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November 1, 2006

Raw lobster and how to cook it

by Sandra Dinsmore

The system of immersing food in water under pressure high enough to neutralize bacteria and pathogens originated in Spain about ten years ago when Nicolás Correa, a family of companies that specializes in grain milling machines, developed a high-pressure machine for food pasteurization much like the autoclaves doctors and dentists use to sterilize their instruments.

According to a corporate chef, Correa's machine was first used in the food service industry to prevent e coli breakouts in applesauce from bird droppings on skins and worms inside apples. It was also used to remove bacteria from avocados and other fruits eaten raw.

Some time later, a director of Clearwater Fine Foods, in Nova Scotia, a large, publicly held fresh and processed seafood corporation that specializes in shellfish, heard of the work done with avocados using the hydrostatic pressure processing (hpp) system. According to Tony Jabbour, General Manager of Clearwater's lobster division, Clearwater rented a high-pressure processing machine made by Avure Technologies, of Kent, Washington, and did trials with all its shellfish. While Clearwater didn't get the result it wanted for extended shelf life, it discovered that the Avure released the meat from the shell, an important benefit. Clearwater bought an Avure, and for the past two and a half years has used it for processing lobsters.

Before using this method, the only other way to extract meat from lobsters was by cooking because as anyone who has ever tried to shuck a raw lobster has found, it is just about impossible.

Stefan Czapalay, 41, Clearwater's corporate chef, also owns several businesses and works as a food development consultant. A professional cook for 25 years who is considered a seafood expert, he explained the process by saying that the lobster workers fill a four-foot-long pierced tube with live lobsters and place it in a cylinder-shaped chamber that he described as looking like an upright submarine with very thick walls filled with chilled seawater. The 40,000 lbs. per square inch of pressure applied to the lobster kills the animal and separates the fascia, a membrane attached to the wall of the shell. Because the pressure is equal on all sides, rather than being crushed, the fruit or animal being processed keeps its shape.

When the lobster comes out of the chamber it is easy to shell. "The tail snaps off and the meat slides out whole," Czapalay said. "The claws and knuckles sometimes take a bit of coaxing, requiring a little manual labor, people cracking the little claw." The shuckers feed the legs between rollers going in opposite directions. The rollers squeeze the meat back into the shucker's hands; the emptied shells roll through and land in a pile on the other side.

"I love that," Czapalay said of the leg meat. "I can't believe that more chefs haven't jumped on leg meat. It's an inexpensive way to serve lobster. Any idiot can cook a tail. With the leg meat, I've got probably a hundred recipes. You know, that beautiful meat: if you dice it and put it around ravioli, it cooks in the same time it takes to cook the ravioli. It makes mousses and stuffing. We even do what we call Lobster Frit. We take that leg meat and we toss it in Asian cornstarch and herbs, and quick fry it like you would calamari." He said he got that idea when he was in Spain and said, "People love it for a snack before dinner."

The standard meal made from raw lobster these days is a dish referred to on menus as butter-poached lobster, and is only available at expensive restaurants. The chef takes the raw meat and simmers it in drawn butter for about 12 minutes. This method is said to give the lobster a rich, buttery flavor.

Many of the chefs he's spoken with like steaming the individual lobster tails in vacuum packs. He said the French have cooked in vacuum packs for twenty-five years and that it's like cooking with parchment paper: the juices get reabsorbed. This type of preparation is called sous vide: French for "under vacuum."

When cooking in the bag, he suggested cooking it at a very low temperature for a long time. "But the problem with that," he said, "is the lobster gets very soft, and people don't expect lobster to be soft. The Europeans like it soft, but North Americans want that crunch." To avoid the soft texture when cooking in a bag or pack, Czapalay suggested dropping the bag into boiling water for 30 seconds, then transferring the bag to a second pot and cooking it at 160 degrees F. for six minutes. (For those who don't have a food thermometer, that's below simmer, or very hot to the touch.) Czapalay said that the aggressive heat in the beginning gives a firm bite on the outside, but leaves the inside tender.

For the rest of us who are not able to order raw lobster meat, though Hathaway hopes to be able to sell his product retail in about six months, we can approximate butter-poached lobster by blanching a lobster for 30 seconds, which separates the fascia and makes it possible to shuck it, then poaching it in drawn butter.

-- Sandra Dinsmore

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