While in Atlantic City over the weekend for a culinary event for food writers, I spent time at Viking Range Cooking School at Harrah's Hotel and Casino along the Boardwalk.
During the three-hour class, we learned how to whip up a special selection of decadent recipes for a menu titled "Gourmet Delight." (It was billed as ideal for a "date night," but serving up Mom something this special for Mother's Day, also works well.)
As a reporter, some of the best bits I learn along the way, no matter what situation I find myself in, is to keep my ears open at all times. (And since I always have my press badge pinned on my collar, there can never be any confusion about someone talking to me later being quoted.)
While in Atlantic City, I discovered a great deal about some of the many delicious seafood finds that comprise the major fishing industries along this coast. Clams and scallops rank at the top and a large portion of the clams scooped up are sold to Campbell's Soup Co. for their popular line of clam chowder.
Nina Rizzo, the food writer for The Asbury Park Press, the daily newspaper in Monmouth and Ocean counties of New Jersey, and boasting the third largest circulation in the state, shared with me some interesting facts I never realized about lobster.
While today, lobster is prized as a top-dollar delicacy on restaurant menus, decades ago just the opposite was true.
"Lobster was thought of as the food of the poor, pigs and prisoners," Nina informed me.
As it turns out, to our early settlers of the colonies in our country, fishermen thought of lobsters caught in their fishing nets as nothing more than a nuisance from what was little more than a sea insect.
So any Lobsters caught by fishing boats were tossed in piles and given to slaves and household servants to eat or ground up to be used as fertilizer and pig feed.
It wasn't until the 1940s and 1950s that the reputation of lobster meat shifted in culinary circles. Prior to this time, it wasn't uncommon that servants along the East Coast specified in their employment contacts that they would not eat lobster more than twice per week as their provided meal staples. And in prisons, inmates commonly protested the amount of lobster they were forced to eat as part of their regular diet, and some states even had to include laws agreeing that inmates would not be served lobster more than three times per week. Children in poor neighborhoods who brought lobster meat sandwiches to school for lunch refrained from telling others, since it was a sign of poverty and likened to a lunch staple status even lower than today's peanut butter sandwich.
However, the quality and condition of the lobster served can not be compared to today's offerings. Since the key to keeping prepared lobster meat sweet, rich, soft and succulent, has to do with the lobster being kept alive until just prior to cooking, less-than-fresh lobster meat was hardly desirable. It wasn't until special lobster fishing boats with built-in water storage area were constructed so live lobsters could be sold and transported that the industry and culinary demand flourished.
Chef Richard Younger, who taught our cooking class at Viking Range Cooking School, provided us with his favorite recipe for individual lobster pot pies, which we were able to assemble very easily.
I think moms everywhere would be pleased. For more info on the cooking courses, visit vikingrange.com.
A Happy and Blessed Mother's Day to my Mom and to all our mothers and families on this Mother's Day Weekend.
Individual Lobster Pot Pies
2 (6-ounce) cold water lobster tails (in the shell)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, plus whole sprigs for garnish
1 cup diced yellow or white onion (1/2 inch dices)
1 cup diced butternut squash (1/2 inch dices)
3 tablespoons dry sherry, of drinkable quality
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling out pastry
1 cup lobster stock (can be purchased in gourmet stores)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2/3 cup thawed frozen spinach, squeezed dry
1 teaspoon brandy, of drinkable quality
1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Salt to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
1 (9 1/2-inch by 9 1/2-inch) sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 large egg, mixed with 1 tablespoon water
4 (6-ounce) baking ramekins
DIRECTIONS: Split lobster shells and devein, cut meat into small pieces. Heat a medium sauce pan over medium heat and add the 2 tablespoons butter to melt and then add lobster meat along with thyme, onions and diced squash. Saute about 5 to 6 minutes. Add sherry to pan and cook until sherry has almost evaporated. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and continue to cook, 1 to 2 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the ingredients in pan. Whisk in stock and bring to a simmer, cooking another 1 to 2 minutes, adding cream and tomato paste and cooking so sauce is smooth and slightly thickened. Add spinach, brandy and nutmeg and stir to combine all ingredients. Season to taste with salt and cayenne pepper. Bring the lobster sauce filling to a simmer and then divide into the 4 ramekins. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Dust a work area with flour and roll on pastry into a 10-inch by 12-inch rectangle. Using a small dinner plate that is one inch large in diameter than the mouth of the ramekin, cut out four circles. Make a few slits in the center of each dough circle for ventilation. Brush the edges of each ramekin with the egg and water wash and then cover each with a pastry crust, sealing the edges with a fork. Lightly brush the tops of each of the pot pies with the remaining egg wash. Place the ramekins on a baking sheet and bake for 20 to 22 minutes until golden. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.