I’m happy to hear that the French, who know a thing or two about gastronony, have adopted our Maine custom of lobster for Christmas. Along with oysters, caviar and other icons of epicurean luxury, Maine lobster has become de rigueur, you might say, in France for the Christmas Eve reveillon, the wake-up meal after midnight mass. This new custom gives a boost to the fortunes of Maine lobster fishermen at the darkest time of the year, although, with Canada’s new tariff-free lobster deal with Europe, Maine fishermen may start to feel a competitive sting. (Are you listening, Washington?) Asian markets are important too—Chinese New Year is a big time for lobster celebrations. But in recent years, more than a third of all Maine lobster exports to France have been at Christmastime.
Maybe not everyone in Maine celebrates Christmas with lobster, but in my own family, my mother considered a bright red lobster a proper commemoration of the feast. Truth to tell, it’s a whole lot easier to serve up steamed lobsters with melted butter–with a side of baking powder biscuits and a big green salad—than it is to roast a turkey, boil the vegetables and make all those pies. (Who needs pie after consuming a whopping great Maine lobster?)
Even better is this lobster stew, which we had for Christmas Eve but it would be just as good for New Year’s—or any time throughout the chilly months when you feel the need for celebrating. It’s based on a recipe of Sam Hayward, dean of Maine chefs and one who truly understands Maine foods and foodways. Sam calls it Scotian Lobster Chowder because he says he first had it in Nova Scotia. I’ve simplified it somewhat because even the most simpatico restaurant chefs don’t always understand the need for effortless and uncomplicated techniques in the home kitchen.
Although you can buy already cooked lobsters, if you can find live ones they’re easy to steam in 2 to 3 inches of heavily salted water for about 15 minutes or until the shells turn bright red.
Can you make this ahead? Yes, indeed, and it’s actually all the better for sitting overnight.
(Makes 4 to 6 servings)
- 2 or 3 cooked lobsters, about 4 pounds total
- 2 ounces slab bacon, cut in 1/4-inch dice
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 pounds (about 4 medium) russet potatoes, peeled and diced
- 2 medium leeks, diced
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Medium hot chili pepper (piment d’Espelette is good)
Crack the lobster shells and pick out all the meat you can find, especially from the tail and claws. Include the green tomalley and the red coral, if any, from the body cavity. Cut the lobster chunks into bite-size pieces and set aside.
Set a large heavy soup kettle over medium-low heat; add the bacon and a tablespoon of the butter. Sauté until bacon yields its fat and is crisp on the edges. Add the potatoes, leeks and 1 1/4 cups water. Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes.
Meawhile, in a separate skillet, melt the remaining butter over medium-low heat and add the lobster chunks. Stir the lobster meat in the butter until it is heated all the way through, then scrape the lobster and butter into the chowder. Add a little more already boiling water if it seems necessary to cover everything. Cover the pot and continue to simmer gently for about 20 minutes. At this point, if you wish, the chowder may be removed from heat and cooled to room temperature, then covered and refrigerated for up to 8 hours.
When you’re ready to serve, bring the chowder to a simmer while you heat the milk and cream together over medium-low heat. Simmer the milk and cream for 2 to 3 minutes, then add to the chowder. Season to taste with salt and pepper, adding a good pinch of piment d’Espelette if you wish. Ladle the chowder into warm bowls and serve hot, with a dollop of butter on top if you wish.