Years before the current popularity of lobster rolls my friend, Joel, a food-obsessed antique dealer, proposed we make a personal study of lobster rolls along the coast of Maine. It was a challenge I instantly accepted because, up to that point, I had never had a real lobster “roll.”
Lobster sandwiches are what I grew up eating in our inland town, on untoasted white bread with a thick slathering of lobster salad and the crust cut off, leftovers from Friday night’s lobster dinner. Central Maine families, like mine, traveled to the coast once a summer and we always ate lobsters-in-the rough, clams, corn, drawn butter and wild Maine blueberry pie. That’s how it was.
After eating a lobster roll at a different place for 20 straight days, we had rolled our eyes 20 separate times. These lobster rolls on cold buns contained tiny pieces of lobster meat with too much mayonnaise added. Limp French fries overwhelmed the plate with not a pickle in sight.
We dreamed of finding a classic lobster roll with no frills. It would be so overfilled with lobster salad we couldn’t wait another minute to take a bite. We wanted it served in an old-fashioned, cardboard sleeve holding it upright, keeping it safe from tumbling over. The roll would be grilled to a golden brown with melted butter captured in every morsel The lobster chunks would be large enough to show reverence and appreciation, the salad bound with the smallest amount of mayonnaise, just to hold it together. The lobster roll would be served with homemade bread and butter pickles.
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When we made it to 50 lobster rolls with our dreams unfulfilled, I suggested,”Maybe we should create our own.” So, into my kitchen we went with a bag of lively lobsters, a pound of homemade butter, a package of very fresh top-split hot dog rolls, a jar of my own pickles and an unopened jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise, the only brand my mother bought. Have I mentioned my mother’s lobster sandwich was perfect?
In a large pot, steam a 1½-pound lobster for each lobster roll, being careful not to overcook them. The lobster should be steamed for 14 to 15 minutes for a hard shell, which I prefer over a new shell lobster because I like the firmer texture. Chill the whole lobsters and when cool enough, shell out the claws, knuckles and tails into a colander over a bowl.
With a pair of scissors in one hand, squeeze out the juices from each piece of lobster with the other hand. Cut all the meat into one-inch chunks and place in a clean, dry bowl. Add enough mayonnaise to only hold the meat together, no excess. Start by adding a tablespoon and mix, add more as you go, because you can’t take it out, go slowly. I always add finely chopped chives to the mixture for appearance, a delicate secondary flavor that brings balance and harmony. Chill the salad for a minimum of half an hour.
In a skillet, melt really good butter — allow a tablespoon and a half for each roll. Dip the sides of each roll into the melted butter. Slowly toast one side and then the other. A little tip: The more often you flip the rolls from one side to the other the more deeply the butter will soak in. Keep the skillet on medium heat and do not take your eyes off the pan. When both sides of the roll are golden brown, like a perfect piece of toast, turn off the heat and remove the pan from the burner. Turn the rolls onto their underside and in less then a minute the split will open and literally smile at you.
All that is left is to fill the buns with the chilled lobster salad. With well-cleaned hands, grab a good handful and place it in one end and repeat this on the opposite side. Lastly, fill in the middle. If there are spots that need more, fill them in. We want a copiously filled lobster roll. After all, how often do you eat them? Indulge yourself and your guests.
In general, paprika is sprinkled over the top, but I prefer smoked paprika because it enhances the sweetness of the lobster and elevates it to lobster roll perfection. There is no better accompaniment then a simple side of homemade bread and butter pickles for balance and a palate cleanser.
If, when you take the first bite, two or three pieces of lobster salad haven’t fallen in your lap, then you haven’t filled them enough.
Main photo: Classic lobster roll. Credit: Copyright 2016 Brenda Athanus