Agricultural acts: perfect lobster corn chowder
Rockport — Lobster is synonymous with Maine — particularly summertime — and with prices at rock bottom, Devon Salisbury and I decided there's no time like the present to support our local fisherman by preparing a lobster-laden classic.
I met Devon late on the afternoon Friday, Aug. 24. She had picked up four lobsters — averaging around 1 1/2 pounds a piece — from David Leland who lobsters on his boat Wait-N-Sea out of Rockport. Devon had made arrangements to meet Leland at the dock where he had the "bugs" waiting in a cooler. I've historically purchased live lobster directly from the dock, too, and handing my money directly to the man (or woman) who caught and hauled my dinner is one heck of a good feeling. At $16 for the lot, it was money well spent and as Devon pointed out, it's easy to apply a two-degrees-of-separation theory to lobster fishing in Maine.
"Refrigerator velcro" stock
2 bay leaves
2-3 garlic cloves, smashed
1 whole, white onion, roughly chopped
2 carrots, halved or rough chopped
1 tsp whole peppercorns
**Lobster shells — "especially the carapace"
Water to cover all ingredients
Put all ingredients in a large stock pot, Devon recommends adding lobster shells as they are broken down so that all juices, bits of meat and tamale can lend flavor to the stock. Cover with water and simmer until liquid reduces by half. Don't rush — our stock took about 3 hours. Place leftover stock in freezer-safe container, use later to flavor rice, sauce or the dish of your choice.
** A chicken carcass, ham or steak bones can be substituted for lobster. The corn cobs add a corn flavor and are optional to standard stock.
"You can save things," Devon noted. She suggests reserving routinely discarded veggie bits like carrot end, celery hearts, fennel pieces, etc. and freezing them for use in stock later.
Lobster corn chowder
4-6 Maine lobsters, each one pound or more
6 ears fresh, sweet corn
4-6 potatoes, depending on size
2-3 slices slab bacon
1 white onion
1 half-gallon heavy cream
Steam lobsters and pick all meat, reserve meat in a bowl. Use shells for stock as indicated. Shuck corn and strip kernels from cobs, use cobs for stock. Reserve kernels separately. Chop bacon, onion and potatoes. Saute bacon in a sauce pan until it begins to cook and fat begins to visibly render, it should be pale in color and not yet crispy. Add diced onion and cook until translucent, add potatoes and cover with stock, cooking until potatoes are al dente. Add cream and simmer for 10-15 minutes, do not let it boil. Add corn and continue simmering another 10 minutes. As the time to serve approaches add the lobster meat, giving it enough time to heat but not overcook (five minutes).
This recipe will easily feed 8-12 people.
"Nearly everyone I know knows somebody who fishes," she explained. She had linked up with Leland through a co-worker, who happens to be his wife.
"If you don't already know somebody, that's totally fine, but if you do know somebody, ask them!" She encouraged.
Graffam Bros. Seafood Market in Rockport and Jess's Market in Rockland also sell locally caught lobsters, Devon explained, noting the important part is supporting the fisherman as much as possible, particularly during a challenging season.
As we prepared to do the balance of our shopping Devon set the stock to simmer. I'm paranoid about leaving burners going in my house, but there's nothing like time on the stove to render a high-flavor stock.
"The longer you cook [the stock] the more concentrated the flavors are," Devon explained. She had cooked and picked the lobsters prior to my arrival and had their shells simmering in a broth dotted with bay leaves, carrots and white onion. She noted that as she picked the lobsters she had tossed the shell parts directly into the stock pot "with the juices and tamale."
With the stove safely turned down we hopped in Devon's car for a spin to a pair of nearby farm stands at Miller Farm and Goose River Farm — both right on Wiley Road in Rockport and Camden respectively. We purchase an onion at .75 cents, six ears of corn at .50 cents each and a small box of new potatoes for $2.50. Both farm stands are on the honor system — I tend to round up in the case, routinely leaving $7 when my total comes to $6.25 — but it's always important to travel with small bills. I've found having cash is always a good idea when driving back roads in Maine. Many an impulse purchase of flowers, veggies or apples has been made possible by keeping $20 in various denominations in the car.
We hit Hannaford and grab a half-gallon of Oakhurst cream ($5.99). We're lucky to live in a place where hyper-local raw milk is available from a variety of farms, but Oakhurst is widely available and sourced from small Maine dairies.
We return to Devon's where the stock is simmering, producing a tantalizing aroma that's not even the slightest bit fishy. Devon immediately shucks the corn and cuts the kernels from the cobs, setting them aside with the picked lobster meat. She adds the cobs to the stock since they'll lend a little corn flavor. She periodically stirs the stock — "smushing" the solid bits so that flavors release, Devon noted that she doesn't salt lobster stock because the salt water in the lobster shells is usually enough. She said a good rule with stock is to allow the liquid to reduce by half before using, also be sure to remove the pieces of shell and corn cobs from the pot.
Devon chopped a couple slices of bacon that she had in her fridge and sauteed it in a roughly two-quart saucepan until it began to cook, releasing the fat. Once the bacon fat began to render she added chopped white onion. When the onion became translucent she added five medium-sized chopped potatoes and poured stock into the saucepan to cover all ingredients, cooking until the potatoes are al dente or "almost done," then adding the entire half gallon of cream. There is so much chowder that Devon — thinking on her feet — divides the batch into two pots. She lets the cream cook and reduce before adding the corn and cooking for about 10 more minutes.
Then comes time to add the beautiful picked lobster meat. Because it is already cooked Devon puts it in just before serving the chowder so it has time to heat but not overcook. She gives it a good stir and leaves it to simmer for a few brief minutes. Devon said she sometimes reserves a piece of claw meat for each bowl — and suggests garnishing each serving with a tender claw to beautify the presentation.
Devon does not use a roux to thicken her chowder — so her recipe is gluten free — however she does use heavy cream to achieve the desired thickness. For a diet-conscious chowder Devon said you can substitute a lower-fat content dairy product like half and half or light cream.
"Chowder is kind of like refrigerator velcro," Devon explained, using a term she's coined to describe creating a meal from what's on hand in the fridge. She explained that chowder can be started with any "salty, cured meat — bacon, pancetta, anything you have." The recipe can be altered to include most veggies, particularly carrots and celery.
Our total comes to $28.25 — though a fresh, crusty baguette is practically a necessity and can be procured from a number of fine local bakeries for no more than $5.
Another great thing about chowder? It's always better the next day.