Special occasions call for special foods. Whether you are preparing to celebrate an anniversary, a loved one’s birthday or some other kind of milestone, it makes sense that you would want to enjoy a meal that is a bit more extravagant than the usual. When I turned 10, my father and stepmother took me to a “fancy” restaurant for my first taste of lobster, and I still remember how lusciously sweet and rich it tasted, especially when dipped in the warm drawn butter. During pandemic times, of course, enjoying a special meal has more likely meant digging deeper into your own recipe vault and perhaps brushing the dust off some of your lesser-used cooking skills. You may have even been nudged into fresh culinary territory, taking the plunge on new equipment for your kitchen or learning new techniques or cuisines to make your favorite special foods. All of the above have been true for me over the past year, in addition to starting this blog, which has been a lifesaver for my mental health.
When Valentine’s Day came around this year, I had already decided that lobster tails would be the highlight of our romantic dinner-for-two. I made them last summer when my husband, Les, celebrated his birthday and we both commented how much we enjoyed the lobster and should make it more often. Lobster feels decadent, and though I’ve never been brave enough to prepare a whole, live lobster (mainly out of fear that I’d have to become vegan afterward), I find lobster tails to be one of the simplest seafood preparations out there. Splitting the tail and broiling with nothing more than clarified butter, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of fresh herbs is the way to go. For me, it’s the sides that require a little more thought—you want something elegant enough to pair nicely with such a luxurious main, but nothing too rich or fancy that would compete for attention or overwhelm the palate. Les requested easy roasted asparagus and a Caesar salad, which I glammed up with homemade green goddess dressing. And I wanted a starchy side, but not potatoes and definitely not pasta.
Enter risotto, stage left.
As I mentioned in my January post for the scallops with spinach on bacon risotto, there is no advanced skill required for making this Italian-born side, only patience and attention. I consider risotto a “blank canvas” food, in that you can easily switch directions with it to suit the rest of your menu. For our understated Valentine’s meal, I wanted light, lemony freshness, something that would match the simplicity of the lobster tails. I found a bottled lobster juice in one of our specialty markets, and it has all the luscious sweet aroma of lobster, with exactly the right amount of salt for flavor. Lemon zest gave echo to the fresh lemon we’d be squeezing over the lobster, and did I mention how much parsley we have these days thanks to our indoor hydro garden? I finished it off with a gentle splash of light cream, and the meal was perfectly lovely.
The other thing that is nice about risotto is that you don’t have to make a huge batch of it. For this meal, I wanted only enough to cradle our lobster tails, so I scaled down a basic recipe and used only 1/3 cup of Arborio rice. We had no leftovers, which was perfect.
Ingredients (two dinner side servings)
1 Tbsp. minced shallot
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/3 cup Arborio rice
8 oz. bottle Maine lobster juice* (see notes)
2 oz. dry vermouth (or dry white wine)
Filtered water, amount needed to finish risotto
1 Tbsp. finely grated lemon zest
2 Tbsp. light cream (or half and half), warmed
A couple pinches of fresh chopped parsley
I found this lobster juice in a specialty supermarket, same aisle as tinned fish. The label suggests a serving is a tablespoon, so I’m not sure what most people use it for. When I tasted it, I knew it would be perfect as a broth for my risotto, and I used the entire bottle. If you cannot find this product, consider a seafood stock from the soup aisle.
- Combine lobster juice and dry vermouth in a saucepan over low heat. Bring this up to a very low simmer, and keep it warm for the duration of recipe. If you have a tea kettle, warm some water as well. You may need it to finish cooking the risotto and it will help to have it on standby.
- Place a small, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Melt the butter; add minced shallot and sauté until softened and slightly translucent.
- Add Arborio rice to the pan, and toss it around with a wooden spoon until all grains are coated and the rice begins to look lightly toasted in color. Reduce heat to medium low.
- Add a small ladle of the warm lobster broth and stir rice around to evenly distribute it. Cook, stirring or shaking pan frequently, until the broth seems mostly absorbed. Repeat with only a small ladle of broth each time. As the recipe proceeds, you will notice that the risotto takes on a cloudy appearance. This is good! The starches are breaking down into different form, and this is what creates the rich, creamy texture. Keep going, but take it slow.
- When you have nearly exhausted the broth, do a taste test. Perfect risotto should be tender, but not mushy. If it feels like it will stick to your teeth, it needs more time. Add warm water to the remaining broth and continue cooking. You should expect this process to take about 40 minutes from start to finish.
- When the risotto texture seems right, add the lemon zest and fresh parsley. Stir in the light cream or half and half, and serve immediately.
To make clarified butter:
Place a small saucepan over very low heat. Add a whole stick (1/4 cup) of unsalted butter and leave it alone. You want the butter to warm slowly so that it melts but does not brown or burn. Avoid temptation to stir or swirl the pan, as this will reincorporate the milk solids. When the butter is completely melted (which may take as long as 30 minutes), turn off the heat and let it rest for a minute or two. Carefully tip the saucepan, pouring off the clarified butterfat, but leaving the milk solids behind in the bottom of the pan. Do this a day or two ahead, if you wish. Keep the clarified butter covered and refrigerated until ready to use. Reheat over medium-low heat, or in the microwave, but only 15 seconds at a time.
Prepping and cooking the lobster tails:
If you have purchased the lobster tails frozen, it’s best to thaw them slowly in the refrigerator, as it makes separation of the flesh from the shell a bit easier. In a hurry? Place them in a heavy, ziptop freezer bag, squeezing out excess air (the shells have sharp edges, so sandwich-type bags won’t do). Put the bags in a large bowl or pot filled with cold water. Place something heavy over them to keep them submerged during the thaw process.
Use strong kitchen scissors to cut the top side of the shell lengthwise, clipping as far as you can to the tail fins. Next, carefully slide a sharp, slim paring knife between the meat and the shell, and shimmy it all the way around to loosen the flesh. Using one hand to gently pry open the cut shell top, carefully lift the tail flesh up through the shell opening to rest it on top. This affords the prettiest presentation. Blot away excess moisture with paper towels. Cover and refrigerate until you are ready to broil the tails.
Set your oven to high broil setting for about five minutes, with oven rack in the center position. Arrange the lobster tails, at least 4 inches apart from each other, on a baking sheet lined with foil or parchment, or use a broiler pan. If the tails don’t sit upright without tipping, you can make a nest of aluminum foil to hold them in position.
Drizzle a spoonful of clarified butter evenly over each tail. Broil on high for about 7 minutes, until flesh is plump and white, and shells are bright orange-red in color. Remove immediately, drizzle on more butter and sprinkle with fresh parsley. Serve on top of lemony risotto with wedges of fresh lemon.