Food: Come out of your shell

When it comes to cooking with lobsters, crabs and other native crustaceans, it's high time the British lost their traditional reserve, says Simon Hopkinson

Did you know that if you were you to buy a freshly caught, live native lobster from a fisherman in Poole, Dorset, in the height of the summer, a creature such as this weighing in at just over 1lb would cost you only a few pence more than, say, a couple of packets of "ready- made" asparagus soup (woefully bereft of the most basic seiving process), or a "chilled gazpacho" (surely tautologous in the extreme) from any old supermarket?

Now then, does that not make you feel absolutely dreadful? Of course, it may not, because the preparation of a live lobster might well be as alien to you as the stripping down of the combustion engine of a Ferrari Dino. Yet, within the neat and tidy kitchens of many a household on the coast of nearby Brittany during the summer months, there will be pots and pans full of boiling shellfish: lobster, crab, prawn, whelk and winkle, despatched with ease and confidence.

We are a nation who now only seem capable of consuming these creatures in the safe confines of a restaurant. Those who react to the idea of preparing live shellfish with a pathetically squeamish scream - actually more of an embarrassed whimper - seem quite happy to devour it when it is cooked by someone else. To be frank, I suppose my late mother was one of the very worst sufferers from this dilemma; Dad was always left to fettle with the wrigglers.

I'd go as far as to suggest that only the tiniest percentage of thirtysomethings today have ever seen a live lobster or crab; I would think about 27, in total, have ever seen a live British prawn - but then, even forty- and fifty-somethings have not seen them for years now either. There is also this age-old question of British snobbery concerning lobster and crab. What is it about these potty old islands that causes the most intelligent of folk to say, with absurd sincerity, "Ooh, I so much prefer a nice crab to a lobster, any day of the week." Why? "Oh, you know, the flesh of a crab is so much sweeter and juicier." Is it? Really? No, of course it is not. A lobster is just as sweet and succulent as a carefully cooked crab, each equally enjoyable in themselves: one of them tastes of crab, and the other one tastes of lobster. End of discussion.

Once again, I am moved to recall my formative years at the stoves of the late Yves Champeau, of La Normandie restaurant near to my home town of Bury, Lancashire. Once the native lobster season was under way, chef Champeau would have them on the menu throughout the summer.

La Normandie's lobsters were either split in half and served cold with mayonnaise, or prepared in the house manner: homard chaud Champeau. I hereby hold forth that this is one of the very best ways with a dish of hot lobster. The very smallest of snags, however, is that you are required to cleave the lobster in half lengthways while it is still alive - failing to do this renders the dish worthless. It goes without saying that this is something that the most traditional of lobster-mongers will happily do for you. However, do make sure that it is done at the latest possible moment: say, 5pm for dinner at 8pm? Otherwise, follow my simple instructions, with a little help from the photographs.

Homard chaud Champeau

serves 2

(That's enough, if you aren't experienced with live lobsters)

2 live lobsters, 450g-550g each, preferably female

3tbsp olive oil

50g butter

salt and cayenne pepper

1 heaped tbsp finely chopped shallot

1 level tbsp finely chopped garlic

2tbsp Pernod

2tbsp Cognac

1 tbsp chopped parsley

You will also need one very large frying pan, or two smaller ones

Kill the lobster by inserting a large, very sharp, strong knife directly through the head, at the point where you can quite clearly see a small cross-section of detail in the shell structure. Make it a swift stab directly downwards and then bring the knife sharply through the head section. Quickly move the creature through 180 and hew the remaining section in two with one blow, which will allow the two halves to fall apart. Remove the crumbly little stomach sac from the head of each half and also any thin, dark digestive tract from the tail flesh. Break off the claws and crack them with the side of the knife, for ease of eating later.

Preheat a grill to medium-hot. Put the frying pan on the stove and, in it, heat together the butter and olive oil. Once foaming slightly, add the lobster halves and claws. Season the exposed flesh with salt and cayenne pepper, and allow to sizzle gently for several minutes. Cover with a lid or tinfoil and stew quietly for 10 minutes or so. Then remove lid or foil, increase the heat a little and baste the lobsters liberally with the buttery juices for a good two minutes. Lift them out on to a heat-proof dish and put under the grill to complete the cooking. Note: the shells should, by now, be a bright- red colour and the flesh slightly raised from the carapace.

Tip the shallots and garlic into the pan juices and fry until soft and slightly golden. Turn up the heat and add the Pernod and Cognac. You may flame the alcohols, but this is not entirely necessary; whatever happens, they will certainly seethe and bubble in the pan. Once the fats and alcohols have nicely mingled together, return the lobsters to the pan and, once more, baste with the resultant sauce, adding the parsley as you so do. This is one of the finest cooking smells I have ever come across. Any accompaniment to this dish gets in the way, but you may like a squeeze of lemon juice.

Cold curried prawns mayonnaise in cos lettuce leaves

serves 4

Essentially coronation chicken made with prawns, but every bit as delicious.

500g whole cooked prawns in the shell (usually these have been frozen, but they are much better than ready peeled prawns), peeled

1tbsp sunflower oil

50g chopped onion

1dsp Madras curry powder

1 heaped tsp tomato puree

150ml red wine

75ml water

2tbsp smooth mango chutney

1 bay leaf

salt, sugar, a touch of pepper

a slice or two of lemon, plus a good squeeze of juice, possibly more

5-6tbsp mayonnaise

8-12 inner leaves from a crisp cos lettuce, washed and dried

Gently stew the onion in the oil until transparent. Add the curry powder and cook for a few minutes longer. Add tomato puree, wine, water, chutney and bay. Bring to a simmer and add salt, a little sugar, pepper, the lemon slices and juice. Simmer for a further 5-10 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve, pushing down on the solids with a small ladle, and cool. Add by degrees to the mayonnaise until you are happy with the taste. Mix with the prawns just to bind them, and spoon into the lettuce leaves. Good with brown bread and butter.

Note: you will find that you have more "essence" than you actually need, but once sieved and cooled, it can be decanted into screw-top jars and kept in the fridge for a few weeks.

Dressed crab

serves 4

To many people, this interpretation may not look or sound like dressed crab at all, but then "dressing" food is simply a term used to describe something done to raw materials that negates work (already done for you), neatens the thing and, finally, makes it easy to eat. Anyone who employs a full-time valet has always understood why crabs are dressed.

Crab meat does not necessarily have to be forced back into its closeted shell to be seen as "dressed". However, it is within this familiar, scrubbed housing that the British prefer to see their dressed crab meat (usually an excessive amount of mashed brown meat bulked out with breadcrumbs, and a modicum of white meat). Occasionally, I have seen the work of very experienced cowboy crab-meat dressers, who fill imitation plastic crab meat shells, enabling an even greater quantity of the cheaper brown meat to be spread out, with the more prized white meat having less and less of a look in. There are no losers or winners in the following method, it's just the whole crab.

Part one

the white crab meat extracted from a freshly boiled 1.5kg-1.75kg (approx) cock crab, or from 2 smaller hen crabs of similar weight

1tbsp chopped mixed herbs, to include at least three of the following: tarragon, chives, parsley and chervil

juice of 1/2 a large lemon

2tbsp light olive oil

a little sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Part two

the extracted brown meat from the crabs (above)

1tbsp mayonnaise

1 level tbsp tomato ketchup

1/2tbsp smooth Dijon mustard

1/2tbsp creamed horseradish sauce

juice of 1/2 a large lemon

1tsp anchovy essence

2tsp Cognac

a few drops Tabasco

salt, if necessary

Using a fork, mix all the ingredients in part one together in a bowl. Cover and chill until needed. Put all the ingredients in part two into a food processor and mix until a coarse puree is achieved. Check for seasoning and also chill, covered, for at least 2 hours, to allow the flavours to mellow.

Pile the white meat into four ramekins and pour the brown meat "sauce" into the other four. To eat, spoon a little of the brown onto thin-ish slices of buttered baguette and then fork some of the white meat over the top. Have a few sprigs of super-fresh watercress handy to occasionally chew on as you eat.

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