There seems to be no debate among Florida lobster aficionados concerning how to cook this delicacy of the sea.
"You have got to grill them," said restaurateur Frank Chivas. "There is no other way."
But Chivas and his longtime friend Tom Pritchard, the creative force behind many of his restaurants, disagreed on the next step.
"I like to start them out shell down," said Pritchard, one of America's top chefs. "You want to protect the meat."
Chivas, a Florida native who has spent weeks at a time diving and fishing in Lobsterland, a.k.a. the Florida Keys, had another idea.
"I like to cut them in half, then put the meat side down first," he said. "You let them cook for a few minutes, then flip them over and add a little grouper stuffing."
Florida lobster is best grilled or broiled but never boiled. Save the big pot of water for their cousins from Maine. While related, the Caribbean spiny lobster has no big, crushing claws. All of its meat is in the tail, which cooks up nicely on the grill.
Recreational scuba divers and snorkelers get first crack (no pun intended) at Florida lobsters during a special, two-day "mini season" at the end of July. The regular season opened Aug. 6 for commercial fishermen.
"It usually takes a couple of days to get the first shipment," said Rich Crepeau, manager of Gulfport's Save on Seafood. "But then we get them every week, fresh, never frozen."
The price of lobster varies depending on demand. For years it hovered around $5 per pound (dockside) then dropped to $3.18 in 2009-10. Prices climbed to an all-time high of $10.35 per pound last year thanks to a demand for live Florida lobsters in China. But prices have dropped in recent weeks, and Save on Seafood is now selling Florida lobster at $9.99 per pound.
"I cut them in half with a band saw, so they are easier to cook," said Crepeau. "Most of my customers buy a crab cake to use as stuffing on the grill — the best way to cook them."
Foodies love to debate which species tastes better, the Maine or Caribbean spiny lobster. Some claim the cold-water lobster has a denser, sweeter meat. The most obvious difference between the two is that the Caribbean lobster, which actually ranges from North Carolina to Brazil, does not have large claws for hunting and defense like the Maine or American lobster. The Caribbean or Florida lobster's primary defense is its speed. When threatened by a predator, it can take off in the blink of an eye with a flip of the tail, leaving a diver bewildered and empty-handed.
Sport divers often call Florida lobsters "bugs." That's because crustaceans and insects are both invertebrates and come from the same phylum, Arthropoda. The common traits lobster and insects share are jointed appendages — legs, antennae and mouthparts — hence the bug reference.
The average spiny lobster has a carapace (the shell that covers its body) length of 3 inches and weighs about 1 pound. Lobsters smaller than this are too "short" for divers to take legally. The largest spiny lobster on record was more than three times that size, weighing in at more than 21 pounds with a 10-inch carapace length.
Commercial fishermen fish two to three times as much lobster as recreational divers. The commercial catch now averages about 5 million pounds a year after peaking at 7.7 million during the 1996-97 season.
Tom Matthews, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's field office in the Caribbean, declined to join the shell side- versus meat side-down debate, but did add this: "The most important thing you need to know about Florida lobster is not to overcook them."
Contact Terry Tomalin at email@example.com. Follow @TomalinTimes.