“Dave, I don’t know if I can do this. It’s moving around on the cutting board right now.”
“Then just throw it in the pot, it’ll be dead soon enough.”
“No, throwing them in alive is cruel. I just have to do it.”
And there I was standing next to my kitchen counter in front of a beautiful and very much alive Maine lobster. With my brother on speaker phone coaching me through the process, my will to “humanely” sever the lobster’s main ganglion with the knife I held in my hand waivered. Although I was an avid cook, before this particular weekend, I had never actually killed my own meal.
Like most of my kitchen escapades, this meal began with the thought of recreating a homemade dish. Growing up in New England, summer meant seafood season. Our annual Fourth of July barbecue always had a big pot of steamers along with burgers. My mother and I would usually swap out grilled salmon for steak. And on nights when we were too tired to cook, it was an unspoken agreement that we all piled into the car and drove off to the Clam Box for fritters and chowder.
But now miles away from those northern shores, I’m stuck in mid-Atlantic city and seafood hasn’t been as bountiful this summer for me. I was missing steamers, chowder, fritters, fish and chips, salmon, scallops, and lobster. So I took it upon myself to nurture my homesickness and feed my appetite for real New England seafood.
I began with clam chowder – classic New England clam chowder. This was my first adventure in using live ingredients. I bought a bagful of cherrystone clams and brought them back to my apartment to clean and prep them as I had seen my father do summer after summer. His trick was to let them feed on corn meal before steaming them in order to clean the grit from their systems, and scrubbing them really well to remove any sand from their shells. But let’s face it, clams aren’t a hard animal to kill for a meal. Without eyes, or any recognizable body parts really, I didn’t hesitate much in throwing them in a shallow steam bath until they opened their shells in surrender. From then on it was a familiar process of making a stock from the natural clam juices, boiling potatoes, rendering salt pork, making a roux, and throwing it all together to make a chunky and comforting chowder. But clam chowder was just the beginning of my quest to recreate summer time in New England.
For me, a summer isn’t complete until I have lobster. Luckily, fresh live Maine lobster is only an online order away followed by priority overnight shipping. Missing the taste of fresh lobster after a day in Maine, I decided to make lobster rolls with my delivery. The easy way of eating lobster, this sandwich truly is the trademark of New England summers as major pizza chains and even McDonald’s start serving it up come July. But aside from the fast food roll, there was always one special day during the summer when my dad would splurge and pick up a few fresh lobsters to cook at home. He would dig through a basement closet for the old black and white speckled lobster pot, then haul it upstairs and fill it with water – but that’s where my memory ends.
I realized as I was now hovering over my own lobster in my kitchen, I had never witnessed my father boil the lobsters. Maybe my subconscious had blocked out those memories, or maybe as a kid my patience would run out waiting for the massive pot of water to boil that I would always wander off before the lobsters met their fate, but now I was looking at my own lobster and had no experience to draw upon. The clam chowder? That seemed as easy as heating up a TV dinner in the microwave compared to this, I thought, as I stared at the lobster’s moving, spiny legs. But any more hesitation wasn’t going to help the lobster or me.
“OK Dave, I think I’m going to do it. I have to – the water has been boiling for 10 minutes now without a lobster in it.”
“Alright, well just put the phone down and make it quick… OH GOD I HEARD THAT CRUNCH!”
And with that I had murdered my first meal. Lucky for me, there was no blood and no screaming (besides my own and my brother’s over the phone), but there was a lot of post-mortem squirming, which was a little unsettling. And only 12 minutes later I was pulling a beautifully red lobster out of the pot. Soon I was cracking into the lobster shells and picking out the meat as I had done for many summers growing up. Then I was mixing the tender lobster meat with mayo and filling hot dog buns. But by the time I got around to eating it, something was different.
I surely had satisfied my craving for New England seafood after all my hard work. Everything tasted almost as good as being back home. But I think I gained more out of this experience than making myself less homesick. I had, for the first time in my life, killed the animal I was using for my meal. Granted, I’m talking about lobsters and clams, which seem pretty miniscule and alien compared to what most people hunt on a regular basis. But my experience cooking these creatures helped develop my culinary courage, while giving me a newfound respect for the same seafood I would frequently binge upon during my summers growing up. I now ate my lobster roll and chowder a little more slowly and savored it just that much more.
Nevertheless, sometimes, I’m still happy to take the easy way. A few days later, I made a quick stop at the fish market to pick up some pre-filleted cod. I skipped the classic deep-fried fish and chips in favor of a lighter option: marinating the fillets in orange juice, then pan-searing them and finishing them in the oven. After my clam and lobster adventures, the simpler dish was a welcomed change. Topped with sweet sautéed onions and tart cranberries, this fish recipe was different than the grilled or breaded varieties I usually ate at home, but still reminded me of summer time in New England. I had overcome the challenges with using live ingredients (as well as the processes involved in making chowder or picking lobster meat), but after making the relatively painless fish dish, I realized that what reminded me of home wasn’t elaborate or complex recipes, but fresh ingredients – whether or not “fresh” meant “still alive.”
New England Clam Chowder
2 dozen clams
1 tablespoon peppercorns
2 bay leaves
Sprig of thyme
1 large onion, diced (save the scraps for the stock)
6 ounces salt pork
2 celery sticks, diced
1 pound potatoes, cubed
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
Begin by making the stock. Steam the clams in ¼ inch of water for 8 minutes removing the clams as they open. Discard any clams that haven’t opened after 10 minutes. Scoop the clam meat from the shells using a spoon, but be sure to return any liquids from the clam shells back into the pot. Add peppercorns, 2 bay leaves, thyme, and onion scraps. Add enough water, stock, or clam juice to make one quart of stock.
Strain the liquid using a cheese cloth.
Return the stock to the stove and add the potatoes. Cook potatoes in the stock until just done. Strain the potatoes, but reserve the stock.
For the chowder:
In a pan over medium heat, render the salt pork until golden and then remove.
Add the onions and celery and cook in the rendered fat until softened.
Add the flour and mix well to coat the vegetables and form a roux.
Add ½ of the reserved stock and let it come to a gentle simmer for 15 minutes.
In a separate pan, gently heat the milk and cream until warm, then add to the simmering pot and stir. This is the point to fix the consistency of the chowder if you must. If it is too runny, then add a cornstarch slurry to help thicken it. If it is too thick, then add more of the reserved stock.
Add the potatoes and cook for an additional 5 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
Add the chopped clams and cook for 2 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Finally, stir in the reserved salt pork pieces and serve the chowder immediately.
Yields 2 quarts of chowder
2 1.3-1.5 pound lobsters
½ cup mayonnaise
1½ tablespoons butter, melted plus more for the rolls
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Salt and pepper
4 hot dog rolls
Prepare the lobsters by placing your knife slightly behind its eyes to sever the main nerve. Once the lobster head is split, immediately steam the lobster in a large pot with ½ inch of boiling water. For lobsters around 1.5 pounds, steam them for about 12 minutes or until they are vividly red.
Pull the lobster out immediately and let cool.
Once cool, pick and separate the meat from the lobster.
In a separate bowl, combine the mayonnaise, melted butter, and lemon zest. Mix in the lobster meat. Season with salt and pepper if desired.
For the rolls, coat the rolls in melted butter and toast on a pan over medium heat or under the broiler.
Serve the lobster meat in the rolls with romaine lettuce.
Yields 4 rolls
Seared Cod with Sauteed Cranberries
2 6-ounce fillets of cod
1 orange, sliced in half
2 tablespoons butter
½ white onion, sliced into strings
1 large garlic clove, minced
¼ cup dried cranberries, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
Marinate the fillets for at least a few hours in the juice of ½ the orange.
Meanwhile, heat the butter in a pan over low heat until melted. Add the onion strings and cook until the onions are softened and caramelized, about 20 minutes. Strain the onions from the pan and set aside.
Add the garlic to the pan and saute one minute or until fragrant. Add the cranberries and stir. Then add the juice from the remaining orange half as well as the vinegar. Stir and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook until the cranberries have softened.
After marinating the fish, heat a pan with olive oil over medium-high heat. Season the fillets with salt and pepper, then add them to the pan searing both sides. Once flipped, add the pan directly to a 350°F oven for 5 more minutes or until the meat is no longer translucent.
Top each fish with the caramelized onions and sauteed cranberries. Serve alongside baked summer vegetables.