Sand dunes and salty air and lobster stew — I love everything Patti Page sang about, though, curiously, “Old Cape Cod” fills me with nostalgia for a past I never knew. Hugo and I moved here in 2012, after living for years in the small town of Royal Oak, on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.
Page, who was from Oklahoma, expressed the same sentiment: “It’s so dear to me,” she sang of Cape Cod, even though she hadn’t ever been here before she recorded her 1957 hit with the lines “If you like the taste of lobster stew/ Served by a window with an ocean view/ You’re sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod.”
Then, as now, a desire to escape to an idyllic past — real or imagined — was fervent. Worries that year would have included Little Rock’s response to school desegregation, the U.S.S.R.’s launch of the first Sputnik, and nuclear proliferation. There was even a flu pandemic.
But I digress from one of the season’s loveliest idylls: lobster stew.
I had wondered what exactly Patti Page was singing about. Seldom do you see lobster stew on a local menu. Searching old cookbooks, I found recipes involving a lot of butter, cream — and time. There had to be a better way to make a quintessential New England stew to savor in the last sweet days of summer.
So, I set out to develop a version that’s a pleasure to prepare and does not imperil my loved one’s health. My rendition is ready in an hour because I start with lobsters steamed at the fish market. Ask them to crack the lobsters; that makes removing the meat much easier.
(If you want to cook your own lobsters and make your own lobster broth, by all means do it. I suggest consulting Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.)
This is a rosy stew with a touch of tomato and cream, the scent of sherry, and generous morsels of local lobster. Potato adds creaminess to the base and a pleasing counterpoint to the rich shellfish. I use olive oil, but you can certainly replace it with butter if you like and ramp up the cream. Either way, definitely serve this stew with grilled or crusty fresh bread. Steamed corn on the cob makes a nice complement.
A bowl of lobster stew has become something of an end-of-season ritual for Hugo and me. “You deserve it,” we tell ourselves, when Labor Day approaches, with its softening light on the water and in the scrub pines. Besides, lobster stew offers a way to cherish our special food resources in modest quantity. Ours are the kind of family gatherings where someone will surely ask how long it takes a lobster to grow to one pound. Answer: seven years.
By the way: our friend Sarah Leah Chase, who really knows lobsters and stew and is a renowned cookbook author, advises that after you cook lobster stew it’s best to “age” it overnight in the fridge to maximize flavor. But who has her will power? Not us!
Don’t buy one three-pound lobster in place of two smaller ones, because the meat tends to be less tender and sweet. Do substitute another herb for the garnish if you don’t have parsley. My lemon thyme took off this summer, so that’s what I used here. Chives are also good.
2 cooked lobsters, 1½ pounds each
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 small onion, minced
1½ Tbsp. tomato paste
1 large potato, peeled and diced
2 cups clam juice, or fish or lobster stock
¼ cup sherry
Salt and pepper
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1½ cups milk
¼ cup cream
4 tsp. minced parsley or other fresh herbs
Before you start, set out the milk and cream to bring them to room temperature.
Remove lobster meat from the shells, except for the 4 large claws, which can be reserved for an impressive garnish. Slice larger pieces of shelled lobster into bite-size morsels.
Warm the oil in a heavy pot, add the minced onion, and cook for a few minutes over medium-low heat until the onion softens and turns light golden. Stir in the tomato paste. Then add the diced potato, clam juice (or stock), and sherry, and stir again.
Set the pot, covered, to simmer over low heat for about 15 minutes, until the potato is tender. Season with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes and taste. Note that the clam juice or lobster or fish stock may contain salt, so proceed carefully when adjusting seasoning.
In a blender or food processor, puree half the potatoes with half the hot broth and return the mixture to the pot. Cook for a few more minutes to thicken slightly.
Finally, add the lobster meat to the pot and slowly pour in the milk and cream, a little at a time, stirring as you go. Heat the stew gently for about 5 minutes without letting it boil. Ladle up the stew and garnish each serving with a lobster claw and fresh herbs.
End of Summer Sgroppino
If you want to top off your late-summer celebration with a real flourish, here’s a could-only-have-been-invented-by-Venetians dessert we love.
Whether sgroppino is a drink, a dessert, or both doesn’t really matter. Sip it or spoon it up and be untied from your daily preoccupations — that’s what this funny word means — “untied.”
All you need are sliced strawberries, a scoop of lemon sorbet (vanilla or lemon ice cream also works well), and chilled Prosecco. Some call for whisking all the ingredients together before serving. Hugo prefers to layer each ingredient and let it gently meld in the glass.
Hugo brings out the ingredients and combines them at the table on very special or very strategic occasions, such as the first time he met my mother. After dessert, in the kitchen, her eyes as bright as a girl’s, my mother whispered, “He’s really very interesting, isn’t he?”
12 strawberries, sliced
2 tsp. sugar
4 scoops lemon sorbet
1 bottle Prosecco, chilled
In a shallow bowl, mash the strawberries and sugar together with a fork.
Place a scoop of sorbet in 4 coupes and spoon berries over each serving.
Pour enough sparkling wine into each coupe to half-cover the sorbet and serve. There will be Prosecco left over, which you can use to top off the sgroppino (or make second servings, if guests wish — and they likely will).