Field Report:
Adventures of a Culinary Padawan
École des Techniques à la Cuisine
Lesson TwentyTwo: Seafood


Dear Foodie Voyeur,

Seafood basically includes all edible sea creatures that aren't free-swimming fish-like things with internal well-developed skeletons. These include crawlers like lobsters and clams (arthropods), double-shelled things like clams, oysters, scallops (bivalves), single-shelled creatures like limpets, conch, whelks, and swimmers with non-existing or very reduced bones like squid and octopi (cephalopods). We didn't do all of them, but we did process lobsters, clams, mussels, scallops, and oysters toward several dishes. Departing from the recipes in the textbook, the Jedi Master instead decided to demonstrate Paella, the famous Spanish rice and seafood dish, and an example of fusion cuisine, where French and Asian flavors are used to create a new dish.

But first, we have to prepare the critters. The lobsters were kept in seaweed and came to us alive. Poaching, boiling or steaming the animal is considered less humane, and can toughen the meat since you end up cooking them twice in subsequent dishes. So though not required to kill the lobster, it was strongly advised we do it "for the experience."

Several tips were forwarded, including rubbing the carapace of the lobster from eyes back to "calm" it. It was odd, but it did seem to calm the one the Jedi Master was preparing. Turn it upside down, and hold it down by it's midriff (use a side towel if desired). Place the tip of the chef's knife between the mandibles (the "mouth parts") straight down, then pivot the knife toward the counter, splitting the head between the eyes. You should do this swiftly and humanely, meaning no hesitation and a sharp knife. The creepy part is that the lobster keeps moving after you've killed it. This is normal, but the creature is dead. If you prefer, you can put it aside till it stops moving before continuing.

    After killing the lobster:
  1. Cut or twist off the tail;
  2. Split the head in half;
  3. Cut out the lungs on both sides of the body, just under the carapace
  4. Remove the dark green coral (which becomes red when cooked) and lighter green tomalley and set aside;
  5. Twist off the claws and with the back of the knife, crack the claws crosswise on both sides to make it easier to remove the meat from the shell after cooking.
Still, many people didn't want to kill the lobsters that way, though they said they'd clean and eat them. This is when we used peer pressure to make them, belittling them, shaming them, etc. It was fun. I also offered to try the lobsters for crimes and execute them ...

Culls are lobsters missing one or both claws, and these are generally cheaper to buy since they cannot be presented whole. I had my former partner kill one without claws, pointing out that it can't pinch her. In the US, lobsters must be 1 lb or over to harvest, and this size is often called a "chicken lobster." Also, if sauce is going to be made, you can ask your fish monger for just the lobster heads, which contain plenty of meat. If they are frozen, you shouldn't use the coral or tomally for the liaison.

Sauce Americaine
The lobster heads are sautéed in mixed oil (olive plus other vegetable oils) till red and cooked through Flame with cognac. In a rondeau or other large pot, sauté a mirepoix of onions, leeks, garlic, and carrots, cut into one-inch pieces. Put the lobster heads into the rondeau and add white wine and fumet to cover; if fish stock is not available, water is fine. Be sure to add the deglazing juices from the pan you cooked the lobster in: when the pan is still hot, add water and boil, scraping the bottom. Simmer with a bouquet garni for about an hour, then strain. This is the lobster stock, called "liquid gold" by the Jedi Knight.

To make the sauce, a buerre manié is made, then combined with the coral and tomalley. It's added to the hot sauce as a light liaison, which enriches and thickens it, as well as adding flavor and color. It's a really rich, tasty sauce.

The lobster tails are cut into serving size pieces -- they can be cut like noisettes or miniature steaks, or be split and then halved again. The pieces and the claws are cooked in a large pan with oil till cooked through. The boiling-hot sauce Americaine is mounted with butter if desired, then ladled over the cooked lobster. Serve in a bowl.

Seafood Rice
The other major dish we cooked was the variation on a Spanish Paella. Carrots, leeks and peppers are cut to macedoine size, and each is cooked à l'étuvé and seasoned with salt and pepper. Tomatoes are prepared émonder and a concasse of tomatoes is also cooked. Onions are sautéed in an excess of oil, and rice added and cooked till toasted and coated. A fumet is heated and saffron added to the stock, then that poured over the coated rice. The prepared vegetables are added, and it's all simmered for about 20 minutes, or till the stock is absorbed by the rice. Don't use too much stock, or it will be mushy. It should be cooked through but still have a bit of "bite" left -- like cooking pasta to al dente or "to the tooth." Also, the rice must not be stirred while cooking, or you'll end up with risotto, where the starch from the rice comes out and makes a sticky, creamy dish.

The Jedi Master pointed out that this dish is usually made with a short grain rice like arborio, but long grained is fine. She had us sauté scallops in a very hot pan on one side till crisp and brown, then put aside to add to the rice after it's cooked. It can be tossed into the rice afterwards, the heat of the rice finishing the cooking of the seafood. Other shellfish can be added as well:
  • mussels -- Scrub them under water, and pull off the beard -- the fibrous material the mussel uses to connect itself to rocks on the tideline. We cooked them in a butter sauce in which mirepoix and tomatoes were sweated and white wine is added -- Moules Marnière.
  • clams -- These have to be 'degorged' in water into which some cornmeal is added. The cornmeal irritates the clams and it will spit out the cornmeal, along with any impurities.
  • scallops -- these usually come cut out of the shell. We simply picked through them to make sure no extra flaps of muscle or intestinal tract (sand veins) were still present. Bay scallops are tiny, about the side of a fingertip at the largest. Sea scallops are about five times larger.
  • osyters -- We opted to eat these raw. To open, a blunt knife similar to a butter knife was forced into the hinge to pop it open. The shallower shell was twisted off and discarded, and the oyster presented in it's natural 'cup.' A sauce mignonette was made -- essentially a shallot vinaigrette.
In all cases, the shellfish should close if tapped. If the bivalve seems heavy for it's size, it's likely filled with mud and should be discarded. Most shellfish needs to be alive, killed just prior to or during the cooking process. However, even if still alive, try to ascertain how long the shellfish has been out of water. Lobsters tend to lose muscle mass when taken from the water; this is why some lobsters have meat that is much smaller than it's shell, or if when you crack it open, a lot of water drains out. People will tell you it's because it's waterlogged from the cooking, but in fact, the muscle fiber has liquified, and water is lost from the flesh.

Squid and octopus can be dead when purchased, but again, the fresher the better. And fresh not only means alive, but also ask how long ago these were caught.

The Jedi Master also made use a fusion scallop dish: make a paste of butter and Japanese miso, season with pepper and salt. Smear it on a sheet pan and place the scallops on top. Dot with more of the paste and place in a broiler for about 10 minutes, till the scallops are cooked through. Remove while still hot and pour rice wine vinegar onto the pan and scrape it to make a pan sauce. Drop baby spinach over to wilt while still hot. Place the cooked spinach on a warm platter and place the scallops over, then pour over with the sauce. Lobsters can be split, dotted with butter and broiled also.

We made this instead of Coquilles Ste. Jacques which is scallops in a Sauce Bonne Femme and broiled. We felt that Sole Bonne Femme was similar, and we voted to have the Jedi Master show us something different instead.

At the end of the cooking, we all sat down, opened bottles of wine and champagne and toasted the end of the class. Certificates were distributed, signifying that we are past the first stage of being padawans. We are qualified to be called Jedi, and can choose to become Apprentices; some of us will become Knights. Who knows, perhaps there is a Master or two among use, as well?

It's been a long journey, and one worth taking! I hope you enjoyed the trip, too.

With Love,
Susu, the Culinary Padawan

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