Lobster a l’Americaine History
Food For Thought - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Archive
Lobster a l’Americaine, or for its full French name, Homard a l’Americaine, is a lobster dish of dubious origin. It is decidedly French, but there ends all that is definitive about its provenance. A popular story is that a chef by the name of Pierre Fraisse, (who hailed from the Languedoc region of France), whipped up the dish circa 1860 in Paris for a group of late night diners. He had spent time cooking in the US and thus gave the dish its American tag line, “Americaine,” or so they say. Others claim the dish was already on the menu before Fraisse arrived and originated, much like Fraisse, in the Languedoc. Finally, there exist a contingent who insist the dish is actually named after Armorica, the ancient name for Brittany. However, as various food writers have pointed out, the dish contains oil, garlic, and tomatoes, all ingredients not indigenous to Brittany or its cuisine. This may explain yet another theory that the dish sprung from the Mediterranean. A final and quirky postulate is the dish received its moniker because it was served to first class passengers on ships headed for America. It never ceases to amaze me just how many classic concoctions are mired in controversy over their origins.
Whatever its sources lobster a l’Americaine is a delicious, albeit, laborious dish. It has a wide variety of variations and some optional ingredients. After perusing numerous recipes I’ve devised the following step by step framework discussing the technique, ingredients, and/or options of each stage. You’ll need a large pot, ideally a rondeau which is a wide, shallow pot with straight sides. If you don’t have a rondeau you can substitute a large standard pot such as a Dutch oven. A final caveat……….. this recipe is not for the faint of heart, the 30-minute mealer, or anyone who has issues with live food. You must have live lobsters and dispatch them by hand with your knife. You can’t just toss them in a pot of boiling water, close your eyes, wince, and think about something else for 10 seconds until they’re dead. For this recipe, the lobster must be in pieces and cooked raw for the best flavor and tenderness.
â€¢ 4 (1Â¼ -lb.) lobsters
â€¢ Salt and pepper to taste
â€¢ Olive oil, as needed
â€¢ 1 small carrot, small dice
â€¢ 1 celery stick, small dice
â€¢ 3 shallots, diced
â€¢ 2 tablespoons tomato paste
â€¢ 2 cloves garlic, chopped
â€¢ 1 cup dry white wine
â€¢ 3 oz. cognac or dry sherry
â€¢ 1 pint fish or chicken stock or more as needed
â€¢ 2 bay leaves
â€¢ A few sprigs of thyme
â€¢ 4-6 oz. heavy cream, (depending on how creamy you like it)
â€¢ 4 tablespoons of cold butter
â€¢ Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
â€¢ Chopped parsley or tarragon to taste
Step 1: Killing and dissecting the lobsters.
To efficiently kill a lobster hold its body with one hand, place the tip of a large, sharp, heavy, chef knife on its head between the eyes, and with a singular, firm thrust split its head. As gruesome as this method sounds, it is actually the most humane way to terminate a lobster. This technique instantly severs the brain in a lightening strike. If you still can’t get up the nerve, ask your fish monger to kill them for you. But then the clock is ticking. You must use the lobsters immediately.
After severing the lobster, twist off the tail and cut it in half lengthwise. If any of your lobsters are female and you wish to incorporate the roe into the dish, remove it and set it aside now. Next twist off the claws. Finally, cut the head and body section in half and scrape out the guts. However, if you are a fan of the tomalley, (the lobster’s liver), and wish to use it in the dish, remove it and set it aside. Discard the remaining entrails from the lobster’s head and body.
Step 2: Seasoning, sautÃ©ing, and shelling the lobster pieces.
Season the lobster pieces with salt and pepper, (including the hollowed out heads/bodies), and sautÃ© them in olive oil on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they turn red, (about 10 minutes). Remove them from the pan and when cool enough to touch, remove the meat from the tails and claws, reserving both the shells and the meat.
Step 3: SautÃ©ing the vegetables and deglazing with the alcohol.
SautÃ© the carrots, celery and shallots, with some salt and pepper, adding more oil to the pan if necessary. When soft add the tomato paste and garlic and sautÃ© one more minute or until the paste is caramelized. Be very careful not to burn the paste or garlic. Deglaze the pan with the white wine and the cognac or sherry. Some recipes also use Madeira, a fortified wine from Portugal. Reduce the alcohol by at least half.
Step 4: Simmering the lobster shells
Return the reserved shells to the pot. You may need to break them into smaller pieces. Add the one pint of stock or more as needed. The shells should be completely covered. Add the bay leaf and thyme and simmer for 20 minutes.
Step 5: Straining, thickening, and enriching the sauce.
Strain the sauce through a coarse strainer, to remove the large pieces and then through a finer strainer to eliminate the finer particulates. Simmer the sauce to reduce it by half. Meanwhile, if incorporating the tomalley and roe, chop the tomalley, and with a fork, work it and the roe into half of the butter. Whisk this into the sauce and simmer for a minute or so. If not using the tomalley and roe skip this step and add the heavy cream. Continue simmering until the desired consistency is achieved. Whisk in the butter and finish with the cayenne, herbs and/or additional salt and pepper if needed. Return the lobster meat to the sauce just long enough to warm it. Serve with a rice pilaf.
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