Monday, January 28, 2013

New England lobster boil in Hong Kong

If I remember correctly, live lobster was US $2.99 a pound when I was a kid in New England.  So the ideal ones (1.5 lbs or about 600 grams) would work out to less than HK $50. That meant that even non-rich immigrant families like ours own could afford lobster dinners on summer weekends.

They were sold at a rather ordinary supermarket -- dark, fat, spidery things in a murky fish tank. We got them near the bakery where we bought challah (twisty Jewish egg bread), onion bagels, apple fritters and kaiser roll stills warm from the oven. No matter how many luxury European-run bakeries open in Hong Kong, I've never found these simple baked goods made well here. 

For less than 10 bucks, we'd get two big lobsters to share, still snapping. All afternoon, they'd be left to crawl around in the sink until it was dinner time. Sometimes my brother and I would poke at them with chopsticks till Dad yelled at us to cut it out.

A Canadian friend, who was recently living in the Maritimes in eastern Canada, says live lobser has only gone up to only about $5.99 a pound even now, 25 years later. And it's still a bit less if you live on the coast and are willing to walk down to the docks with a plastic bucket.

Lobsters traps on the Canadian Atlantic coast. (So far as I know, they are almost never farmed). Photo from  Sandy Lane Vacations, Nova Scotia.

I can't remember the last time I had lobster, since I generally don't go to the very expensive restaurants anymore. I'm also allergic to shellfish, so I tend not to order it when I'm out. (Nobody wants to watch me break out in hives at a restaurant.) And you rarely see live New England lobster on sale in Hong Kong, unless you're at one of the expat luxury supermarkets.

On Saturday, Marc and I were at the CitySuper in IFC  (after a failed attempted to show Chloe the crazy Chinese New Year panda decorations there -- long story).  I felt a pang of nostalgia at the sight of Canadian Atlantic lobsters crawling around in a tank, and I suddenly wanted to taste one again. Despite the fact that people think it's "winter" here, Saturday was sunny and warm -- at least 20 degrees Celsius or 65 degrees F. Perfect lobster dinner weather.

CitySuper's lobsters were HK $225 (almost US $30) a PIECE.  I almost fell over. By New England standards, they were little guys -- probably near the legal minimum of 1 lb. (You can't fish them smaller than that because of conservation efforts). I know they had to be shipped live across the world at enormous cost -- but still, they were probably five times what'd you pay on the U.S. East Coast.

The funny thing is that Marc didn't find them expensive -- living overseas does warp your sense of what things should cost. He made a good point that we often spend HK $400 on a mediocre Sunday brunch at expat-y restaurants in town -- something made of cheap ingrediants like eggs, bread, bacon, coffee, etc. (This would be a good time to revisit my scathing review of the W's overpriced brunch).

So we splurged on two Canadian lobsters, a bottle of Oyster Bay chardonnay, and all the usual fixings -- salad, corn on the cob, ingrediants for homemade biscuits -- and it came to about HK $700. Yes, very expensive for a home dinner, but nothing close to what we'd pay for the same at a Western seafood restaurant downtown. Marc said it'd be a celebration for his annual bonus. 


How do you kill a lobster humanely?

When we were kids, we'd let them do whatever it is lobsters do in the sink. (Sometimes one would make an ill-fated escape attempt on the kichen counter.) Then, we'd plunge them into boiling water at the last minute. I have no idea if this is humane or not, but it was a very quick death. 

Hong Kong is not the sort of place where you let lobsters around your kitchen, so I asked the CitySuper guy to guy kill them for us. What I care about is that the kill is fast and efficient -- either at the store or at home. What I didn't want is for them to die a slow, miserable death, their claws wrapped, suffocating for hours in a supermarket plastic bag. 

I told him this. The CitySuper  guy asked if I wanted them chopped in half, and I said no. (The traditional way of cooking them is whole). So he said he'd "release their urine",  which would make them die quickly. I'd never heard of this technique, though I know it's used for Chinese-styled "peeing pants shrimp." So I stupidly believed him after he (allegedly) killed them, wrapped them in ice and plastic and handed them over.

So you can imagine my horror when hours later, after taking them out of the fridge, they were still moving. I was appalled. The guy either had no idea how to handle lobsters, or (typically) he didn't really care if they suffered.

I think that anyone who eats meat -- anyone who's had a slice of chicken on their restaurant Caesar salad -- should own up to the fact that that meat is slaugtered. And if they can't, they should be vegetarian. I am clear that all the meat I eat is killed at some point. That said, I will not eat meat that is killed in a way that I think is needlessly drawn-out and inhumane. (That's why I avoid shark's fin and a few other foods). I should have trusted my New England-y insticts instead of trusting a supermarket employee who grew up in an Asian concrete jungle.

So, what is the best way to kill a lobster? 

Trevor Corson -- award-winning food writer, "sushi concierge"  and author of  The Secret Life of Lobsters -- wrote this nice blog post on the subject, including step-by-step photos.

He quotes  Dr. Neville Gregory of New Zealand's Animal Welfare deparment, who was given an award from  England’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 

I also did a little extra research. Here's what you do (and what I will do next time).

1.  Either you buy the lobsters pretty close to the time you cook them. Or, you let them run free for a bit in your sink / bathtub, even if you keep the plastic things on their claws for safety. Or you have the shop guy kill them for you -- and make sure he actually does it.
2. If you bring them home live, do NOT put fresh water in your sink / bathtub, as they are salt-water creatues and will die a miserable slow death in fresh water. They're better off in a dry tub.
3. 15-30 minutes before cooking, put your lobster in the freezer. They will not freeze to death in this time. (When you think about it, their natural habitat are the icy waters off the Canadian coast). But, as they are cold-blooded creatures, this will slow their bodily systems, numbing and sedating them. It also makes them easier to handle -- which makes for a faster, more efficient kill. It's not very humane for a nervous, amateur cook to repeatedly stab a squirming lobster. 
4. What I remember from growing up is that you could drive a knife right into the place behind their eyes -- what does this do? Cut the spinal cord?
5. Step 4 is probably optional. Place the numbed, sleepy lobster on its back. In a quick, confident motion with a good-sized sharp knife, cut a straight line from belly to head.
6. Put your lobster, head-first, into the pot of boiling salted water.

Animal rights activists say the above method is more humane than boiling them alive. Also, it takes a deft hand to get a live lobster to cooperate with a hot pot on the stove. 

Some scientists say lobsters don't really feel pain. I have no idea, but death throes are not pleasant to watch in any case. Those home cooks who claim that their lobsters are clinging to the side of the pot, giving them pitiful looks, etc., are probably imagining things. But I think even those of us with strong stomachs do not enjoy forcably holding the pot's top down while a creature thrashes around below.


My dinner on Saturday.

How to cook a lobster
1. Fill a large pot 2/3 or 3/4 full of very salty water. (Originally, this was done with sea water, compete with seaweed. But would anyone dare consume the water from Victoria Harbour?)
2. When the water boils, put your freshly killed lobster in, head first. Watch for splashing from the tail, which can still move after the lobster is dead. Use kitchen mitts.
3. Wait for the water to come to a boil again.
4. A smallish lobster (1 to 1.5 lbs) should cook for about 8 minutes, on medium heat with the lid on, after the water reboils. 10 minutes maximum. Ignore terrible online advice to cook for 15-20 minutes, which will turn your lobster into chewing gum. 
5. Signs your lobster is done: The shell has gone bright red. You can pull an antannae off easily.
5. Serve whole with a side dish of salted, good-quality melted better for dipping.

Well, that's my way of cooking a lobster.

Marc and I are so very opinionated about how food should be prepared that we often just give up on trying to agree, and make dinner separately. Even brunches at home require both of us to make our own eggs. 

So he did something else with his lobster -- parboiled it, halved it, drizzled it with stuff, grilled it. I guess you can ask him for his recipe.

Side dishes

The side dishes should be very simple, to not distract from the glory of the fresh lobster.

1. Salad with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and Ranch dressing from a bottle. So '80s.
2. Corn on the cob. (Husk corn. Boil in salted water 10 minutes. Drizzle with melted butter and sea salt).
3. Cheddar bay biscuits

Actually -- for a simpler meal, you can serve with boiled potatoes or a potato salad. But I was in an ambitious culinary mood.

Cheddar bay biscuits 
These biscuits were made famous by the Red Lobster restaurant chain. Random tidbit: Americans consume 400 million cheddar biscuits a year, or more than a million a day on average. This explains alot. 
Nobody has ever discovered the Red Lobster recipe, but here's an approximate replication. (And, unlike most online recipes, does not require biscuit mix, which is hard to find in Hong Kong).
The resulting breads were tasty and light,  but didn't rise or "pop" as much as I would have like liked, so I'm still tinkering with this. 
(To give credit where it's due, this is a modified version of this recipe from the Chickens in the Road blog.)

1. Preheat oven to 450 F / 225 C, or about as hot as a regular home oven will go.
2. Combine
1 1/2 cups self-rising flour
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Mixed spices -- Cayenne pepper, garlic powder, celery salt, etc. Personally I used what was in the kitchen, which was paprika, thyme and rosemary.

3. Chop in, using one or two sharp small knives (depending on your technique) 1/4 cup of chilled butter. It does not have to be 100% mixed. It's actually good to have some butter cubes / blobs

4. Stir in 
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese (or more, for taste)
1/4 cup yogurt 
2/3 cup milk

5. Scoop the batter onto a greesed baking tray. They should look like a half-dozen lumpy balls. Do not flatten.

6. Soften a little more butter and mix in minced garlic (I use the Chinese stuff in a glass jar) and chopped fresh herbs. Brush on top of the dough lumps.

7. Bake about 20 minutes, making sure the bottoms don't burn.

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