why it works
- Making a simplified, low-volume lobster broth extracts flavor while reducing time and effort.
- Using the lobster shells in the broth as a steaming “carrier” for the claws and tails further improves efficiency and flavor capture.
- White wine and a generous dose of olive oil are ideal solvents for the flavor and pigment molecules in the bodies and shells of lobsters.
Several years ago I published a recipe for fra diavolo shrimp in which I made a pointed argument as to why he was not a fra diavolo lobster recipe. Shrimp fra diavolo makes more sense at home, I said, while lobster fra diavolo was a more logical restaurant dish, given the number of lobster bodies required for a sufficiently lobstery tomato sauce. I also specified that I preferred to eat lobster steamed and dipped in melted butter.
My opinion has not entirely changed. I still prefer peel a lobster at the table and savor its sweet flavor as simply as possible, and I still think that, most of the time, fra diavolo lobster is not a particularly practical dish for home cooks to prepare, but to every rule there is an exception. In fact, I was so deeply committed to developing an absolutely brilliant version of this recipe – one that hits all the right notes possible while being streamlined enough to make it doable at home – that I toned down more than expected on the makes the fra diavolo lobster belong on the dinner table; I can even do it myself once in a while. And for a special occasion like the Feast of the Seven FishesI absolutely would.
Even when dining out, I’ve almost always been disappointed with the versions of fra diavolo lobster I’ve eaten (including the two I made as a line cook while working in restaurants). My main goal in developing this recipe was to address my long list of complaints with these other versions and come up with a pasta that shines with the flavor of the lobster. Too many recipes don’t showcase the lobster enough, obscuring it under an avalanche of tomato, oregano, intense spice and/or the vanilla-oak flavor of the brandy. So many fra diavolo lobster platters also come with little chewy nuggets of lobster meat.
How then could I create something recognizably lobster fra diavolo while remedying these common flaws? And how could I do that without making the recipe outrageously complex? It took me a lot of lobsters to get here, but these are my steps to fra diavolo lobster success.
Make an Intense, but Fast Stock
One thing I noticed while researching this recipe is that many versions allow you to make a full-fledged lobster broth, similar to the traditional French style. This means using tomato paste, adding the full cast of vegetables and herbs, deglazing with brandy, and you have a relatively large volume of liquid.
None of this makes much sense, especially in the context of home cooking. First, since the final sauce contains a lot of tomato, we don’t want to create an unnecessarily large volume of lobster broth. A larger volume of lobster stock simply means more time to reduce it later, or use only part of it and lose the flavor in the rest. So the first step for me was to reduce the amount of liquid in the broth to a bare minimum, just enough to coat the cockles and extract their flavor, and no more. This left me with a smaller volume of more concentrated stock.
Then I simplified the stock. The final fra diavolo sauce contains tomato in both canned and paste form, so I saw no reason for the tomato redundancy.
I also nixed the cognac. Brandy, as every student of classic French cooking knows, is a common companion to lobster, added to broths, soups, sauces, etc. They work well together…usually. But in this context, cognac drove me crazy. Although it has a hint of vanilla which pairs well with the natural sweetness of the lobster, I felt its oakiness was a total distraction and clashed with the other flavors (lots of garlic, dried oregano) in this dish otherwise very Italian. Still, I wanted alcohol in the broth, because alcohol is a great solvent for flavor molecules (see: vodka sauce), which was exactly what I was trying to extract from lobster bodies and shells, so I used white wine, which has a more reserved flavor and lively acidity that plays well with the other elements of the sauce .
The last adjustment I made to the stock was late in my development process: I added a lot more fat to it. My previous renditions of the recipe were close to my goal, but I still struggled with the tomato-based sauce, which didn’t provide enough lobster flavor. After taking a break from working on the recipe, my mind started piecing together an image of a sauce that was, yes, tomato, but not in the base pomodoro sauce way. I wanted a richer tomato sauce smoothed with olive oil and filled with lobster flavor. Much of the color and flavor of shellfish is fat-soluble, so increasing the amount of lobster-infused oil in the sauce suddenly seemed like a no-brainer. After increasing the oil used to sauté the lobster bodies in the broth from a quarter cup to a full cup, everything fell into place. I ended up with a richer sauce that delivered on its lobster potential.
Have Stock Double As Steam
Before starting stock in a test of this recipe, I had broken down the lobsters into bodies, claws, and tails. The bodies were in the pot, and the tails and claws needed attention. Shelling raw lobster meat is nearly impossible (I’ve seen some people do it, but it’s incredibly difficult), so it needs to be cooked enough to easily come out of the shell. To do this, it is best to steam the tails and the claws separately, as they have slightly different cooking times.
About to install a small steamer, I looked in my cooking pot and realized that I already had one. Thanks to the low volume of liquid in my stockpile, the shells protruded from the surface, which I found meant they could be used as a makeshift steaming medium. By placing the claws and then the tails on the shells and covering the pot, I was able to steam them with no problem, and any juices that dripped out went straight into the broth. (Warning, it’s fine if the claws and tails are partially submerged; the cooking time is so short they’ll come out fine.)
The benefit of this approach and the exact steaming times called for in the recipe is that the meat easily comes out of the shell, but is still cooked enough that when it is finally tossed into the hot pasta, it end up perfectly cooked and not at all rubbery.
Use tomatoes, but in moderation
Related to my decision to make a fattier tomato sauce, I also wanted a less creamy tomato sauce. Since there are a few cups of lobster broth that ends up in the sauce, it may get too wet if you also use a whole can of tomatoes and all their juice. By draining the whole peeled tomatoes before mashing them, reserving the liquid they are packed in for another use, I was able to produce a distinctly tomato sauce, but richer and, as I said above, less full of juicy tomato it looks and eats like classic pomodoro sauce over spaghetti.
Go spicy, but try not to atomize it
How much chili pepper to add to the sauce is a personal decision, but I encourage everyone to at least consider some restraint here. Yes, the dish is called fra diavolo (“brother devil”), which is supposed to convey hellish heat, but there is delicate lobster in this dish and even Satan himself might be reluctant to spoil all that flavor under an onslaught. fiery spices. Again, the goal for me was to put the lobster at the center of what is otherwise assertive pasta. So, yeah, make it spicy enough to wake up your taste buds, but maybe not atomic.
Gremolata breadcrumbs for the win
Towards the end of my development process, I said Sasha I was considering some kind of lemon zest breadcrumbs to sprinkle over the pasta, for a light crunch and a lively citrus note. He suggested I use the gremolata breadcrumbs he had developed for his bean stew with ‘nduja and kale. There’s nothing I love more than not reinventing the wheel, so I copied his recipe directly to make breadcrumbs a component of it, and they’re just perfect.