When it comes to food, quality is always in style.
That's the philosophy Ron Reid, executive chef of The Palm Restaurant at Tropicana Casino & Resort, has lived by for the past 18 years or so. When you work for a restaurant that enjoys a reputation for offering as high a quality dining experience as The Palm does, you learn to be uncompromising when it comes to flavor.
That's why the lobsters there come from Canada, not Maine, because they taste better, according to the chef.
"I don't want to talk down on my country, but the water in Canada is colder so the meat is just sweeter," Reid said.
Reid has been preparing 5-pound lobsters for the restaurant's popular annual promotion so long, he remembers once, about 15 years ago, when they ran out of the giant crustaceans for the special and had to turn down customers rather than substitute inferior seafood. Even though Maine lobster is so plentiful it's driving down the price, Reid continues to use lobster flown in daily from Prince Edward Island for consistency sake.
Another way The Palm stands out is in the way its lobster is prepared. In general, the most common preparation people think of is steaming, or a lobster boil, Reid says. But at The Palm, whole lobsters are broiled with a little cream, even if the claws still are steamed for logistical reasons.
Steam actually toughens the thick tail meat, but the dry heat from the broiler helps seal in the juices, and the cream helps the surface of the meat caramelize into a nice golden brown, he said. When choosing a live lobster to cook, Reid said don't be shy; pick them up and squeeze and handle them.
"Young lobsters have a hard shell and then they molt and lose it," he explained. "So if you can squeeze the shell too much without meeting resistance from meat, that lobster hasn't had enough time to grow into its shell, it's not what we call 'fully meated.'"
To broil a lobster, Reid's kitchen staff holds the live crustacean over a cutting board with the claws still restrained with a thick rubber band and first cuts off the front sensors that look like whiskers. Next, the claws are removed, and the lobster is tossed quickly on its back and sliced open right down the middle from top to tail.
The organs such as stomach are removed, but any roe a female was carrying, for example, is left in the shell to be eaten as a delicacy.
"Some people request a male or a female for specific reasons," Reid said. "Someone who orders a male likes the claw meat versus the tail. Someone who orders the female likes the roe - the fish eggs - that turn red. Also the tail is wider, so you get more tailmeat on a female."
It's illegal to fish for female lobsters when their eggs are fertile, but in the huge hauls that keep a restaurant this size well supplied, it sometimes happens by accident, Reid said.
The lobster is placed shell-down on a broiling rack, the back arched up a bit, and the meat is splashed with half-and-half. Broiling time depends on size, about 4 to 5 minutes per pound at 500 degrees, Reid said. And you can use the same method to grill a lobster at home.
When a lobster dies, it secretes an enzyme that breaks down the meat. So if it already was dead when it started cooking, the meat will fall apart as you are trying to plate it … and then you'd better have a back-up because it's not going to taste right, either.
Some other cool tricks he's picked up preparing an average of 50 orders per night include telling from afar which claw is a lobster's pincher, for tearing its prey, or the bulkier crusher claw. He also can tell at a glance if a lobster is male or female. The males have bigger claws and their first set of legs between the body and tail are hard; the females have a wider tail and the first set of legs is soft.
For lobster bisque, Reid uses all three meats, including claw, shell and body meat. But only the body shell is needed for the fish stock.
"The claws, the tail, mean nothing (for fish stock)," he said. "Just twist the tail off and you can use it for something else."
The most complicated part of making lobster bisque is making the stock, but if you don't want all that work or mess, you can just use fish stock, a weak clam stock (water it down in a pinch) or even chicken stock. Then it's easy enough to assemble and can be reheated up to three days later. It also freezes well, Reid said.
One of the most important steps is remembering to layer flavor throughout the process. If you sprinkle salt in at the end, it just won't taste as well, Reid said.
"What salt actually does to vegetables is it leaches out the liquid, which stops it from burning," Reid explained. "Onions are a pretty moist vegetable, carrots are a little drier and celery is somewhat dry. So if you just threw it in with some butter you have the risk of a hot spot or a dry spot, where the salt leaches out that moisture and slows the caramelizing.
"You should always taste for seasoning throughout. If you just add salt at the end it doesn't do the same thing. If you like black pepper you can use it, but then you have black specs in the bisque."
The worst thing you can do to a bisque is ignore it and let it burn. At The Palm, the soup is thickened using rice, so it's gluten free. But that also means you have to watch the rice as it cooks in the stock so it doesn't stick to the bottom and ruin the flavor.
Finish it up with a little cream, and garnish with parsley, et voila: World-class lobster bisque.
Contact Felicia Compian:
•4 lobster bodies, tail and claws removed
•1 1//2 sticks butter, divided
•2 stalks celery, divided
•1 onion, divided
•2 carrots, divided
•Salt and white pepper, to taste
•1/2 cup white wine
•1/2 tablespoon curry powder
•1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
•1 1/2 quarts fish stock
•1 cup brandy
•1 cup dry sec
•1 cup arboria rice, raw
•2 ounces tomato paste
•1/2 cup cream
•1 tablespoon mixed lobster meat, poached in butter
•1 tablespoon creme fraiche
•Fresh parsley for garnish
If you haven't already, twist off the lobster tail and claws for use elsewhere.
Sweat 1 stalk of celery, 1/2 an onion and 1 carrot in a half stick of butter about 10 minutes over low to medium heat until tender. Add salt to taste and continue to layer flavor with salt and white pepper throughout. Toast with curry, cayenne and white wine.
Meanwhile, roast lobster bodies with 1/2 stick melted butter at 400 to 450 degrees in a casserole dish until bodies are brittle and red, but not charred.
Add cooked lobster bodies into vegetables and crush completely with a meat mallet or paddle. Cover with stock and simmer over medium heat 30 to 45 minutes. Turn off and let rest, then strain.
Sweat remaining vegetables in remaining butter and deglaze with brandy and dry sec. Bring to a boil and let reduce by a 1/4, then add stock.
Add rice and bring to a boil again, then simmer 20 to 30 minutes. Rice will become pillowy soft when ready and you should be able to pinch through grains without feeling a bead in the middle.
When the rice is cooked, add tomato paste and cook 5 more minutes, then blend or mix with a burn mixer or wand until smooth. Finish with cream and check seasoning again.
Serve over poached lobster meat with creme fraiche and garnish with parsley