Something I love about living with my parents over winter break, besides the access to seafood, is the access to great seafood—and great ingredients in general. On my college student budget at school, I try to buy ingredients as reasonably priced as possible. Sure, the local, organic, extra-sharp cheddar looks wonderful, but the store brand cheddar is a lot less. Sure, that caviar would make for a nice garnish, but freshly ground pepper will work fine too. And sure, the lobster does look lovely, but the shrimp will serve the same purpose. (Sigh!) I suppose….Here in New Jersey, the same rules don’t apply. Ingredient shopping becomes less about thriftiness and more about quality. We buy the over-expensive cheese and fig jam to enjoy as an hors d’oeuvre, because if increasingly rare family time isn’t occasion for overindulgence—especially when it comes to eating—what is?
My mom, dad, and I consider this one of our all-time favorite recipes. Even though it’s the “ultimate” cinch to make, we also think of it as a special treat for dinner. Tyler Florence calls it “Angry Lobster,” because of “the way the lobster gets whacked.” I never entirely got what he meant—until a couple nights ago, when we brought home live lobsters for the first time.
The other times we’ve made this dish, our fishmonger killed the lobsters for us. When my mom and I went marketing the other day, though, our usual guy wasn’t there. Instead, a stranger stood at the fishery. After he clumsily struggled to weigh our three lobsters, I decided the creatures’ unfortunate fates would perhaps be a little less painful, if were I to kill them myself. My mom reminded me of how much easier the dish would be if we didn’t have to kill and cut up the lobsters ourselves, but I thought of the book I’ve been reading, Kitchen Literacy, which details how we are becoming more and more disconnected from our food. Instead of slaughtering our own chickens from our own backyards, we’d rather trust that nifty-looking Tyson label with its pre-cut, plump portions. “No. No,” I insisted, as much to my mom as myself: “I will kill the lobsters! Like a real cook!” She shrugged and agreed. After all, I thought to myself with my nose in the air, as I proudly sauntered down the dairy aisle, three live lobsters in hand: I’m a food blogger. Tyler describes it so simply. “Stab the lobster between the eyes and all the way through to the cutting board to kill it quickly.” Little pinprick. Psh! Piece of cake. I half-expected the buggers to be half-dead after spending 30 minutes tightly tied up in a plastic bag. Alternatively, one scissor snip showed the first guy to be quite alive. He crawled over the chef knife lying on my cutting board, his beady eyes sizing me up. I requested my father perform the first sacrifice, desiring a visual example of the murder I was about to commit. Now, I realize, that probably wasn’t the smartest idea.
Forcefully stabbed just behind, not quite between, its eyes, the lobster held up its rubber-band-bound claw in the air in protest and pain—and I, quite quickly, became hysterical. I screamed and shouted and jumped up and down.
Dropping a lobster in a pot of boiling water is easy, no offense to the Amy Adams version of food blogger Julie Powell. Stabbing a lobster, though? Well, that’s when the lobster gets “angry.” That’s when the lobster gets pissed off. Because stabbing it once doesn’t kill it at once. At least, not in my house. Not. Even. Close. And worse, when it does finally die, it doesn’t stop moving. It doesn’t stop moving after you cut it into eight pieces. Its tail still reflexively curls in protest; its feathery arms still flip up and down in the pan as it cooks.
Though admittedly in shock, I told myself I still needed to kill the second lobster. So, I brought the second poor soul onto the cutting board, where its friend had just met its tragic end, and picked up my knife. I positioned it between the eyes. And I stood there, for a minute, another minute, and another minute. My dad reminded me about the hunting scene in one of my favorite movies, Avatar, and how the hunters thank their catches and bless them. I thanked my lobster for what was soon to be a delicious meal. I apologized to it. I stared at it a minute longer. Then I screamed and stabbed it. Then I screamed some more.
I’m not sorry that I did it. I still think that if we could kill every lobster, lamb, chicken, cow, and pig that we ate, that would be better—and more humane—than buying them in those sad, mass-produced plastic containers. Of course, I’m sorry that I hurt the lobster; I’m sorry that I caused it pain. Then, I suppose that’s the reality I was seeking to confront when I insisted upon killing it myself.
If I’ve successfully repelled you from this dish, allow me to re-intrigue you. This is not your usual lobster: boiled, served with boiled corn and melted butter, and a complementary plastic bib. It’s dusted in seasoned flour, then sautéed in sizzling olive oil, which has been infused with dried chili flakes and lots of fresh garlic. Cherry tomatoes and basil get added to brighten up, in color and taste. Finally, lemon juice and butter melt over everything and bubble in the pan to make an emulsified sauce so incredibly addictive, you’ll literally lick it from your plate when you run out of warm French bread (spoon? Psh, what’s a spoon?). “Angry Lobster” isn’t about being neat or timid or dainty or polite. It’s about being messy and it’s about being brave.
Lobster with Tomatoes, Garlic, Basil, Butter, and Red Chilies
tweaked from Tyler’s Ultimate
Though lobster is just-too-good in this recipe, soft shell crab is also fantastic. I haven’t tried it with shrimp myself, but I think that would be great, too; I’d suggest buying ones with shells still-on. While I’ve always served the dish with bread, I think serving it on top of some spaghetti or linguini would make for a delicious pasta dish.
- 2 live lobsters, 1 1/2 pounds each (or ask your fishmonger, oh-so-kindly, to stab them between the eyes before bagging them up)
- 1/2 cup whole wheat flour (or all-purpose)
- Salt and pepper
- 7 garlic cloves, sliced paper-thin
- 1 to 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes or one fresh red chile
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
- 2 handfuls of fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
First, cut the lobsters into pieces. If they’re still alive (you can do it, I believe in you!): Place a lobster on a cutting board. With a chef’s knife, stab the lobster between the eyes and all the way through to the cutting board to kill it quickly. Wrap a towel around the claws and twist them off, then break the knuckles off the claws. Crack the claws with the blunt edge of the knife blade, close to the handle (or a rolling pin, which I prefer/find easier), then sink the knife tip into the crack you’ve made and twist your wrist—this will break the shell of the claws. Set the knuckles and claws aside. Now insert the tip of the knife into the lobster’s back at the opening between the body and the first tail segment and cut off the tail. Cut the tail in half lengthwise, then crosswise into three to four pieces. Cut the body in half lengthwise. Pat the lobster pieces dry with paper towels.
Now season the flour generously with salt and pepper in a large baking dish. Taste the flour—you should taste the seasoning. Combine the garlic, red pepper flakes, and olive oil in a big skillet. Put the skillet over medium heat and heat slowly until the garlic turns golden to infuse the oil with the flavors of the garlic and red pepper. Roll the lobster bodies and pieces in the flour to give them a little crunch, then toss about half of them into the hot oil. Cook uncovered for 4 to 5 minutes to brown the lobster, then turn and brown the other side, 8 to 10 minutes total. Remove the lobster from the pan and cook the rest the same way. Now put all of the lobster back in the skillet, throw the tomatoes on top, and let that cook for 5 to 6 minutes to soften the tomatoes. Add most of the basil and lemon juice and stir. Toss in the butter and shake the pan to melt the butter and emulsify it into the sauce. Serve the lobster with the sauce, garnished with the remaining basil, and lots of toasty warm bread.