Lobster – and prawns, and plenty of other sea food besides – “goes” rather well with pulses. I say this with a small degree of misgiving because, in a way, it shouldn’t. I am staring at a picture (in Umbria, by one Julia della Croce) of a very appetising-looking seafood stew composed of squid, clams and mussels in brown lentils and am equally discombobulated.
There is no seafood in Umbria. There is no sea. Umbria has lakes, full of trout, carp and other obscure fish; Umbria has hills and woods that harbour all manner of game and farms that do exceptional chicken and pork; Umbria has truffles. Umbria also has the earthiest, sweetest and tenderest little brown lentils, which accompany all these ingredients very well. All these things are in abundance, but squid and mussels are conspicuously absent.
The whole idea of marrying seafood with pulses is relatively modern, certainly within the classical French canon. Although there is no doubt that haricot beans, for example, or chickpeas or lentils seem to complement crustacea very well, there are sound sociological reasons why they would rarely feature together. Pulses were generally the food of the poor and simply did not feature in haute cuisine; lentils appear in Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire only, somewhat disparagingly, as Potage Esau, and other pulses barely feature at all.
It is the absence of this grand hierarchical approach that I find especially attractive about Umbrian cooking. Although the food is earthy and robust, the ingredients are of the highest quality; Umbria, for example, has its own appellation control for chickens, and those birds rival poulet de Bresse in every respect. In due season, truffles are employed with reckless abandon and without quite the same air of sacramental ceremony with which they are offered in Piedmont. In Alba, they claim their truffles are vastly superior to those of Norcia and there is no doubt that Piedmontese truffles command a higher price, which accounts for the constant suspicion that Umbria and Le Marche supply Alba with a large quantity of truffles in the season.
If lentils and seafood are unlikely bedfellows because of their respective origins, their contrast in status has abated somewhat. The lentil may still be the food of the poor in some countries, but in the western world it has become positively fashionable. The Puy lentils or those of Castellucchio that are necessary to do the recipe below justice will have to be sought out in the gourmet section of the supermarket or some more refined emporium. They will be comparatively expensive but will seem cheap after you have paid for the lobster.
Although this is the height of the season for the native British lobster, there is hardly a glut in the market and the price has rivalled that of a barrel of oil in its obduracy. Perhaps the affinity with the humble pulse is simply a marriage of convenience.
Lobster with lentils
Cooking live lobsters is best avoided by the squeamish, but it can be overcooked if not purchased from a reputable source. Serves four.
2 lobsters, weighing 650g– 750g each (or 4 smaller lobsters of about 500g each)
250g green lentils
½ onion, studded with cloves
3 strips lemon peel
2 celery stalks
2 cloves garlic
2 tbs olive oil
2 tbs chopped tomato pulp
250ml white wine
Thyme, bay leaves, parsley
2 tbs Cognac or Armagnac
● If the lobsters are alive, bring a very large pan of salted water to a rolling boil. Plunge a large and very sharp kitchen knife into the back of the head to kill the lobsters and drop them immediately into the boiling water. Boil for three or four minutes until the shells are bright red and the flesh under the tail has whitened. Remove from the water and allow to cool.
● Rinse the lentils very well in cold water and then cover with at least their own volume of cold water. Add the onion, chillies and lemon peel and bring to the boil. Simmer gently, without salt, for half an hour or until tender (much will depend on the age and quality of the lentils). Do not let them boil dry and allow to cool in enough liquid to keep them moist.
● Dismember the lobster: remove the tails from the heads and split these in half, lengthways. Likewise remove the claws and crack them with a sharp tap with the blunt edge of a large knife. Reserve tails and claws. Chop up the heads and legs roughly with a cleaver and reserve separately.
● Chop the peeled shallots, celery, garlic and carrot into small dice. Heat a saucepan with half the olive oil and fry the vegetables on a lively heat until they start to colour.
● Add the chopped lobster heads and legs and continue to fry these together for a couple of minutes before adding the tomato, the white wine and the herbs. Bring to a simmer and cook gently for 45 minutes and then strain through a fine sieve.
● Heat a heavy sauté pan and add the remaining olive oil and the butter. Gently fry the lobster tails and claws in this mixture until gently coloured. Add the brandy and ignite. Add the lentils – minus the onion, lemon and chilli – and pour in the strained sauce.
● Season well with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice, take to the table and serve.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais