If there is one dish I consider a quintessentially summer food, it would be the lobster roll. Maybe that's because one long summer ago, I was first introduced to them on an excursion to Sag Harbor. My friend and I hit an outdoor cafe -- one that specialized in seafood -- and their lobster roll one of the signature dishes.
Well, that was long ago and I've had many since, but they didn't seem such a special affair. That had been my attitude about lobster rolls until I got a chance to see one of the Cooking Channel's featured chefs, Boston-born Ben Sargent, in action. The host of Hook, Line, and Dinner, Sargent built his reputation on a knowledge of the oceans and its inhabitants.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he comes naturally by his lifelong love affair with the sea and its bounty. Through an upbringing in Cape Cod he nurtured a passion for fishing, surfing and cold water. Though he got an art-oriented degree from Skidmore, he opened two restaurants, Hurricane Hopeful and Surf Bar in Brooklyn's Williamsburg and traveled, adding to his heritage and expanding his culinary talents with training at the French Culinary Institute and by working in a Chinese restaurant. He ha documented his adventures on his site Brooklynchowdersurfer.com and is now working on book as well.
Sargent runs the Brooklyn Fishing Derby, hosts a Heritage Radio Network program, Catch IT, Cook IT, & Eat IT and helms a number of food related events. When he is not hosting other ocean-related events, he took time out to not only discuss his ideal lobster roll but to make some of his awesome, in-a-class-by-themselves lobster rolls for me to taste.
Q: You have a great knowledge of lobster and lobster rolls. They are an historic food.
BS: Definitely an historic food. [In New England,] you've got to do the work, to break through your lobster and know how to do it.
So [lobster rolls] were for tourists that didn't want to get their hands dirty. When I first told everybody I was doing lobster rolls, they were like, "What do you mean lobster rolls?" In our family you are sort of shunned for eating a lobster roll. But I happen to love them.
I don't know how many lobster rolls I made in the time that I was doing my underground, but it was a lot. And everyone asked me "Is it like working in an ice cream shop? Like did you lose the taste for lobster?" I go, no. I eat lobster every single day.
Q: Was your interest and experience in lobster at the core of your interest in cooking?
BS: All of the sea stuff came first and the cooking came later.
I just grew up with it, in a family [where] my father wrote books about the ocean, and my grandfather was head of fisheries. So it was no joke. It was in the blood. You had to know a lot about fish growing up.
Q: Where do these lobsters come from?
BS: They're from Maine, if my sources tell me right. Half of his lobsters come in from Maine, the other half come in from Canada.
I would hope that we got the Maine variety, I always feel better about Maine for two reasons.
One is, it's a sustainable fishery. They notch their females so they always put the egg-carrying, producing females back.
[The other is] travel time. Obviously, if it's coming from Maine, there's a greater chance that it's only been out of the water for 24 to 48 hours, as opposed to days and days.
Q: So what are all the regions for good lobster? Maine being number one.
BS: Yeah, Maine being number one, Canada, Nova Scotia. Then there are places we don't realize, like Australia. Who's the biggest buyer of Australian lobster? Take one guess.
Q: The United States.
BS: Yep, but take another guess. Red Lobster. Red Lobster buys more.
But for me the southern warm-water [lobsters] just don't cut it. I don't like the spiny lobster that much.
Q: So where are they found?
BS: All over, actually. You can get them on the West Coast, you can get them on the East Coast, but they're all warm water.
I've had a lot of warm-water spiny lobsters, and they don't taste anything like a good northern New England lobster.
Q: Were your Maine lobsters farmed?
BS: That's a debate right there, because a lot of people would say -- like in the case of crawfish -- farmed or wild? You have advocates on both sides.
Wild advocates will say it's got to be wild because it's going impart all of the flavor of the area that it grows up in.
But others will say you want to purge it, put it in some nice freshwater bath to get all those gross flavors out of there.
In my mind, if you boil your lobster in fresh water, you might as well have started with a crawfish, because [the lobster] grew up in salt water. It grew up in a habitat that was rich in seaweed, algae, all these things that make it taste good.
So then if you go and just boil all that out of it, it's pointless.
Q: So will a real live one get cooked now? Did you name it or is it against the rules to name the lobster?
BS: It's against the rules. I have a pet, though, so you have to be very sure of which lobsters you put in to be steamed or boiled.
This is a trick I showed before. I put a lobster to sleep. They do fall asleep, if it makes you feel better about boiling your lobster.
This is really the important stage: You build up the water like a stock and make it taste like the ocean. So you add a lot of sea salt, garlic, or garlic powder, whole black peppercorns. I use a little bit of old bay.
It's just enough to create something that is not purging the lobster.
Q: What size do you like the lobsters to be?
BS: Small. No bigger than two pounds.
Q: People say that the tails are not as good if they're too large.
BS: After you get up above two pounds, they start to get a little leathery.
Q: How much time do you need for cooking it?
BS: I'm going to do them in 10 minutes. And I undercook my lobster.
Some people think that's gross. But I personally think that's why my lobster rolls taste better than most, because there's a final step that I do where I throw it quickly on a hotplate.
Q: And is that a hotplate with butter?
BS: Yeah, with butter. I'm a huge advocate of butter. Butter does all kinds of great things. Salted butter and lobster. I like to throw a little bit of garlic in.
Q: Oh, garlic and butter.
BS: If you have time to let your garlic brown a tiny bit before you throw your sticks of butter in, that's always good. This will do that over time.
Sometimes I throw a splash of white wine in.
I have an onion, I put a half onion and a clove of garlic in there as well.
Q: I also notice as this is cooking, it's cooking off some of the liquid.
BS: That's the juice that I save. Some people get rid of that, and you have to save it. This is our sauce.
Q: Oh, it's going back in there.
BS: What people don't realize is that this is going to get better and better over time. I see a lot of people who go, "Okay, now we're making the next batch of lobsters," they pour out that water that they just boiled. No!
Q: You save the water, and you use the broth.
BS: That's the best. You worked so hard for that! You just do it again in the same one.
And then the other great thing, all that can become an amazing bisque. If you have a really good food processor, you run even the entire body right through the food processor. Everything. Everything.
Except for the rubber bands. Make sure you take the rubber bands off.
Another thing I would say about lobster rolls, as opposed to a whole lobster that you're going to have on your plate: you are undercooking the lobster.
You don't want to cook it all the way through, because it's going to go on the grill, it's still warm, it's still cooking a little.
And you put it in an ice bath, so you stop the cooking. I'm not really cooking my lobster so much as I am just bringing it up to temperature.
Q: Room temperature?
BS: A little higher than that.
Q: They say that food's better at room temperature, but not too hot.
BS: If you made as many lobster rolls as I have -- and there are only so many things you can do with a lobster roll -- you start thinking about the little things.
Q: Now we break the lobster open?
BS: This is the system. There's only one thing that New Englanders do well, and we will laugh at people when they try.
In New England, we grew up with lobsters from the time we were little, little kids. So it's [this is] the one thing we know how to do quickly, efficiently. We're very good at it -- very, very good at it.
Q: Do you eat the green part? What do you consider acceptable?
BS: There's nothing you can't eat. Those will go and become a lobster bisque -- the shells and everything.
Q: But do you suck out all the contents?
BS: This is how we do the tail of a lobster. Stick your thumb in the butt end of that, and then it all comes out as one piece like that.
And you don't crack it, you don't cut it. That's the juice, that's the essential juice.
Q: I guess the taste of lobster is slightly sweet. It's also the texture. There's a taste, but it's not an overwhelming taste. I think that's what it is that makes lobster so special. What do you think?
BS: I would say it's a very distinct taste that you cannot duplicate. That is one thing about it.
Q: You can't fake lobster like with fake crab or whatever.
BS: You can't fake lobster, no.
Q: Do you anguish about the bread? There's the white bread hot dog bun.
BS: I'm not a fan of expensive. I'm also not a fan of traditional. There's a bun, a specific bun that many people swear by the lobster roll bun. I don't use that bun.
Q: You want to perfect your own bun and have it baked for you?
BS: People say I should. But the lobster roll I grew up with was very simple. Side of the road, somebody's grandmother's cracking lobsters because they have a lobster license, an excess of lobster, and they're selling off cheap rolls quick. Small; they're not brimming with lobster and mayo and whatever. So mine's a side-of-the-road lobster roll. You couldn't get it in New York.
Q: The bun was properly prepared where it was already heated. It can't sit and be reheated, right?
BS: No, it cannot.
Q: You really do put in that mayonnaise there. Well, not that much, actually.
BS: Compared to your New York style lobster rolls, this is nothing. You will taste the mayo, but you won't experience the mayo.
Q: You have to be very careful with mayo.
BS: Very careful. Because [seafood] can either be the greatest thing with a little bit of mayo or it can be disgusting.
Q: Don't you think that people overdo this whole measuring thing. A dollop is a dollop...
BS: I do. A dollop is a dollop. But it is very hard for me to say how much mayonnaise is too much.
I would say that you have to be able to really see your lobster. It shouldn't be gloppy
Q: Obviously, looking at the lobster roll, you're not adding anything into it like celery, or any of that stuff.
Q: So you're opposed to that.
BS: Absolutely. It's disgusting.
Q: Do you ever add anything like a little dash of parsley?
BS: I'm not trying to be fancy. I'm just giving people what they grew up with. I know because my whole business was a texting business, and I would get a text.
Q: So you're both a traditionalist and a 21st century kid.
BS: Yeah, because I was using Facebook and Twitter and everything else to make it work. It never would have worked without it. It never would have worked for me had I not had those tools.
Q: I've had basic lobster rolls, but this is overflowing.
BS: It's overflowing, but not like heaping over. If you can't get a bite of your toasty bun and your lobster all in one, then you have a problem.
Q: You're right about heating it back up.
BS: Oh yeah. Critical. So many places just serve a straight-up cold lobster roll. That's terrible.
More than anything else, I tell people [who ask], "Oh can I take one of these home to my wife?" "Can I take one home to my husband?" No.
Q: You've got to eat it right there.
BS: Yeah. I'm not vouching for having the best lobster roll in New York City if you take that home to Jersey and hit it a half an hour from now. It's going to be disgusting.
Q: What should people drink while eating their lobster? When you're eating this, you don't think of Coca Cola.
BS: Actually, I do. If you go with a Coke and a lime, that's pretty typical as to what you would get in Maine.
Lemonade's always amazing. Lemon and lobster -- though I don't combine it on my roll -- but a lemonade and lobster roll is pretty good. Just be careful, because you're getting a little curdling inside.
And what else? A beer. Dark beers, not so much. But not a light beer, as in light calories -- a light colored beer, like a Corona, is great.