Tuesday, 3 May 2011

L is for... Langoustine and lobster lasagna

Initially I was considering boiling and dressing the lobster myself, but the memories of that scene from Annie Hall along with a long, hard look at my biggest lidded pan (a large crab might be just about comfortable. Just.) forced me to reconsider. To be honest, I have quite intense levels of squeamishness about boiling creatures alive. Having said that, I've never really felt that bad about boiling mussels to death in white wine and stock or chucking a razor clam live on the barbie. I freely admit that there's a lack of consistency in my logic, but I still can't quite get my head round the lobster thing. Maybe it's because they can, if you don't shackle their legs, crawl out of the pots you put them in. Maybe it's got something to do with the story my mum told me as a child of her friend, Glynis' attempt to boil a lobster. Apparently said lobster managed to crawl out of the cooking pot several times before being thrown back in and trapped inside by the nearest heavy object to hand, while Glynis was forced to escape the kitchen and hold her hands over her ears, because she couldn't bear to listen to the lobster's chilling "screams". I have little doubt that this lobster horror story has been exaggerated over the years due to the enormity of the distress it caused me as a child. I was also told that the only reason for boiling the lobster alive in the first place was so that its shell would turn red. My little girl's heart was broken and I was furious at the injustice of that poor lobster's cruel demise. I promised myself that never ever would a lobster lose its life to serve my plate. AND, where and if possible, I would do my very best to rescue any I could along the way. I punched my fist in the air like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind declaring "As God is my witness, I will never eat lobster again!"

I promised myself many things as a child. If I'd followed them all it would mean that I would only ever  wear tights that matched the colour of my shoes - which would always be patent, and that I would be responsible for an international ban on salad cream and peas. I've since changed my mind about the peas, but still think I was bang on the money about salad cream. And, needless to say, I have eaten lobster since that fateful day, and, needless to say, I have enjoyed it. But still I have shied away from the actual cooking of them. However, I have done extensive research into the most humane methods to kill and cook a lobster, which I will share with those of you who are braver than I.

  • Firstly, don't just chuck a live lobster into a vat of boiling water. Of course it's not going to like it. You can do one of two things. Either stroke it between its eyes to send it off to sleep or pop it in the freezer for 15-20 minutes to send it off to the land of nod before you trap it in its bath of doom. 
  • Next, don't let the water come to the boil before the lobster goes in, pop it in when the water is luke warm and let them heat up together. I suppose it's a bit like boiling a frog.
  • Alternatively, you can just stick a knife in the lobster's head - a lot of people believe this to be much more humane, but be prepared for post-death wriggling as the nerves will continue reacting for a bit.
  • If you do hear your lobsters scream, it is actually the sound of steam escaping from underneath their shells - they do not have vocal cords. 
  • If you boil a lobster that you have already killed by stabbing it in the head, its shell will still turn red. The reason lobsters are sold and cooked live (or only just dead) is simply for freshness. As soon as they are killed, their digestive enzymes begin to digest the organs, unless they are eviscerated. When this happens the protein turns an unpleasant texture and emits a foul odour. 
  • Lastly, whether or not they feel pain is a massively contentious issue, but current evidence suggests it to be unlikely.

After all this research, I just went and bought a ready dressed lobster from Waitrose. Yes, I am a wimp. Either way, it turned out not to matter much, as the lobster I bought ended up in the bin anyway.

L night was due to take place on a Saturday. All the shopping had been done, the menu had been planned and then, on Saturday morning, my mum rang to tell me my grandmother, who had been ill for some time, had taken a turn for the worse.  Phone calls were made and Alphabet Soup was postponed until the following evening so I could travel down to Tunbridge Wells to visit her. Just in case.

To be honest, I wasn't all that concerned. She'd been on the brink of death before and, despite the odds, had lived to tell the tale. I'd rubbed her sore back in hospital the year before when the doctors hadn't expected her to make it through the night, but I'd seen her determination to live. She refused to close her eyes, she refused to give up or give in and she fought tooth and nail to stay with us. On the train down, I was worried, of course, but I didn't really believe she'd go without a fight or that she'd ever lose her will to push on through. After navigating my way around hospital corridors to find Ward 7 and disinfecting my hands with the gel pump in the doorway, I saw my mum and uncle sitting at the end of a bed. As I walked closer, I saw Nanny's face and knew things were different this time. She was unconscious and doped up on morphine and, more than I'd ever noticed before, looked painfully pale and fragile. And really fucking old. Something had changed. I stayed by her bedside for a few hours, holding her hand as mum, unc and I chatted about everyday nothings to distract ourselves from what we all knew was imminent. When I said goodbye, I knew it would be for the last time. 

When I got back to London and turned my key in the lock, Richard was waiting for me on the other side of the front door. My mum had phoned with news that Nanny had died. I didn't know what to do. Should I go back home to be them all? But what about all the food? There was so much food. Nanny loved her food and hated waste, just as I hate waste now. She made a mean Madeira cake and the best lemon curd I've ever tasted. She loved to eat and always had a cupboard's worth of goodies to hand. We loved going to Nanny and Grandad's. They'd feed us delicious food and then let us upturn their entire assortment of pots and pans and play percussion with wooden spoons on the kitchen floor.

I was so tired that all I really wanted to do was knock back a gin and watch a crap film. I spoke to mum and she told me to stay put and I was relieved. I wanted the letter L to go ahead. I needed the distraction from it all. Doing something, making something, that felt in some way, any way, useful, was a relief. Alphabet Soup is always hard work and exhausting, but always wonderful, and L night was no different. The preparation, despite many tears, made it all the more bearable. And the evening itself was absolutely lovely, but because it was a day late my ready-prepared lobster was out of date. I only noticed at 6 o' clock and my guests were due in an hour. The local fishmongers didn't have any in, but they did have dressed crab. On L night my lobster and langoustine lasagna was actually langoustine and crab, but everyone forgave me. It was delicious and I have repeated the dish with lobster since and it had the same depth of fragrance but was just that little bit richer - no bad thing in my book.

Langoustine and lobster lasagna

I used 2.5" metal ring moulds for these, but you can just leave the pasta in large sheets and layer them in an ovenproof dish.

for the pasta

200 g/ 8 oz '00' pasta flour
2 whole eggs or 4 egg yolks, beaten

Make a well in the flour and add in your eggs. Bring the flour into the egg, using the tips of your fingers until it is all incorporated and resembles breadcrumbs. You can achieve this very quickly by blitzing the egg and flour together in a food processor. Tip the mixture out and work it until it forms a lump, then knead the dough until smooth and silky.  Wrap the dough in cling film and pop it in the fridge to rest for at least half an hour.

Once rested, cut the dough into four, cover all but one piece and roll it out on a floured surface as thinly as you can. This takes some elbow grease, but don't give up. Then again, if you've got a pasta machine, you might as well use it. Once the pasta has been rolled out as thinly as possible, then, using a pastry cutter, cut out circles slightly smaller than your lasagna moulds. Do the same again with the rest of the dough. Before layering up the lasagna, the pasta will need to be pre-cooked in salted boiling water until al dente. Plunge the pasta into cold water and lay out on a clean tea towel ready to use. 

for the sauce

1 onion, finely chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 small dressed lobster (or crab)
A small pot of langoustine tails, de-veined
A large glass of white wine
A generous handful of fresh basil, torn up or chopped
6 - 8 tomatoes, skinned* and chopped
A glug of cream
Half a small pot of Mascarpone
Grated parmesan 
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180 C (160° C Fan)

Fry the onion and garlic in a little oil and butter until soft and slightly golden. Add the lobster meat and stir through with the garlicky onions. Slosh in half the wine and cook until it has reduced a little. Toss in the langoustine tails and the rest of the wine. Tip in the tomatoes and leave to simmer gently for a few minutes. Season and add the basil and stir through. Stir through a glug of cream, taste for seasoning and take the pan off the heat.

Place the ring moulds on a baking sheet and push a lasagna sheet into the bottom of each mould. Place a spoonful or two of the sauce on top and add another lasagna sheet. Continue layering the pasta and sauce up ending with a sheet of pasta with a small space on the top to spare. Place a little blob of Mascarpone on each lasagna and spread it over the top. Sprinkle Parmesan on top of each lasagna and pop the baking sheet in the oven for about 20 - 25 minutes.

Once cooked, take them out of the oven and use a thin bladed knife to unstick the lasagna from its mould. Scoop the moulds up with a palate knife and pop them in the middle of a plate before carefully removing each mould holding them with a clean tea towel or oven gloves. 

*To skin tomatoes, simply score their tops with a cross and plunge them into boiling water for a couple of minutes. Spoon them out and their skins should peel off easily.

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