Name an iconic dish, and you’re likely to find factions of fans debating that theirs is better. New York- or Chicago-style pizza; New England- or Manhattan-style clam chowder; or the proper style of barbecue, with Kansas, North Carolina and Texas among the states claiming superiority.
And then, there are lobster rolls.
There are also dueling lobster-roll-loving factions: the Connecticut-style fans and the Maine-style lovers. The former is served warm, the lobster meat generously drizzled with melted butter, while the latter is the veritable zenith of summer flavors: chilled lobster salad in a warm, just-toasted bun. I don’t want to denigrate anyone’s favorite way to “roll,” but it is the Maine-style one I want to write sonnets about.
After immigrating from Russia, I grew up in Massachusetts, and those formative years instilled a deep love for a Maine-style lobster roll. Every summer, I looked forward to sitting at those A-frame picnic tables, with their built-in benches, covered with red-gingham tablecloths, and taking that first-of-the-season bite of cool, creamy lobster salad inside a just-off-the-grill, slightly crisp, buttery bun. The contrast of temperatures, textures and flavors remains one of those taste memories you can spend a lifetime chasing.
Proust had his madeleines — I have my lobster rolls.
But, as I got older and my taste buds got more discerning, I started to notice that my platonic ideal of a lobster roll was not the norm, but rather the exception. Often, the lobster meat would be upstaged by too much mayo, heavy and bland; or there would be no crunchy celery, and without it, there wasn’t enough texture to yield a truly summery sandwich.
Guided by memories of that elusive, perfect lobster roll, I knew there was a way to achieve that dreamy result – the perfect balance of luscious meat, crunch and bright flavors.
Crisp celery delivers the crunch and refreshing, herbaceous cool. Lemon juice and zest give the lobster meat a sunny lift and enhance its sweet, buttery flavor. And a subtle kick from Dijon mustard — a trick I picked up working with chef Marc Murphy – adds dimension to the salad.
Finally, mayonnaise in a supporting role – used sparingly – binds the ingredients together.
I like to steam my own lobsters. It’s easy and makes lobster rolls a lot more affordable – three small lobsters make enough for six rolls. After 15 minutes in the freezer, the lobsters get sleepy, at which point I place them in a large pot with a few inches of boiling water and a steamer basket. After the cooked lobsters are thoroughly chilled, I crack their shells and pick out their meat. (I use the remaining shells and carcasses to make a lobster stock to stretch the pricey ingredient and use the stock to flavor bouillabaisse, risotto or bisque.)
The bun is as important as the salad. If you’re a lover of butter, consider upgrading to brioche hot dog buns, as they’ll elevate the roll to luxurious. If, however, you long for a classic lobster roll, a split-top bun is what you want. Toast it in the broiler – I like to use a little melted butter to crisp it up – then pile chilled lobster salad on top and eat right away.
With that first bite, I’m transported to New England beaches with sky-high dunes, cool breezes off the Atlantic and cloudless skies – even if this summer I’m nowhere near them.
MAINE-STYLE LOBSTER ROLLS
Time: 40 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
In this classic Maine-style lobster roll, lemon juice and zest accentuate the crustacean’s natural sweetness and salinity, and a touch of Dijon mustard adds dimension to the traditional mayonnaise dressing. Served in lightly toasted, split-top hot-dog buns brushed with melted butter, the contrast of warm, crisp bread and cold, crunchy lobster salad is the very epitome of summer. These rolls pair well with steamed corn on the cob and a pile of potato chips.
Make Ahead: The mayonnaise dressing can be made up to 1 day ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container. The lobster salad can be prepared up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated. The lobster needs to be steamed and well-chilled before being shelled – at least 2 hours ahead of serving.
Storage Notes: Leftover lobster salad can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
1/3 cup mayonnaise, store-bought or homemade
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, or more to taste
1 generous pinch kosher salt, or more to taste
Sweet paprika (optional)
Chilled meat from 3 cooked lobsters (each weighing 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds, see NOTE)
1/2 cup finely chopped celery (1 to 2 stalks), leaves reserved
6 split-top hot dog rolls, preferably potato, such as Martin’s, or brioche
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Sliced scallions, for serving (optional)
1. In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise with the lemon zest and juice, mustard, salt and a pinch of sweet paprika, if using. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
2. Using lobster crackers and pick, remove the lobster meat from the claws and tails (save the legs for a cook’s snack, and discard the torsos or reserve them and the shells for stock). Dice the lobster meat into bite-size chunks (you should get 3 to 3 1/2 cups) and transfer to a large bowl. Add the chopped celery and fold in the mayonnaise mixture. Taste, and season with more lemon juice, mustard and/or salt, if needed. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
3. Position a baking rack about 6 inches from the broiling unit and preheat the broiler on high. Place the hot dog buns on a baking sheet, split side up, brush with the melted butter and broil until golden, 1 to 2 minutes (start checking on the rolls after 1 minute so they do not burn).
4. To serve, divide the lobster salad among the rolls, then top with scallions, if using, and celery leaves. Add a pinch of paprika, if you like, and another squeeze of lemon juice, if desired, and serve.
NOTE: To cook the lobsters, put them in the freezer for 15 minutes (the cold sedates them). In a very large pot over high heat, bring a few inches of water to a boil. Place the lobsters in the pot, cover, and reduce the heat to medium low. Steam for 13 to 15 minutes, until the lobster shell turns red. To check on the lobster doneness, pull on an antenna. If it comes off easily, the lobster is done. If you’re making lobster rolls, transfer the lobsters to a large bowl with ice and refrigerate until cold, about 2 hours, before cracking open the shell. Inside the lobster torso, you’ll find the tomalley (green) and sometimes coral (lobster roe if you get female lobsters, which turns red once cooked). You can add the cooked coral to your mayonnaise dressing for deeper lobster flavor.
Nutrition | Calories: 408; Total Fat: 21 g; Saturated Fat: 7 g; Cholesterol: 247 mg; Sodium: 1012 mg; Carbohydrates: 23 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugars: 3 g; Protein: 31 g.
(Recipe from Olga Massov.)