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The darling decapod: "it wasn't a rock; it was a rock lobster" the B-52's.

Sometimes considered an aphrodisiac, lobster is perceived as lavish as foie gras, caviar, or truffles. Always a great seller on the menu and loved by many, it is just simply special. Lobster once was a luxury not easily obtainable, but today it is more easily accessible and affordable than ever before. The most popularly identifiable lobster variety is the clawed lobster, also referred to as the Maine, American, or northern lobster. In North America, clawed lobsters are harvested along the coasts of Newfoundland, Canada, all the way down to North Carolina. Although originating in different countries, clawed lobsters from the North Atlantic coast are often marketed as "Maine lobster."

North America is the dominant world force in the production of lobster although the lobster industry in the U.S. is less commercial than in Canada. In New England, lobster fishing, or lobstering, is often a revered and fiercely protected family tradition that has been passed through generations. In the United States, along the North Atlantic coast, the season is open all year, with the exception of Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine.

There are strict regulations with regard to lobster fishing. Canadian lobstermen must obey government-regulated seasons. In the U.S., the legal minimum size for a fished lobster is measured by both the length of the carapace and the weight of the lobster. The carapace is the portion of the shell originating from behind the eye socket and extending to the beginning of the tail section and must be at least 3 1/4-inches in length. Lobsters must weigh a minimum of approximately 1 to 1 1/4 pounds. Any size or weight below these minimums must be returned to the sea. The same rule applies to "berried" or females carrying eggs in many countries. Exact regulations are difficult to gauge due to the variance of the national, state, and federal laws.

There are companies specializing in holding facilities, commonly called pounds. The lobsters are referred to as "pounded lobsters." Pounding lobsters helps regulate the law of supply and demand. When the season is at the peak, lobsters are held in corrals until the supply becomes low. This practice accommodates the high demand for lobsters during the holidays when they are not in season.

The second reason for pounding lobsters is to break up long journeys when lobsters are being transported live around the world. Lobster pounds in places like Hawaii allow the lobsters to become revived enroute to places like Japan, significantly reducing the mortality rate.

The practice of farming lobster is still being explored. However, since a lobster takes about 5 to 7 years to reach minimum size for harvesting, the development of lobster farming has been slow. In addition, lobsters in crowded situations are known cannibals, another deterrent to farming.

Generally, lobsters love cold water. They will freeze at 29 degrees (the same as sea water.) Optimal temperatures are between 32 and 40 degrees. In warmer temperatures, their feeding leads to growth spurts, which cause them to molt. During the summer, lobsters shed their shells, molting to grow into new and larger ones. The amount of growth is difficult to determine clue to variable contributing factors. It is impossible to say how many times a lobster will shed its exterior in a lifetime, depending on when it's caught or dies. Also, there is no reliable way to tell the age of a lobster.

Hard or soft-shell lobsters are available, depending on the season. Not to be confused with soft-shell crabs, the term "soft-shell" or "new-shell" lobster simply indicates the shell can be easily cracked. To tell if a lobster is hard or soft-shelled, gently press the area behind the claws. If it buckles, the lobster is soft-shelled--soft-shell lobsters have a higher water content.

Hard-shelled lobsters contain less water and are best for direct heat cooking. Soft-shelled lobsters are best for moist heat cooking. The hard shell variety is more desirable because molting has just completed; therefore, the meat is denser. In general, a lobster will yield 20-25% meat. The larger lobsters will have a higher yield of meat, along with a higher price. Lobsters can grow enormous, upwards of 40 pounds, but most chefs agree that a five pound limit per lobster has little effect on flavor or texture if properly cooked.

Separating the boys from the girls, females, called "hens," are often preferred for their roe or coral. The roe is eaten plain or used to flavor a dish or sauce. All lobsters have small "swimmerets" on their belly where the tail meets the torso. The female swimmerets are slightly larger and more feathery with tiny hairs, while the tail itself is often larger and more pliable to accommodate the eggs. Arguments prevail over which has better-tasting meat. Speaking of gender, interestingly enough, even the rare hermaphrodite exists, yielding half a batch of eggs, literally.

Ideally, lobsters should be purchased live and eaten the same day. Storage and handling are vital and can affect the flavor as the meat deteriorates quickly. Healthy lobsters have long antennae and act lively when handled. They are not fed in captivity; short-term holding is the aim.

Lobsters in captivity are placed in aerated holding tanks of seawater. Never keep lobsters in tap water or on ice. If an aerated tank is not available, wrap the lobsters in damp newspaper or nestled in seaweed to keep them moist and well-chilled in a ventilated refrigerator. Under ideal conditions, live lobsters can survive 4 to 5 days straight out of the water (fewer for soft shell.) When procured through a good supplier, lobsters will not perish for days. Lobsters that are cooked live will have curled tails, unless they have been forced straight.

Boiling and steaming continue to be the most popular ways to prepare lobster. Despite the fact that they live in the sea, lobsters should still be cooked in salted water. Although there are endless possibilities in the preparation of lobsters, the guidelines and basic information still need to be adhered to for legal and ethical reasons. Love your lobsters and crack on!

POPULAR BELIEF & LITTLE KNOWN FACTS

There is a vicious dispute about whether a lobster feels pain or not. The lobster is said to have no cerebral cortex, the brain's sensor to pain. However, people are often upset by the idea of a lobster "screaming" while being cooked. This sound occurs as air escapes through openings in the body cavity, much like boiling kettle whistles. In reality, lobsters have no vocal chords. Another ethical concern is the practice of separating the tail from the body during live handling or putting a knife in the back, literally.

Placing lobsters in a freezer for a short time will render them dormant. This method is considered more humane than cooking them live. Another relatively humane way to cook them is to plunge the lobster's head into boiling water for a quick and merciful death.

If there is a shellfish ban, lobster can still be eaten. They are not filter feeders like the bi-valves.

Contrary to popular belief, clawed lobsters are not natural cannibals, but will resort to cannibalism under certain circumstances. They do not dine on each other, but they eat the shells they have molted. They often devour mussels, clams, sea urchins, starfish, or even small fish and crabs. As predators, their claws serve as tools to snare their meals. Born fighters, they will attack each other in a natural quest for male dominance.

Fishermen bind lobsters' claws with strong elastic bands for obvious reasons. Un-cuffed, the claws will easily tear a finger or deeply gash an unlucky handler. However, there is a debate as to whether cooking lobsters with the bands on the claws leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

[ALL IN THE FAMILY:]

The same crustacean has many different names which can be confusing. Lobsters come in many varieties with different guises and textures, but they are all designated as "lobster."

--THE CLAWED LOBSTER is the most popular and desirable variety. Other names are the American, Northern, or Maine lobster. The smaller sized European variety has many varieties as well. Popular types include the Prince Noir (black prince), hummer, or the celebrated "homard de Breton" from Brittany with its unforgettable blue shell. A dark shell is the norm for clawed lobsters, but blue, yellow, red, white, or even striped and spotted all exist, This rainbow of variety has no bearing on the flavor. In North America, clawed lobsters are found in Nova Scotia, Canada stretching down to the coast of North Carolina. In Europe, varieties of the smaller lobster can be found in Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy and Norway.

--THE SPINY LOBSTER is similar in appearance but has no claws and sports very thick, spiny antennae. Sometimes referred to as rock lobster or langouste, it is generally found in warmer waters. It is found in Australia, South America, Africa, the Caribbean, and even Scandinavia, and North America.

--THE SLIPPER LOBSTER is the least known commercial variety. It has an unforgettable, flattened appearance and is sometimes called a shovelnose, locust, or Spanish lobster. Found in warm muddy waters, the slipper lobster is best known in Australia as the Moreton Bay bug or Balmain bug. This species has been frozen and exported to the US from Thailand, Singapore, and Australia.

--LOBSTERETTES, alias Dublin Bay prawns, langoustine, scampo, Danish or Norwegian lobster are a miniature lobster variety. With long spiny claws, they are a popular garnish. These are often found in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, Central, South, and North America.

--THE CRAYFISH is worth mentioning even though it is a fresh-water creature. Resembling a miniature lobster, it can be found all over the world. Usually known as a crawfish, crawdad, ecrevisse, mud bug, it is highly prized. Other obscure varieties exist, depending on the location. Yabbies, marrons, and other varieties are commonly found down under in Australia and New Zealand.

... size DOES matter ...

Shorts: below the legal size, under one pound.

Chickens or Chix: I pound

Quarters: over 1 pound to under 1 1/4 pounds

Halves: over 1 1/4 pounds to 1 1/2 pounds

Large or Selects: from 1 1/2 pounds to 2 1/2 pounds (ordered in 1/4 pound increments)

Jumbos: 2 1/2 pounds and over (ordered in 1/2 pound increments)

Note that "culls" are lobsters that are missing one claw and are sold at a discount. Lobsters missing both claws are called "pistols."

ANATOMY 101

The blood is a clear, gelatinous liquid, which turns opaque-white when the lobster is cooked.

The body contains the antennae, eyes, head sac, brain, lungs, roe, tomalley, and gills.

Gills run along the sides of the body and are wedged between succulent pieces of lobster meat.

The claws are generally comprised of two types. The long and slender "pincher" or "pincer" is used for catching prey, while the stout, fat claw is the "crusher" used for breaking up food into edible pieces.

The intestinal tract runs along the back of the tail meat and should be removed before service.

The head sac, brain, and lungs are located behind the eyes and should be removed before preparation and or service as they are gritty and not very palatable.

The roe are tiny grain-like dark eggs. The roe sacs are visible against the abdomen of the female. Once cooked, the roe turns bright orange-red, at which point the roe is referred to as coral and used as a garnish. Occasionally, females holding eggs in the tail are available outside of North America. They should be dark, opaque and a deep forest green color. Red or orange eggs are dead eggs that would eventually drop from the body.

The shells contain carotene, which provides the vibrant red hue when cooked. When seared in hot oil, the carotene is leached from the shell and used for flavor and color. Regardless of their color, all lobster shells turn orange-red when cooked except for the rare albinos. Shells, full of flavor, are used for bisques, sauces and stocks.

The tomalley is the creamy, pea-colored liver and pancreas of the lobster often used to thicken soups and sauces. There are cautions against the ingestion of tomalley. As a natural body filter, the tomalley is thought to accumulate toxins from the environment. Regardless, some people love it as much as the roe in the females.

RELATED ARTICLE:

Many different factors affect the quality of lobster. Monthly guidelines appear above, according to lobster guru Jasper White:

JAN TO MARCH

Lobsters go into a stage, and the last of the lobsters are hauled in; as quantities diminish and become harder to find, the prices soar. This is a good time to make soups, stews, chowders and the like.

APRIL TO JUNE

Lobsters feed and the prices begin to drop as they come into one of the best times of the year. Hard shells are plentiful, and the prices are reasonable. This is an ideal time for whole, steamed or stuffed lobsters.

JULY TO SEPT

Lobsters begin to molt, shedding their hard shells to grow new ones. At this time, soft shells are plentiful and inexpensive. The sweet quality of this meat is best for salads, succotash, chowders or steamed preparations to accompany summer fare.

OCT TO DEC

Hard shells return and are in full swing, and prices are agreeable. Whole, steamed, boiled, broiled, stuffed, and pan fried versions are recommended.
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Publication:Art Culinaire
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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