It’s Only a Lobster

Pen and Palate Lobster

illustration: tram nguyen


The Sea World in Chicago is located in a slightly run-down part of town and is probably a little different from the aquatic theme park most people are familiar with. I bet you didn’t even know there was a Sea World in the Midwest, did you?

Well, there is, but instead of killer whales and bottlenose dolphins doing triple lutzes in mid-air, the show is infinitely better.  Upon entering the dimly-lit establishment, you point at the aquatic animal of your choice, take your place at the counter and then watch in horror as an old Asian man slams it repeatedly on the head with a wooden bat — BAM!BAM!BAM!–until it is dead. (Spoiler alert: Or so you think!) He then guts and scales the fish, shoves it into a plastic bag and sends you off, shaken and a little disturbed.

After half-watching some youtube videos on the proper method for filleting fish, you think to yourself, “Easy! That Eric Ripert has nothing on me.”  You gingerly slide the fish out of its plastic bag onto your cutting board.  You approach the fish slowly with a sharp knife, having already forgotten everything Eric has just taught you, trying to decide where your entry point should be.  That’s when you notice, despite the fact that the entirety of the fish’s belly is missing…it is still breathing.  You drop the knife and scream, and run crying and shaking into the other room.

My point is, the seafood at Sea World is fresh.  As in, sometimes still alive when you take it home on public transportation. This comes in handy when you want a little me time.  No one wants to sit next to the girl on the el holding a brown paper bag full of crawfish.

I had a craving for a dish my mother used to make with blue crabs, which involved dusting them with corn-starch, deep frying and then sautéing them with caramelized onions, garlic and tamarind. I was having a hard time getting decent blue crabs in Chicago, so I decided I’d have to make do with lobster. My life is so difficult, no? If you’ve never done it before, cooking a lobster at home can seem like a pretty intimidating task but I promise you, it is actually not that difficult.  Also, it is my belief that lobster is the sort of meal that should only be eaten in the privacy of one’s home.  It’s messy, it’s a little barbaric, and under no circumstances should an adult human ever wear a plastic bib in public.

Lobsters all kind of look the same, so I chose the one that put up the most fight and still had all his parts.  Alas, the fishmonger did not get the opportunity to use his wooden bat that day, because lobsters should be alive when you cook them. A dead lobster begins to decompose almost immediately and the meat, if cooked, becomes slimy. My mother’s version is a very complicated, time consuming dish, so I streamlined it here and skipped the deep frying. The lobster is actually par cooked by steaming, baked in the oven with butter and then served with a caramelized onion, chili and tamarind sauce.

Lobster with Chili Tamarind Sauce

Makes 1 serving

You will need:

Oven-safe pan, about 12″ in diameter

1 Lobster (mine was about 1-1/4 pounds, adjust cook times according to weight)
1 Small onion, sliced into ribbons
2 Cloves of Garlic, minced
3/4 tsp Fish Sauce
1 1/2  Tbs Tamarind Concentrate
1 1/2 tsp Sugar
1/2 tsp Sambal Oelek or the chili sauce of your choice
1/4 cup Water
1 Tbs Butter, melted
1 Tbs Cilantro, chopped

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

It is recommended that you cook your lobster as soon as possible, but they can last up to 36-48 hours if stored properly.  I named my lobster Woody and then stuffed him in the fridge for a bit to hang out with a damp paper towel to keep him from drying out.

Fill a large pot with about 1 inch of water and set to boil on high heat.  Remove the rubber bands from your lobster claws with kitchen shears.  When your water is boiling, with tongs place the lobster in the pot and cover with a lid.  He will rattle around for a bit, but according to internet, they die in about ten seconds and supposedly do not feel pain.  Also, don’t believe those lies spread by David Foster Wallace, lobsters do not scream because they do not have vocal cords.  Steam for 4 minutes.  If your lobster is bigger, adjust times according to weight, this is a good guide for par cooking.

Fill a large bowl with ice water.  When your lobster is done and a gorgeous red-orange color, plunge him into the ice bath to stop the cooking.  Transfer the lobster to a cutting board.  Carefully remove the large claws by bending them back until they break.  Place the claws in an oven safe pan and bake in the oven for 10 minutes.

For the sauce, sauté the onion in a few tablespoons of oil in a small saucepan on medium heat for about ten minutes, or until the onions start to brown.  Add the garlic and cook until it starts to turn golden, about 1 minute.  Add the sugar, fish sauce, tamarind concentrate and samba oelek, and water.  Stir with a wooden spoon to dissolve the sugar and release the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.  Cook for another minute, until the sauce has thickened and remove from heat.

Lay the lobster on its belly.  With a sharp knife, split the head length wise.  Flip the lobster onto its back and continue that cut all along the abdomen until you are left with two halves.  This was…a little rough for me, emotionally.  You’d think it was the boiling alive part, but no.  Remove the green bits, that’s called the tomalley, which some people cook and eat spread on toast, and the vein, which is the digestive tract which you certainly do not want to eat.  When your claws are done, carefully remove the hot pan from the oven and place the two lobster halves, meat side up in the pan.  Baste the lobster halves with melted butter and return the pan to the oven for another 8 minutes.  The claws end up cooking a total of 18 minutes.

Crack the claws with either a lobster claw cracker or a hammer.  Place the cooked lobster on a plate, spoon the warm tamarind chili sauce on the tail and garnish with cilantro.

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