"No turkey," said Patrick. "What?"
"No turkey. I've never really liked it. And as long as there isn't going to be any big family shindig this year, why don't we do our own Thanksgiving feast?"
"What are you suggesting?"
"Lobster," he replied, eyes twinkling. Or if you've got to have turkey on Thanksgiving, how about lobster on Christmas Eve, when my folks come? I bet they'd spring for it."
I was sold. I'd tried lobster a few times in restaurants, and my toes always tapped in delight as I chewed the sweet white meat. But I'd never purchased it myself -- let alone prepared it. I cast my net for advice, starting with Point Loma Seafoods (619-223-1109), home of my favorite clam sandwich. "Right now," said Luis, "we have the California spiny lobsters, which we buy off the fishermen. When they come into season, we discontinue the Maine lobsters, because the spiny lobsters are a lot more popular. The season runs from the second week in October through March. The rest of the year, we get the Maine lobsters flown in live."
Would Patrick, a transplant, accept these West Coast crustaceans? "People from the East Coast will swear up and down that the Maines are far superior," said Luis, "but somebody from the West Coast, who grew up eating the California spiny, would say that they're better. I think the Maine lobster meat is a shade sweeter. But you get a lot more meat out of a spiny, because the tail is a lot larger. However, it does not have claws, and the Maine lobster does have claws."
Luis recommended against super-sizing, however grand the effect might be. "When you have anything over three pounds, I think the meat gets a little gritty. The flavor is the same, but the texture gets more rubbery. The main reason for that is that it takes longer to cook before the heat penetrates to the center, and the meat toughens up. If you overcook lobster, it gets tough."
Point Loma Seafoods cooks its lobster "in salted water with vinegar and lemon juice. Salt is the primary thing. We put them in a pot of boiling water, then wait for the water to come back to a boil. After that, a pound to a pound-and-a-quarter lobster will take about nine minutes. You want to make sure the lobster is live when you go to cook it," noted Luis. "If the lobster dies before cooking, a toxin in its liver starts to break down and run through the whole lobster."
Live California spiny lobsters at Point Loma run $13.95 a pound right now. "We throw them in a bag and hand them to you. They'll stay alive for 8 to 10 hours in the refrigerator. We also sell them cooked for $15.95 a pound. We boil them up in the morning and sell them cold out of the case."
I wanted ideas for preparation. I cast my nets again, and snagged a chef -- Brian Malarkey of The Oceanaire Restaurant (619-858-2277) in the Gaslamp. "Right now," he told me, "we have Australian lobster tail, the local spiny lobsters, and the Maine cold-water lobsters that come from Nova Scotia and Southern Canada. Those particular Maines come with very large claws."
Malarkey likes to "highlight the fresh taste of the seafood. So most of the time, we just serve lobsters steamed with drawn butter. But we also do a dirty lobster, where we put Cajun spices on it and throw it on the grill. And we do an angry lobster -- we par-cook it in a steamer, then sauté it in a big roasting pan and hit it with serranos and orange zest. We make a rouille by taking the innards and blending them with garlic, lemon juice, and Sriracha, which is a spicy chili ketchup. The combination makes a kind of mayonnaise."
The Oceanaire delights in serving big lobsters, and Malarkey doesn't agree with the notion that big means tough -- it's just a matter of cooking technique. "Here in the restaurant, we have 10-pound, sometimes 15-pound lobsters. We nicknamed a big lobster Bubba one time, and now, our guests want to know who the new Bubba is. On a Friday or Saturday night, you'll often see me walking around the dining room, carrying a platter with a very large lobster on it. I'm here to shatter the urban legend that the meat gets firm as a lobster gets older. I sell the big ones all the time, and people love them -- there is so much meat. They'll ask me what to do with the leftovers, and I tell them, 'Tomorrow morning, make some nice, soft, scrambled eggs. Throw in your lobster meat. You'll have the best breakfast you've ever tasted.'"
Bubbas have shells and guts. The Australian lobster tails are mostly meat, and they can run up to 26 ounces. "They come frozen. What we do is take a big pair of kitchen scissors and cut the back down the middle. Then we crack it open and pull out the meat, let it sit on top of the shell. We cook it slower, so the meat doesn't seize up -- around 350 degrees. Make a garlic-lemon-parsley butter and keep brushing it on. To see if it's done, take a knife and keep slitting the back open a little bit at a time to see if the meat has turned white."
Malarkey advised using caution when handling live lobsters. "Most of the time, when you buy a Maine lobster, their claws are banded. Still, there are sharp points all over them, and that's especially so with the spiny lobster. Maine lobsters are very docile, but spiny lobsters are aggressive. They have big tongs on their tails, and you could get your hand cut wide open. Get on your garden gloves, grab their big antennae, get them in the boiling water, and stand back. And you want the water to taste like the ocean. That takes a lot of salt -- maybe two cups to six quarts of water."
Live Maine lobsters are available at 99 Ranch Market (858-974-8899) for $10.99 a pound as of this writing. The Fish Market (619-232-3474) sells live Maine lobster for $17.20 a pound. Spiny lobsters, killed and gutted, sell for $14.60 a pound, and Australian lobster tails run $38.99 a pound. Prices subject to change.