Oil Of Olé

Some friends came to visit on their way home from Maine the other day, bringing lobsters. The timing was perfect, because a friend who lives in Maine had messaged me the day before telling me that it’s a good time to eat lobster since there’s a glut on the market and prices are low. We boiled them–sadly not availing ourselves of this awesome technique for anesthetizing them first, but clove oil is on my shopping list–and had local sweet corn as well, with frisée aux lardons and 63˚C eggs as a starter. But what I did with them the next day was the real story.

There’s a backstory, too. Years ago, I was with my Mother up in Vermont. We had eaten lobsters and corn the day before and then learned that someone would be joining us for dinner. With one leftover cooked lobster and a couple of ears of corn, there wasn’t anywhere near enough to feed three people. I don’t remember exactly when this was, but I’m guessing it was around my time in grad school, which is where I really started to cook ambitious, improvised food.

I pulled all the meat out of the lobster and chopped it, and made a stock with the shells and a bottle of cheap Spanish bubbly that I reduced and thickened with butter. I blended the corn with eggs and stock, added the lobster meat and some corn kernels, and baked the batter in a muffin tin to make little timbales that I garnished with roasted tomatoes, chives that I steamed so they’d drape over the custards, and spoons of the lobster shell sauce. It was the best thing I had ever cooked in my life up to that point, and I have no idea where it came from. I had obviously begun reading cookbooks, which likely means it was after grad school when I worked as a private chef and my employers had Charlie Trotter’s first book and Jean-George’s Simple Cuisine, each of which I reread many times. I never actually made anything from either one, but they were inspiring.

So on Sunday I took the lobster shells and cooked them in water with corn cobs, carrot, onion, celery, parsley, and fennel from the garden, straining out the solids after about an hour. Then I reduced the stock to about a cup of very dense, dark, and fragrant liquid to which I added a pinch of saffron threads and some sherry vinegar. I took some homemede chorizo and crisped it heavily in oil, adding more smoked paprika for color, then strained the oil into the reduction. The resulting liquid was like essence of Spain, like paella extract. Powerful stuff.

For the timbales, I cut kernels off cobs and blended them with eggs and cream, then strained the mixture to remove all the husks. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: after their copious use of butter, straining things is the biggest single difference between how restaurants cook and how you cook. I folded some kernels and chopped lobster meat into the mix, seasoned it, and poured it into buttered ramekins that I put inside the bamboo steamer at a simmer.

I had pulled a bunch of baby beets, so I cooked them in blackcurrant vinegar and a little water until they were just tender, with a little bit of dark purple liquid left in the pan. The finished dish was a schmear of viscous Iberian glory with a quivering, crustaceous corn custard on it, fortified with beets and their liquid and with crisp shards of chorizo scattered around. It worked; the sweetness of corn and lobster are perfect together, and beets added another, earthy sweetness tempered by the bright acidity of the vinegar. The intense sauce was a wicked foil for the silky richness of the eggs, and the sausage shrapnel added some meaty accents. Next time you have lobster shells and corn cobs handy, consider a version of this.

Man, do I need to sharpen my knives. Those chives are embarrassing.

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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