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Cracking the code

A Portland chef offers his take on making the most of your lobster dining experience

portland, maine
Chef Sam Hayward checks on the lobsters, steaming in a pot at Fore Street restaurant in Portland. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / June 25, 2006

PORTLAND, Maine -- There's a scenario lobster lovers deplore.

The red devil has been fought, and evidence of a nasty melee is everywhere . The shell is in splinters, meat is mashed and mangled (or some trove has been entirely missed), and the frustrated diner, fingers bloodied, is covered in a spray of stinky juice, along with any dining companions within a 5-foot radius. Edible booty? Nowhere to be seen.

Many hardened Yankees are loath to admit their ignorance when it comes to shelling this eminent staple of New England summertime dining, let alone telling the difference between the crusher claw and the pincer claw. For newcomers, not even a plastic bib will save them from humiliation.

``A lot of people don't understand the structure of a lobster, and the shell gets in the way, and they think it might be difficult, or that it's some kind of challenge," explained Sam Hayward, chef and co-owner of Portland's Fore Street restaurant.

Whether cooked at home or plopped on a fish shanty placemat, that steamed Homarus americanus can feel like a puzzle -- impenetrable, enigmatic -- not one of Maine's most coveted delicacies. Indeed, cracking the lobster code can be a formidable task.

But once the lobster's armor is analyzed for weaknesses, the beast yields up its tender morsels of meat, which slither out so efficiently, they'll still be steaming when you dip them in the melted butter.

Hayward's line of attack begins with preparing his foes properly: With the bands removed from their two claws (to prevent the rubber from flavoring the water), lobsters are dropped into an inch and a half of salted, rapidly boiling water. The idea is to steam, not boil, them: ``How Mainers have been doing it since time immemorial," he said. They must be kicking, or the chef risks cooking a dead, possibly poisonous, dinner.

``These lobsters are getting sleepy," Hayward said one recent morning from the helm of his restaurant's open-concept brick kitchen. ``Let's cook 'em!" He places two on their backs into the pot and covers them. The average 1 1/2-pound lobster take 12 minutes to cook and yields six to seven ounces of meat. ``You can tell when a lobster is done when the shell has turned bright red, and these antennae come off very easily when tugged," he explained.

The test is akin to yanking a frond from a pineapple to check its ripeness. ``You can't just rely on a clock," Hayward warned. ``You have to rely on your senses."

While they're steaming, Hayward assembles his arsenal of simple weapons: a large chopping block, a heavy kitchen knife, a big bowl, a spoon , and -- yes -- a bottle of beer. No picks or nut crackers needed.

When the lobsters are done, Hayward starts. But it's not eat-as-you-go; he shells the entire lobster, then serves the assembled meat on a plate. So he must work quickly to keep it warm.

The first step is to twist off the claws, using his hands, then drain any liquid into the bowl. Next, he separates the knuckles from the claws. ``Then over the bone bowl, I separate the tail from the body." Again, this controls the drips and messes.

He pulls open the main carapace to reveal the tomalley, a green, creamy paste that is the lobster's liver and pancreas. ``It's actually totally delicious, though a lot of people find it kind of revolting," Hayward said. ``I love it." He takes a tiny teaspoon to scoop it out and slurp it down.

Most lobster fans find the leg meat hardly worth the effort, but Hayward has found a clever technique to extract it once the eight legs have been pulled off. ``Take a good Maine beer bottle," he said, ``and use it like a rolling pin to force the meat out of the shell." It works brilliantly.

While the debate rages between those who prefer tail or claw meat, Hayward has strategies to handle both. For the claws, the more troublesome part , he begins by breaking open the knuckles with his bare hands, bending them back at the joint. Then, he uses his little finger to push the meat out. To open the claws, he raps the pincer joint with the back of a chopping knife . He breaks the claw at this crack, pulls off the pincer, removes the rest of the shell, and the slab of meat is intact.

For the tail, he snaps off the end flippers, then cradles and crushes the section in one hand. ``That breaks the bottom membrane a bit, and allows me to spread the tail open." Down in the tail is an intestinal line, which makes some people squeamish. To reveal it, you grab a flap of flesh -- what Hayward calls ``the zipper" -- and use your thumbnail to de vein the tail. All the meat can be eaten.

Shuckers might find roe, or ``coral," in a female's tail section. These 6,000 to 100,000 eggs are considered a delicacy; green-brown when raw, they are bright red cooked. But if the eggs are clinging to the body's exterior, they're fertilized, and that means the female was caught, or ``landed," illegally.

``You can't land a female with eggs on it," said Hayward. Before throwing her back, lobstermen notch a ``berried" female's flippers with a V cut, marking her permanently ``off limits " as a proven breeder, said Hayward. The American lobster is fished from Virginia to the Canadian Maritimes; in Maine (which accounts for 62 percent of the US market, or some 70 million pounds in 2004), they must measure more than 3 1/4 inches but no longer than 5 inches from eye socket to the beginning of the tail.

``A lobster that is of legal size is seven to eight years old," explained Hayward. ``Lobstermen are really farmers. [By baiting traps over the years], they're feeding a large common stock."

Alas, every crop must be harvested -- and eaten. The final step is to sprinkle your quarry with pepper, sea salt and lemon, and dip each piece in whole, not clarified, melted butter. Then, declare yourself the victor, and reap the spoils of war -- a primal, unadulterated, hands-on Maine dining experience that endures despite culinary trends and changing popular tastes. Just don't forget the moist towelette.

Contact Ethan Gilsdorf, a freelance writer in Somerville, at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.

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