Melissa Elsmo

Successfully making mayonnaise by hand, flipping an over easy egg without a spatula, and tempering chocolate without the help of a thermometer are all challenging hurdles any culinary student must make it over in order to graduate. Even though it felt like my arm was going to fall off after whisking those egg yolks and oil into an emulsified submission and forced my husband to hork down dozens of eggs with broken yolks before I mastered the elusive one handed flip, I rarely balked when it came to mastering a new kitchen skill even if it meant walking around with a chocolate covered chin. Culinary school is full of quirky tests and as much as I love a good challenge, nothing could have prepared me for my first face off with a live lobster.

Being a financially-challenged student meant our dinner table was laden with luxurious dishes like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a near nightly basis; top quality crustaceans simply were not in the budget. So I met my first lobster in the bowels of a steamy culinary school kitchen. The squirming lobsters, housed in crowded bins, were waiting to be matched with an aspiring chef when my instructor called me up to the front of the class to aid in a demonstration.

The ever eager student, I was happy to oblige. I grabbed the surprisingly perky lobster just as my instructor had taught us earlier as he began waxing on about the most humane ways to cook a live lobster. All the while, I kept telling myself I could plunge the darn thing into a pot of boiling water without any remorse. Only, when I looked around, there didn’t seem to be a pot on the stove anywhere. And then my teacher slid over a knife and a cutting board.

What happened next is still kind of a blur to me.

With a classroom full of appalled onlookers, I earned a fair bit of culinary cache by splitting that poor clawed creature with one swift smack of the knife. I didn’t say a word the entire time and did not flinch when the meat twitched when I threw the halved shell on the hot grill. I was the only student in my class to meet the lobster challenge head-on and my instructor allowed me to eat the whole thing myself. I dressed that split grilled lobster with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon before savoring every single bite; after what I’d done to it, I wasn’t about to let it go to waste. 

I don’t go around whacking living sea creatures very often these days, but becoming a lobster-killer helped me respect the food I cook in a whole new way. Know where your food comes from, appreciate the methods of proper cooking, and never take good food for-granted. To this day savoring a little lobster is one of my favorite summertime indulgences and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate pristine shellfish than by serving them in an east coast inspired lobster roll. It may take some guts to gain a little culinary glory in this simple recipe, but once the uncomfortable lobster killing deed is done the dish comes together in a frenzy of flavorful perfection you won’t soon forget.

LOBSTER SOURCING 101:

1. FEELING GUTSY: Visit Supreme Lobster in Villa Park, IL (220 E. North Ave) to purchase live lobsters and receive expert tips on cooking whole lobsters by steaming them for best results.

2. FEELING LESS GUTSY: Purchase cold water lobster tails at your local Whole Foods or finer supermarkets. Insert a skewer through the length of the tail and steam the tails on a rack over boiling water in a covered pot for 8 minutes before proceeding with your recipe.

3. FEELING A LITTLE COWARDLY: Premium cooked lobster meat can be purchased on line at www.thelobsterguy.com. The hefty price tag ($60/pound) buys home cooks a pass on picking, cleaning, and cooking crustaceans for lobster rolls or other dishes. Next day delivery is available.

Summer Lobster Rolls

This indulgent sandwich is an expensive splurge weather you are a student or not, but substituting a pound of cooked crab leg meat or cooked large shrimp for the lobster will save a few pennies without skimping on flavor!

  • 1 Pound cooked lobster meat, cut into large chunks
  • 1/4 Cup of minced celery
  • 1/4 Cup of minced red onion
  • 1/4 Cup of minced red bell pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons of minced fresh parsley
  • 1 Tablespoon of minced fresh tarragon
  • 1 teaspoon of lemon zest
  • Juice from 1 large lemon
  • 1/4 Cup (more or less to taste) mayonnaise
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 Uncut high quality hot dog buns
  • 2 Tablespoons of butter, softened
  • Arugula and/or spinach
  • Snipped fresh chives

Place the lobster, celery, red onion, red pepper, parsley, tarragon and lemon zest in a bowl. Add the lemon juice and toss to coat. Add the mayonnaise and fold gently to incorporate. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until ready to use. When ready to eat, slice each hot dog roll vertically, but not all the way through; this is called a top cut bun. Spread the softened butter on the outside of each bun and toast it on all sides in a hot grill pan. Open the bun and place some arugula in the bottom. Stuff each roll with 1/4 of the lobster salad mixture. Garnish with chives and serve at once. Makes four sandwiches

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