Lobster is one of the great luxury ingredients, but it is almost always handled the same way: either boiled or grilled. These are perfectly acceptable, but there is an even better, and in many ways easier, way to cook lobster--remove it from the shell first. Cooking lobster meat without the barrier of the shell improves texture and flavor.
The best way is to poach the tail in butter, or beurre monte --the butter enriches the meat and the lobster infuses the butter with flavor. As good as butter is, the poaching liquid could be as varied as vegetable broth or corn juice. In these instances, because the lobster gives so much flavor to the broth, it is best to treat the liquid as a cuisson , a poaching liquid that will then be reduced and seasoned and used as the finishing sauce.
Lobster freed from its shell can be cooked more carefully at a lower temperature, resulting in meat that is unusually tender--far from the rubber we're often served. Poaching at about 190 degrees in butter or broth, or wrapped in plastic with aromatic vegetables (the boil-in-a-bag method) is gentle, as is roasting slowly in a 250-to 275-degree oven. This keeps the meat from seizing up the way it does at the harsh temperatures of the grill or a seven-minute boil.
You can start this process well ahead of time and, because the meat is removed before the final cooking, it is more elegant and easier to eat. Also you then have all of those shells at the ready to make a lobster stock or to freeze for later use.
Here's how the method works. First, the outside of the meat must be cooked so it will pull away from the shell. Do this by pouring boiling water over the lobsters and letting them sit for two minutes. After two minutes the lobsters can be broken down into their separate parts. Twist off the tail and remove the meat from the shell by pinching upward from the closed end. Trim any stray, stringy muscle. Do the same with the claws (try to remove the meat intact), and cut open the knuckles with a pair of heavy scissors. Put all the meat on a paper towel-lined plate or in a container, cover tightly and refrigerate until you're ready to cook it.
It will take only a few minutes' poach in beurre monte to finish the lobster, then serve it as is, with the butter and a garnish of fresh tarragon if you wish. Or you might roast it with spices in a slow oven--sweet ones such as cinnamon, coriander and clove, or with curry spices.
Lobster is luxurious in texture and flavor, and it's expensive as well. That's all the more reason to cook and serve it in a manner that heightens all its distinctive attributes.
Keller is chef at the French Laundry in the Napa Valley. Ruhlman is author of "Wooden Boats: In Pursuit of the Perfect Craft at an American Boatyard" (Viking, $24.95). They are co-authors of "The French Laundry Cookbook" (Artisan, $50). Previous columns by them can be found on The Times' Web site, at www.latimes.com/keller.
Lobster Pan Roast
Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes
The starch from the corn juice thickens the cooking liquid into an unbelievably light, creamy sauce.
2 (1 1/2-pound) lobsters
1/4 cup cider vinegar
4 fingerling potatoes
6 ears corn, divided
1/3 cup water, optional
1/4 pound fresh morel mushrooms
2 teaspoons butter
Freshly ground white pepper
1 teaspoon snipped chives
Fill a large pot with enough water to completely cover the lobsters. Add the vinegar and bring to a boil. When the water boils, remove the pan from heat and submerge the lobsters in the water.
Steep the lobsters until they turn red, about 5 minutes. Remove the lobsters from the water, twist off the knuckles and claws and return these to the hot water for an additional 10 minutes.
Separate the tails from the bodies of the lobsters (reserve the bodies for stock or discard them). Cut through the cartilage on the underside of the lobsters, pull them apart and pull out the tail meat in 1 piece. Cut the tails in half lengthwise, remove the vein and trim any loose strands.
Remove the claw meat intact by wiggling off the small lower claw, to which a piece of cartilage is attached (be sure to remove this cartilage if it separates) and by cracking the fat claw near its base to open and remove the meat without damaging it.
Remove the knuckle meat and reserve it for another use (it's great sauteed quickly in butter for a snack). Place all of the meat on a paper-towel-lined plate, cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use. (Allow the meat to sit at room temperature 1 hour before cooking if chilled).
Slice the potatoes into 1/4-inch disks and blanch them in plenty of rapidly boiling salted water until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove them from the boiling water and plunge them immediately into ice water to stop the cooking, then pat dry with a paper towel and set them aside until ready to use.
Trim the kernels from 4 ears of corn and run them through a juicer. Alternatively, puree them in a blender with 1/3 cup water and then let them drain through a fine mesh strainer, pressing lightly on the corn in the strainer to get all of the juice. You should have 1 1/2 cups of corn juice.
Cut the kernels from the remaining 2 ears of corn and add them to the boiling water, cooking for 1 minute. Remove them from the boiling water and plunge them immediately into ice water to stop the cooking, then pat them dry with a paper towel and set aside until ready to use.
Slice the morels into lengthwise quarters. Heat the butter in a skillet over high heat. When it is sizzling, add the morels and cook, stirring constantly, until the mushrooms have softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper and set aside until ready to use.
Place the shelled lobster meat in a pan just large enough to hold it all in 1 layer. Cover it with the corn juice and cook it over low heat, stirring constantly until the lobster is cooked through and the corn juice begins to thicken, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Add the corn kernels, potatoes and chives and season to taste with salt and white pepper.
Divide into 4 warmed serving bowls and garnish with morels and snipped chives.
4 servings. Each serving: 352 calories; 961 mg sodium; 87 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 53 grams carbohydrates; 31 grams protein; 5.28 grams fiber.
Napkin in cover photo from Sur La Table stores.