This is the first in an occasional series about good seafood choices, based on the recommendations of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program.
A client recently requested a "special" birthday dinner for a friend who loves seafood. I could not think of anything more decadent and delicious than meaty lobster chowder. And isn't it nice to have such a generous patron who can afford to foot the bill?
I turned to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" listing fully expecting to find that my Maine lobster was an "excellent" choice. But, lo, Maine lobster rises only to "good" alternative, mainly because no one is quite sure how many lobsters there are out in the oceans and because management of the species is considered to be not the best. Also, right whales and other mammals are apt to become tangled in lobster traps.
There are other lobsters that rate as "excellent" choices. There's the trap-caught spiny lobster from the U.S. and Australia, for instance, and the wild-caught spiny lobster from the Baja penninsula. But avoid the Caribbean spiny lobster: These typically are overfished and harvested too young.
Lobster chowder violates some of my most basic principles for chowder. It's not simple, and it's certainly not cheap. My favorite method for making an authentic chowder is to layer fish with onions, potatoes and pilot crackers in a pot and cover it with fish stock. I can easily imagine the ancient mariner constructing just such a frugal, one-pot dish is his vessel out at sea.
For a lobster chowder, you first need to cook the lobsters, then clean them. We used seven 1 1/2-pound Maine lobsters to feed 12 people. The lobsters were lowered two-at-a-time into a large pot of boiling salted water and cooked four minutes, just to the verge of doneness. Harvesting the meat is a mess: winter lobsters have hard shells (it's the peelers, or soft-shelled lobsters, you see at the lobster shacks in summer). I used poultry shears to open the tails and a cleaver to crack open the claws. Be sure to spread newspapers over your work area. There will be lots of wetness and goo.
Jaspar White, whose 50 Chowders is the text I use as a reference, recommends making a stock by cooking the lobster carcasses for one hour with water, white wine, chopped tomatoes, sliced onions, celery, carrots, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, fennel seeds and black peppercorns. I cooked my stock very gently for four hours to achieve a rich flavor. After straining out all the solids, I then reduced the stock by about 25 percent over low heat, skimming it frequently. It is a very potent brew, indeed.
The stock can be made a day ahead. To finish the chowder, saute four ounces of slab bacon, cut into small pieces, at the bottom of a heavy pot until almost crisp. Remove the bacon pieces and cook a large onion, cut into medium dice, and the leaves from two or three sprigs thyme, chopped fine, in the bacon fat. (If there's not enough fat, add some butter. Nobody said this was a heart-healthy dish.) Stir in two teaspoons Hungarian paprika and cook one minute longer, stirring frequently.
Now add to the pot 1 1/2-pounds Yukon Gold or other all-purpose potatoes cut into 3/4-inch pieces. Cover with lobster stock, turn up the heat and boil, covered, until the potatoes are cooked through. If the chowder doesn't seem thick enough, mash some of the potatoes using a potato masher.
Using three hard-shell lobsters, this will make enough chowder to feed six people. Just before serving, stir the lobster meat--cut into generous pieces--and up to 2 cups heavy cream into the chowder. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Ladle the chowder into large, shallow bowls and garnish with fresh chives.. We serve it with a basket of yeasted sweet potato rolls on the table.