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LOBSTER SPLURGE: IF NOT NOW, WHEN?

There's no more special occasion than gathering with friends and loved ones to celebrate the birth of our nation.

By GRETCHEN MCKAY

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Independence Day is just around the corner, and many of us will celebrate with a traditional backyard barbecue - can't you just smell the burgers and chicken sizzling on the grill? Yet the Fourth is also a great time to think about fresh hard-shell lobster, even if the closest you'll get to the cold waters of the Northern Atlantic (does it ever get warm up there?) is a dip in an unheated swimming pool.

The majority of lobsters harvested in Maine are caught between late June and late December, as warmer air and water make it easier for lobster catchers to set and haul their traps. That means your local grocer over the next few months will likely have an ample supply of the 10-legged crustaceans. Alive.

What? Kill them? You think not. Or maybe you think lobster is just for special occasions such as 50th birthdays and golden anniversaries.

I used to think like that, too. But as I learned when I (finally) worked up the nerve to boil my very first lobster, it's not as terrible as I imagined.

The key is remembering that a lobster, because its nervous system is so simple, cannot process pain the same way as humans. Some might argue they let out a high-pitched squeal when you drop them in boiling water, but according to experts such as those at the University of Maine's Lobster Institute, the sound is nothing other than superheated vapors escaping the joints in the shell.

As Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough note so succinctly in the delightful Lobsters Scream When You Boil Them and 100 Other Myths About Food and Cooking: "1. To scream, something must have vocal cords. 2. Lobsters don't have vocal cords. 3. Lobsters can't scream. End of discussion."

Lobsters do, however, twitch their tails for about a minute after they're put in the water (it's a reflex action known as the "escape response"), so don't be surprised if you see flopping before you cover the pot with a lid.

As for the pretty pennies you'll spend, what's more special than a gathering with family and friends to celebrate America's birthday? In New England, seafood boils and clambakes are a time-honored way of ringing in the Fourth. There are so many New England transplants in Florida, that it could be a tradition here, too. It's likely, though, that you'll buy a live lobster and have it steamed at the market

While lobster - steamed, boiled or grilled - is one of the pricier food options, many Americans got their first taste of the seafood from cans, as lobster meat used to be an inexpensive form of protein for the lower classes. Lobsters were so abundant off the Northern Atlantic coast during Colonial times, in fact, that employment contracts often prohibited the wealthy from feeding them to their servants more than twice a week.

It's only after the invention in 1850 of the lobster trap, with its unique funnel entrance, and trappers figured out how to transport live lobster from northern ports to urban areas beyond Philadelphia that they started to earn a reputation as a delicacy.

If you hold the drawn butter or mayonnaise, lobster actually has fewer calories and less fat than lean beef, poached eggs or roasted, skinless chicken breast (just 135 calories per 150 grams).

Commercial lobster catchers must adhere to strict limits and practices, keeping Homarus americanus a sustainable seafood.

Brendan Ready, co-founder of Catch a Piece of Maine, says he always looks for one with long, twitching antennae. It's best to cook it the day you buy it, but live lobsters can survive in your fridge for a day or so - if you don't mind something wiggling in a box next to the veggies.

And if you can't get past the whole cook-as-executioner thing? Most fish and grocery stores will do the deed for you. Better yet, confront your fears with a cooking class.

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Lobster Grilled Pizza

This is an extremely rich dish that borders on the sweet. If you don't have the time or desire to make your own pizza crust, consider purchasing premade pizza-dough balls. You also can substitute a high-quality flatbread. Also, I used only 1 cup creme fraiche because my lobster was small. - Gretchen McKay

1 cup lukewarm water

2 teaspoons dry yeast

1 tablespoon sugar

2 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons olive oil, plus additional for grilling

1 whole lobster, cooked, meat removed and diced

1 1/2 cups creme fraiche

2 teaspoons white truffle oil (or less, according to taste)

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 red pepper, diced small

3 scallions, sliced thin

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

To make pizza crust, combine water, yeast and sugar and allow yeast to bloom. Add flour, salt and olive oil, then knead until dough is smooth and silky. Cover with a towel and let rise for 30 minutes.

While dough is rising, combine lobster meat with creme fraiche, truffle oil and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Separate dough into 4 balls and roll out to 1/4inch thick. Rub dough with olive oil and season, if desired, with salt and pepper.

Place dough on a hot grill for 3 to 5 minutes per side and grill until crust is baked and grill marks are achieved. Top grilled crusts with lobster spread, peppers, scallions and grated cheese. Finish pizza under a broiler for 3 minutes, or until cheese is melted and top is bubbly. Slice and serve.

Makes 4 individual pizzas.

Source: Giant Eagle Market District; tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

.EASY

Classic Lobster Rolls

There are as many versions of the classic lobster roll as there are lobster shacks. But all hold this in common: The bun has to be a buttered and grilled "top loader." I had just one 1 1/4-pound lobster, so I quartered this recipe. It was so good, thanks to all those fresh herbs, that I ate some of it with a spoon. - Gretchen McKay

1/2 gallon water

1/4 cup kosher salt

4 live lobsters (about 1 1/2 pounds each)

1 1/2 cups mayonnaise

3 tablespoons lemon juice

6 top-loading hot-dog buns

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh tarragon

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh chervil

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh chives

To prepare lobsters, fit a large heavy pot or standard clam-steamer pot with water and salt. Set over high heat and bring to a boil. Place the lobsters in the pot and cover tightly. Boil for 14 minutes. Remove pot from heat and carefully pour lobsters and water into a deep sink or colander. Cover with ice for about 10 minutes. Take the meat out of the shell.

Cut the lobster meat and place in a bowl. Toss with mayonnaise and lemon juice. Slather the outside of the rolls with the butter and quickly grill on both sides either in a skillet or on an outdoor grill. Fill the grilled rolls with the lobster salad. Combine the herbs, mix well, and sprinkle over the salad. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings.

Source: Maine Classics: More than 150 Delicious Recipes from Down East; tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

.eASY

Lobster Salad With Peaches Or Mango

2 pounds cooked lobster meat (2 large lobsters)

1 avocado, diced

2 white or yellow peaches, peeled and diced (or 1 large mango)

Juice of 1 lime

2 celery ribs, chopped

3 scallions, white and green parts, chopped

2 hard-cooked eggs, chopped

3/4 to 1 cup mayonnaise

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Pinch of curry powder

1 head lettuce, separated into leaves

Tomato wedges or cherry tomatoes, for garnish

In a large bowl, toss lobster, avocado and peaches (or mango) with half the lime juice. Add celery, scallions and hard-cooked eggs.

Flavor the mayonnaise with the salt, pepper, curry and remaining lime juice. Gently toss the lobster mixture with the flavored mayonnaise and refrigerate. Serve the salad on a bed of lettuce leaves with tomato wedges or cherry tomatoes.

Makes 6 lunch servings or 8 first-course servings.

Source: French Classics Made Easy by Richard Grausman

.MODERATE

Grilled Lobster With Spiced Butter

1/4 cup butter, softened

1 teaspoon ground mace

6 drops vanilla extract

Juice of 1 lemon

4 (1 1/2-pound) hard-shell lobsters

2 tablespoons canola oil

For spiced butter, combine butter, mace, vanilla and lemon juice in a small bowl. Keep at room temperature.

Precook lobsters by bringing a large pot of salted water to a boil. Put the lobsters in the water head first. Cook lobsters for about 2 minutes, then remove.

Remove the claws from each lobster and put them back in the pot with the heat off, and allow them to sit for 5 minutes, as the claws need more time to cook than the delicate tails.

Cut each lobster in half lengthwise by placing the tip of a large knife where the body meets the tail. Pierce through the body and then rock the knife toward you to cut through the body. Repeat the same action in the opposite direction to finish cutting in half.

Remove the small sack inside the head with your fingers. Also remove the light green tomalley.

Remove the claws from the water and crack the shells. You can remove the meat entirely or leave on the claw tips to make it easier to eat.

If using a charcoal grill, prepare a large, hot fire with the coals in the center of the grill. Brush grill with oil. Place lobster bodies, 2 halves at a time, directly over the coals, cut side down. Do not move the lobster halves after this if they contain coral (egg sack), as it is very delicate. The lobsters will cook in about 5 minutes, depending on the heat of the grill.

If using a gas grill, brush grill with oil, place lobsters cut side down over the hottest flame possible and cook for about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low and turn the lobsters, cut side up, and continue cooking until the tail is cooked through, about another 5 minutes.

Using a large spatula, transfer lobsters from the grill to a platter. While body is cooking, the claws can be rewarmed on another part of the grill.

As soon as the lobster is on the platter, brush with a little of the spiced butter; it will baste the meat and collect in the shell. Serve immediately.

Serves 4.

Source: For Cod and Country by Barton Seaver

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