LOBSTER THERMIDOR

recipe + photography by BILLY DOUKAS

DECADES AGO AT 15, I was leaning up against the kitchen countertop observing my mother, Rita, hurriedly pull an over-done rump roast from the oven.

“You’re not showing that fine piece of meat much love,” I opined. She stiffened up, untied her apron and tossed it at me, replying, “Well, why don’t you give it a try? Start tomorrow.”

After losing her husband, my father, the previous year, her enthusiasm for cooking was gone. My smart aleck comment was the tipping point. Rita was relinquishing the apron. Here was my chance to redeem myself so I took her up on the challenge, choosing the most complex and spectacular dish I could find in the Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook: Lobster Thermidor.

This was the very first recipe I ever prepared. Somehow, I managed to pull it off—probably because I paid attention in junior-year chemistry class. And it helped that Maine has the greatest lobster in the world! The dish dates back to 1894 when the celebrated Parisian restaurant Marie Chez created it to commemorate the theatrical opening of Thermidor, a play that was canceled after only three performances. But Lobster Thermidor lives on! Over the past 45 years, I’ve improved the recipe to this current version.

And hats off to Rita for so cleverly guiding my teen spirit onto the more productive and creative path of cooking.

Servings: 2 impressive servings!

For Steaming
2 (1¼- to 1½-pound) lobsters, soft or hard shell
4 cups water
2 cups vermouth or white wine
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large sweet onion, peeled and quartered

For Saucepan #1
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 cups Cremini or Baby Bella mushrooms, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

For Saucepan #2
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 shallots, chopped fine
3 tablespoons flour
¾ cup heavy cream

For Saucepan #3
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
⅓ cup cognac
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon tarragon
1 cup Gruyere cheese, shredded (Note: Be wary of substitutions, cheese must be meltable.)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 pinch cayenne pepper (optional)

For Baking and Presentation
2 cups Ritz crackers, crushed (some things never change)
¼ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
½ cup melted butter, in 2 side dishes
2 lemons: 1 for wedges and 1 for garnishing

Steam the Lobsters
Combine the water, vermouth, Old Bay seasoning, salt and quartered onion in a 12-quart stockpot; cover and bring to a full rolling boil. There will be an inch of liquid inside the vessel. Remove rubber claw bands from lobsters and place in pot headfirst. Replace the cover. Steam 8 minutes for 1¼-pound or 10 minutes for 1½-pound lobsters. Remove and place in an ice bath to prevent further cooking. When cool enough to handle, place lobsters backside down on a large cutting board. Move on to sauce prep.

Prep the Sauce
In Saucepan #1 melt butter, add lemon juice and mushrooms. Sprinkle in salt and pepper; sauté over medium-low heat and mix for 5 minutes; set aside.

In Saucepan #2, melt butter, add shallots, and gently cook on low till translucent, about 5 minutes. Add flour 1 tablespoon at a time while stirring, which, after 2 minutes will result in a texture of smooth mashed potato. Fold in mushroom mixture from Saucepan #1, add cream, and stir over a continued low heat until it is a creamy consistency, about 5 minutes. It will thicken enough to stick to a wooden spoon. Let sit off heat and move on to lobster prep.

Prep the Lobsters
Place lobsters backside down—belly up—on a large cutting board. Using a sharp chef’s knife, carefully cut the entire lobster in half from head to tail: While holding the tail down with your free hand, working on the vertical, place the knife point where the body meets the tail, and lower the knife to horizontal position, dividing it lengthwise and cutting through the shell; rotate and repeat this through the body and head. Remove the tomalley, roe, head sac and front crawlers from the body. Gently rinse, if necessary, keeping each half as a single piece. Using your hands, remove the tail meat, then peel off the narrow strip of meat along the back and remove the intestinal vein. Cut the meat into ⅜-inch cubes. Repeat this with the second lobster. I prefer to leave the claws, knuckles and legs all intact to savor with fresh lemon and melted butter.

Combine the Lobster Meat and Sauce
In Saucepan #3, melt butter over medium-low heat and add the lobster meat. While stirring, sprinkle with mustard, tarragon and add cognac. Continue cooking until half the liquid is gone, approximately 3 minutes, and combine it with the cream sauce from Saucepan #2.

Add Gruyere cheese while stirring over low heat. Taste at this point, to check on salt and pepper content. Add a pinch of cayenne pepper if you prefer a little more spice.

Baking and Presentation
Preheat oven to 425°F and set the rack to the upper third. Arrange the lobsters on a baking sheet, and spoon creamy lobster mixture into the hollowed tail and body shell. Sprinkle crushed Ritz crackers and parsley over the length of the lobsters and drizzle with a little butter.

At this juncture, there is an option to cover, refrigerate and delay complete cooking until a later time.

To finish, bake for 15 to 20 minutes, keeping a close eye on things to prevent overcooking. The lobster blend will slightly bubble and the top of sauce will turn nicely brown. Carefully place lobster on serving platters, 2 halves per dish. Serve with lemon wedges, and a small side dish of drawn melted butter for dipping the claws and knuckle meat.

Pairings and Sides
This visually spectacular and rich dish deserves a celebratory sparkling wine. My choices: Marques de Caceres Brut from Spain, or a Muscadet from France.

My favorite complementary side dishes are somewhat plebeian and easy: corn on cob, complements the flavor well. An iceberg lettuce wedge with blue cheese or peppercorn dressing adds even more color and contrast. A crusty loaf of French bread will round out the presentation perfectly.

. . .

Editor's Note with thanks to Wikipedia: Thermidor was the eleventh month in the French Republican Calendar. The month was named after the French word thermal, derived from the Greek word "thermos." Thermidor was the second month of the summer quarter. It started July 19 or 20. It ended August 17 or 18. It follows the Messidor and precedes the Fructidor.

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