Thursday, August 25, 2005

What I learned about food this summer, Act IV

Start with great local ingredients. Prepare them simply and don't get in their way.

5:30am. Bar Harbor, ME. After our so-called "epic sunrise" fiasco, we headed to the water and looked around for a fishermen's diner where grizzled old salts fill their dented steel thermoses with thin, nasty coffee and head out for a day of drowning bait. Where the crusty old fishermen go, so goes some worthwhile chow at a good price. What docks in Bar Harbor aren't fishing boats, but billionaires' yachts and the barf barges that take landlubbing tourists to see whales and puffins. We therefore ate very nicely in a diner where $10 breakfast items were served. Prices felt like we were in Beverly Hills, not way-the-hell-far-from-anywhere rural Maine.

Robin Leach would be impressed

We found the working boats a short drive away in Seal Harbor.

This lobsterman brought ashore the morning's catch and I got to ask a few questions.

Me: "Do you have to throw back the females?"
Him: "No, they just have to be big enough."
Me: "How do you sex a lobster?"
Him: "Dinner and dancing, then ask nicely."

How it's really done is by flipping the beastie on its back and looking at the small pair of swimmerets just behind the last set of legs. Females will have a soft, fin-like pair, while the males have hard, pointed "pistols." The male is on the left of the photo below. Now you know what to look for if you want a female lobster filled with red "coral!"

Lobsters molt in late Spring, so their shells are still thin and easily cracked when caught during the summer. The meat inside hasn't yet filled out their new carapace, so some will argue that it's not as firm, or sweet tasting, as the same critter harvested in the winter. I can't vouch for one argument or the other, but I do know they're still delicious when served on a buttered and toasted roll.

Here's another variation of the lobster roll, from Beal's Lobster Pier. This one has a wan crunch of iceberg lettuce and smallish chunks of cold lobster meat dressed with mayo. Although it's a fine sandwich, I much prefer the caveman style hunks of unadorned meat at Red's Eats.

The creamy broth of their lobster chowder slicked with red lobster fat tasted great and left a rich lobster slick in my mouth, but the chunks of meat in it were overcooked and tough. As with any fish chowder, presenting piping hot broth and just-barely-cooked-through seafood is a tough trick to pull off.

Fried strips of clam, not whole bellies

Fried clams strips are from a different animal than the whole belly clams I'd written about previously, and not nearly as clamtastic. Hard shell clams are called littlenecks or cherrystones while they're small, and their little bellies and firm muscle are delicious eaten raw on the half shell. As they grow larger, they're called surf, skimmer, or sea clams and they grow a rotund beer gut that's usually set aside for fish bait and no longer delish for humans. The firm muscle also grows thick, and is cut into chewable, bite sized slices. These fried and battered strips you see above are the result. While they bring back memories of the Howard Johnson's clams strips I loved in my youth, they're an anticlamactic experience compared to the more tender, more flavorful whole belly clams.

Beal's Lobster Pier
182 Clark Point Rd.
Southwest Harbor, ME

Even in Maine, where sun burnished fishermen deliver lobsters caught that morning , inattentive cooks can mistreat ingredients that demand the utmost attention and respect. Though Beal's has all the elements of a working dockside fish market & restaurant, it lacked the care practiced in the kitchen at Red's and Scales. I suppose comparing lobster rolls in Maine is like comparing sushi bars in Los Angeles (read: splitting hairs). Life is short; why not do both? Travel widely and eat well, dear reader.


Blogger Cate said...

I love the first shot of the boat, quickly followed by the lobster roll. I miss lobster rolls and now am, of course, desperately craving them!

8/25/2005 06:21:00 PM  
Blogger Mona said...

Wow, I keep reading about lobster lobster lobster. I'm going to have to take a trip up to Maine one of these days...those are awesome pictures.
My mom promised me a trip up to Kennebunk one of these days..maybe I'll get lucky!

9/03/2005 02:48:00 PM  

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