Snob appeal and slob appeal: Shotgun Lobster Mac (with cheese)
It almost sounds like a corny old joke: “What’s the best way to drown a lobster? With cheese.” Hardy har har.
But it’s true, I’ve never met a lobster mac & cheese or lobster ravioli that ever truly highlighted the lobster. The combination sounds so tantalizing: fresh cooked pasta, the light, sweet lobster and creamy, warm cheese. But the reality bites when you take a bite: the cheese swamps the delicate flavor of the lobster unless you get a tidbit of meat.
Which brings me to my second gripe: Where’s the chunks of lobster? Unless you’re at a restaurant and they plate your serving with a few bite sized pieces of actual lobster, it’s relegated to small morsels and shreds in the cheese sauce. Yes, it’s unreasonable of me to expect a whole lobster tail sitting on a heap of steaming, cheesy elbows at reasonable dinner portion prices. Yep, I’m a lobster snob. But if you’re going to give an expensive ingredient a ride on the cheese train, you want that flavor front and center. At the very least, let’s turn it around, let the lobster ride shotgun and give cheese the backseat. So I put on my “Be Best” apron and hit the kitchen.
As a model for my lobster sauce, I began with an obvious starting point: lobster bisque. It’s got most of the things you’d want in a creamy lobster sauce: lobster meat and stock, white wine or sherry, tomato paste, heavy cream, onion and garlic. Depending on your preference of recipe, it can also contain flour or rice as a thickener, carrots & celery and herbs & spices.
For my initial test, I decided to buy quarts of pre-made lobster bisque from the seafood counter at the grocery store. The Chowder Pot brand (Big Y) was the best tasting. I also went to local fish markets to see what they were offering for bisque. The price tag on one ($32 a quart!) sent me back to the supermarket offerings.
The first tests were very promising; bisque works well as a sauce for pasta. I mixed some cooked elbows with warmed bisque and chunks of lobster meat and was very happy with the combination.
But now I had to figure out what kind of cheese and how to get it into the sauce without swamping it. I didn’t want to melt cheese into the bisque or mix in shredded cheese. The sharpness of cheddar was the element that masked the lobster taste and then I hit on the idea of using chunks of cheddar cheese curds. Cheddar cheese curds are fresh, so they are much milder. Macaroni, chunks of lobster and gobs of mild cheese enveloped by lobster sauce? Exactly what my taste buds were dreaming about.
I still had reservations about using someone else’s bisque as a base for my casserole. And that’s when I arrived at the idea of combining the steps of cooking the pasta in the sauce as I was building it. So I dug out Better Than Bouillon Lobster base from my fridge and started yet another test batch. I cooked the elbows in “just” enough water and wine to cover it in the pot, added lobster base and tomato paste and let it boil. Because the pasta is cooking in much less liquid, I could see the starchy sauce thickening and also infusing the pasta with lotsa flavor and color. When it reached al dente, I added the butter and cream, spices and lobster meat, cooked for an additional minute and then removed from the heat. (I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I swiped this method of cooking pasta in sauce from Hamburger Helper. Sigh ... My inner slob wins again.)
I dumped the mix into a baking pan and pressed the cheese curds into the mac, topped it with buttered bread crumbs and then into the oven. The results were spot on. It not only works, it works well. And the cheese curds get all stretchy and stringy when you pull them up! You might actually have a little fun while eating it. I forgot all about my embarrassment as I ate way too much of the final product and then collected raves from my food testers.
Shotgun Lobster Mac (with cheese)
5 cups water
1 cup white wine
4 Tbsp Lobster base (Better Than Bouillon)
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 lb elbow macaroni
2 Tbsp butter
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp white pepper (black pepper can be substituted)
1 Tbsp chopped parsley
1 tsp dried tarragon
1 tsp sweet paprika (gives the sauce a little more red color)
1 lb fresh or frozen cooked lobster meat, chopped into 1/2“ chunks
8 oz (1.5 cups) cheddar cheese curds, broken into 1 inch chunks
Salt to taste
Buttered bread crumbs (2 cups bread crumbs tossed with 3 Tbsp melted butter)
Preheat oven to 350°F. Place the water, wine, bouillon base and tomato paste into a large pot and bring to a boil over high heat. You don’t need to salt the water, it’s already in the bouillon.
Reduce heat to medium high and add the macaroni. Stir pasta at least once a minute until al dente; approx 9 minutes. Don’t drain.
Add the butter, heavy cream, white pepper, parsley, tarragon, paprika and lobster meat and stir them through. Remove pan from the heat, cover and let it rest for 10 minutes. This gives the pasta a chance to absorb more liquid.
Taste the pasta and add salt if needed. Dump the mac into a 9x13 baking dish and spread into a uniform layer. Sprinkle the cheese curds evenly across the top of the mac and press them down into the mixture. Top with buttered bread crumbs and place the pan into the oven for 20-25 minutes, until the topping is browned.
Remove from the oven and serve. Enjoy!
Upcoming and Ongoing
You’ve seen references to my food testers in this column. They are a loose collection of friends, neighbors and co-workers who bravely taste my new recipes and give me feedback so I can tweak them to perfection (or insanity). If you would like to be on my food jury, email me at the address below and I’ll give you the details.
Rich Swanson is a local cook who has had numerous wins in nationally sponsored recipe contests. He is also the layout specialist here at The Day.
Comments? Questions? Suggestions? Rich Swanson can be reached at TheSurlyTable@gmail.com
Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.