortable with denying a dinner order from the man third in line to the presidency of the United States, who was celebrating the birthday of his son in my restaurant.
Somehow, I cooked the lobster, chilled it in an ice bath, removed the meat from the shell and put together the best lobster salad I could under the circumstances, while still manning my station for the continuing onslaught of customer orders. I'm not describing this scene to boast about my abilities as a chef so many years ago. I'm describing circumstances, which are not atypical in restaurant kitchens everywhere. So many chefs have faced similar situations and somehow found an extra gear to overcome the adversity of the moment. It comes with the territory. This story just happens to involve a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Memorable doesn't fully describe the experience still seared into my brain some 30-plus years later.
My family sold the restaurant 31 years ago to the Conways, who still own it following my family's 10-year stewardship. In writing this article, I became curious to see what the menu looked like after all these years. As I read the online menu, there were a few preparations described exactly as ones from my menus 31 years ago. I'm sure each of those preparations has evolved over the years, just as my cooking style has evolved. One of those dishes was bourbon lobster bisque. I've included the recipe, as I prepared it recently.
BOURBON LOBSTER BISQUE
I prepared this recipe specifically for extending our lobster experience after having bought the store's limit of four 1 1/2-pound lobsters on sale at a local market. We tend to be greedy with our lobsters and we kept them all to ourselves; however, this recipe can serve four. My plan was for lobsters three ways: boiled, on a roll and as bisque. We each had one of the boiled lobsters for dinner, after which I removed the meat from the remaining two lobsters, reserving all the shells for a stock. After making four lobster rolls for another meal, I reserved half of a tail from one of the lobsters to add to the bisque. This recipe can be done in advance up until adding the cr me fraiche and reserved lobster meat before serving. Served with bagels, cream cheese with smoked salmon and a glass of white Burgundy makes for a decadent summer brunch.
Enough lobster shells to make more than 6 cups of concentrated lobster stock
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 large onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 celery stalk, chopped (about cup)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup bourbon
1/2 cup jasmine rice
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 8-ounce container cr me fraiche
Finely chopped reserved lobster meat
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped chives for garnish
Make the lobster stock by covering the lobster shells by about 1 inch with water in a large stock pot. Bring the stock to the boil over medium high heat. Turn the stock down to simmer and simmer for about an hour. Strain the stock through a fine mesh sieve, discard the shells and reduce the stock over high heat until something over 6 cups remain.
Melt butter in a medium large sauce pan over medium heat. Add the onions and celery and cook, stirring occasionally to avoid browning until very soft, about 15 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and cook, stirring often, for about 2 minutes until brick red. Add bourbon and bring to a boil. Stir in the rice, herbs, cayenne, 6 cups of the lobster stock and 1 tablespoon lemon juice and bring to a simmer. Simmer until the rice is very soft, about 25 minutes. Remove the soup from the heat and remove and discard the bay leaf.
When the soup is cool enough, puree the soup until smooth (very small grains of rice may remain).
Reheat the soup after adding the container of cr me fraiche and reserved lobster meat. If necessary, add additional stock until the bisque achieves proper consistency. Add salt, pepper and additional lemon juice (if necessary) to taste. Garnish with fresh chives and serve hot.