The French have always clung zealously to homard à l’américaine. The idea that such a classic dish may have originated in the New World was so abhorrent to French gastronomes that they created a new etymology for the dish and even an alternative spelling.
For a while homard à l’armoricaine – a reference to Armorica, the Gaulish name for Brittany – held sway, but it convinced few as a true derivation. There is nothing remotely Gaulish or indeed Breton about a dish that features tomatoes as a main ingredient. A more sophisticated deriv-ation was required.
We do know that homard à l’américaine featured on the menu at Peter’s Restaurant in Paris around 1860, long before any references to an alternative armoricaine version. The incongruously named restaurant was founded by Pierre Fraisse, a chef originally from the south of France who tried his luck across the Atlantic in Chicago’s Café Américaine before setting up his own place back in France. His version of events consisted of a dish quickly improvised late one evening when there was nothing left to feed a party of Americans. When asked the name of the dish the chef quickly coined “homard à l’américaine” and it became a speciality of the house.
In the event, the dish may have been an improvisation or, more likely and as Escoffier claimed, a standard Provençal treatment of lobster jazzed up with a few Cognac flames and a dash of cream. It is not as stunningly original as Fraisse may have claimed but nor is it “not complicated” as Louise Bertholle exhorted us in her classic – and much due a reprint – Secrets of the Great French Restaurants.
There are problems with homard à l’américaine. Firstly, and least importantly in my view, the cook must kill the lobster before cooking: this is simply achieved by piercing the head with a large and heavy knife and is every bit as humane as the various forms of drowning advocated by some. Secondly, the cooking times are simply wrong. Most recipes for homard à l’américaine recommend sealing the pieces of lobster in olive oil before cooking them in the sauce for 20 minutes: you have to cook the pieces in the sauce for that length of time to get the flavour of the shells into the sauce and yet most lobster is cooked after three or four minutes. One final contradiction in this supposedly great dish is that the rich flavour of the sauce completely overwhelms the clean, sweet flavour of the meat. It is generally a better policy to serve the meat and then steal back the shells and make a bisque with them the next day.
I bought six proud and snapping local lobsters on Cape Cod a month ago, partly to repay my kind hosts for their hospitality. This supposed extravagance cost $65, which, with the current exchange rate, brought these splendid creatures in at just over £5 apiece. At the market next door, they were giving away – literally – some fine ripe plum tomatoes that had the occasional blemish that were excised in seconds. It took time for the barbecue to heat up, which may have sharpened the appetites of the guests. That notwithstanding, the noisy feeding frenzy that followed, the voracious chomping and sucking and the impatient teasing and shucking of meat from shell, belied some enthusiasm of this particular homard américaine.
GRILLED LOBSTER WITH TOMATOES, OLIVE OIL AND BASIL
It is surprising how much the lobster juices will flavour the tomatoes and oil. If the marinade process requires the lobster to be eaten lukewarm, absolutely no harm will be done.
6 ripe plum tomatoes
1 tsp cracked black pepper
½ tsp sea salt
12 large leaves of basil
100ml extra virgin olive oil
4 lobsters weighing 500-700g each
50g melted butter
●Remove cores and drop the tomatoes in boiling water for 15 seconds and then rinse under the cold tap. Remove the skins, cut the tomatoes in half and remove the seeds. Chop the tomato flesh into neat little dice and place in a very large bowl.
●Add salt and pepper and the finely grated zest of one of the lemons before squeezing their juice and adding that to the tomatoes. Roll the basil leaves into a little cigar and shred them finely before adding to the tomatoes, followed by the olive oil. Let this mixture macerate at room temperature for at least one hour.
●Take the lobsters and insert a large knife into the middle of the head between the two claws, pushing down hard and then reversing the direction, effectively separating the body in two. Pull off the claws and hit with a hammer, just enough to cause a crack along the shell. Cut off the legs with a large knife and remove the hard membrane inside the head.
●Brush the lobster tails with the melted butter and place them face down on a very hot grill, with the claws alongside. After two minutes, turn the tails and claws and cook them for three or four minutes on the shell side until the shells have completely changed colour and you can see the juices bubbling up inside the shell.
●Remove tails and claws from the grill and turn in the tomatoes and olive oil before serving, preferably with some pilaf rice and a green salad to follow.
More columns at www.ft.com/leigh