You wouldn't go to Boston for gumbo or consider crab cakes in Nebraska. No matter where you dock your boat this summer, get the scoop on specialty seafood and pick the perfect dish.
It's hard to imagine that lobsters were once considered a poor man's food. In Colonial New England, lobsters grew so abundantly that they were fed to children, prisoners and indentured servants. Many Massachusetts servants put clauses in their contracts stating that employers could not serve lobster more than three times a week. In the mid-1800s, high-society diners in New York and Boston took a liking to this tasty crustacean and elevated lobsters to a delicacy.
Species of lobsters appear in every ocean, but the cream of the crop comes from the Atlantic waters of Maine and Canada, where more than half of the world's supply is harvested. Lobster fishing season in North America peaks twice a year, in late spring and the fall. Even though visitors look forward to the summer ritual of a lobster boil, it's not necessarily the best time of year for cracking claws. That's when lobsters migrate into warm waters to molt and mate, so they're hungry and not as tasty.
Lobster purists insist that a steaming pot of water with a dash of salt is the best way to prepare this savory seafood, because it brings out the natural flavors. But regional cooks like to play around with lobster to create dishes for both the white linen crowd and the casual diner. Lobster Newberg, which was allegedly created at New York City's renowned Delmonico Restaurant in the 1870s, is a dish designed for special occasions. Its simmering blend of tail meat, butter, heavy cream, cognac and a pinch of cayenne pepper is a rich decadent delight.
Yet, some prefer simpler recipes. The lobster roll, pieces of lobster mixed with mayo, celery, and lemon juice, and tucked inside a toasted kaiser roll, is an ideal summer lunch at a beach in Cape Cod.
Since the Middle Ages, the scallop shell has been the symbol of St. James. Christians who made pilgrimages to his shrine wore a scallop shell on their clothes or on a string around their neck. When they stopped to rest, pilgrims were allowed to scoop a shell's worth of food at churches, castles or homes along the way. Centuries later, when French cooks combined scallops with mushrooms, cream, wine and parmesan cheese, they named the savory dish "Coquilles de St. Jacques," or Scallops St. James, after the holy man and his followers. Like the medieval pilgrims, scallops want to roam. Other bivalves, such as oysters, mussels, and clams, latch onto a surface and spend their lives in one place. Scallops are free-swimming mollusks that flit about the waves by opening and closing their shells with their adductor muscle. This powerful muscle is what we eat. Scallops come in two different varieties. The larger sea scallops, which can grow up to eight inches in diameter, are found in the North Atlantic from Newfoundland to North Carolina. They cost less but are ideal for quick grilling or pan frying to a golden brown.
Bay scallops, which reside in bays and estuaries from New England to the Gulf of Mexico, have a sweeter taste and only hit the 4 inch mark. Sea scallops are gathered from fall to spring, whereas bay scallops are ripe in autumn.
Northwest Native American folklore believed the salmon are people in fish form with supernatural abilities and eternal lives. They resided in beautiful homes under the sea, but offered themselves to tribes on land as a source of food, as long as humans treated them with respect and allowed their spirits to return to the sea.
This legend illustrates salmons' unique behavior of being born in fresh water, living in the ocean's salt water, and then returning to rivers and streams to spawn and die. This cycle of life takes place on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Almost 99% of Atlantic salmons are farm-raised, but nearly 80% of western salmon are caught in the wild.
Salmon is a hit with healthy eaters, because it is high in omega-3 acids and vitamin D. Plus, it's considered a fatty fish, which helps combat cholesterol and heart issues and works well for grilling.
If you travel to the West Coast this summer, you'll discover that salmon recipes mirror the region's diverse cultures and influences. California, with its large Asian population, is known for pressing fresh salmon into sushi rolls or grilling filets with soy sauce, garlic, brown sugar and chives. In the Northwest, Native Americans like to roast salmon on cedar planks, the same way their ancestors did for centuries.
Our planet is home to 4,500 species of edible crabs snow, Dungeness, queen, red rock, Chinese mitten, and Pacific spider crabs, to name a few. Dipped into melted butter, every one of them tastes divine. However, U.S. crab eaters fall into two distinctly different camps: Maryland blue crabs fans or King crab devotees. One is East Coast driven, the other stems from the West Coast.
Regional distinctions are as different as day and night. Maryland blue crabs, the runt of the crab species litter, are small in stature but big in flavor. They swim along the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia to Argentina, and the Gulf of Mexico, but most are pulled from Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina waters. They mate and then hibernate in the mud from October to April. When water temperatures rise above 50 degrees, they emerge with a feisty gusto and crab season begins.
Maryland natives express strong opinions about cooking their home-grown crabs. Steamed for 25 minutes with hefty shakes of Old Bay seasoning is the best way to go. Piping hot crabs fanned out on a picnic table with brown paper and wooden mallets is a summer rite of passage. When the meat is molded into crab cakes, green pepper or bread crumb filler is seriously frowned upon, because locals want to savor every bite of the tender, sweet crustacean. Soft shells crabs that have just shed their hard outer shells are dusted with flour, fried to a crunchy brown, and then laid between two slices of white bread with a swipe of mayo. Crispy legs that dangle out from the crust taste like a tiny bite of the Chesapeake Bay. Stone and king crabs are all about the legs. These prized crustaceans are found around the Pacific Rim from eastern Korea to northern British Columbia and the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, Gulf of Alaska, Sea of Okhotsk, and Kamchatka shelf. Fishing season lasts from October to January. King crabs reign supreme among this species, a and the long spindly legs turn a creamy white color with red accents when steamed, and they're considered one of Neptune's greatest gifts to mankind.
Whether you call them craw daddies, crayfish or crawfish, everybody knows you're talking about a distant relative of the lobster that has deep roots in Louisiana and Gulf Coast cuisine. Locals say the best time to eat them is spring (mid- March to mid-May) when water temperatures rise above 60 degrees, and the adults are hell-bent on mating and the babies aren't yet born. They're juicier then and have more meat on them. From August to February, shells become tough and harder to peel.
To eat like a Cajun, look for a Louisiana crawdad boil with corn on the cob, potatoes, andouille sausage, mushrooms and onions cooked together in a big old pot with a dash of hot sauce or seasonings. If you want to run like the local herd, pinch the crawfish tail to get every morsel of meat and suck the brains from the head to have a full-flavor experience. A cool bottle of Abita beer helps muster enough courage to take the first slurp of the head.
Another Big Easy favorite, Crawfish Etouffee, offers an option for the less daring. Its name comes from the French word to smother, and aptly describes the thick stew of plump crawfish in a thick blonde roux served over rice with fresh chopped scallions. A slice of hot French garlic bread along with an icy Hurricane, and you'll be singing tunes along with the zydeco band.