The luxury of simplicity

Special to The Times

As much as we love lobster, it's one of those ingredients that tends to intimidate the cook. It's messy, after all, and expensive. And when you start with the live animal, it's just plain scary.

But that's a shame, especially in the summer. If you start with a lobster, add a few seasonal ingredients and an interesting dressing, you can have a wonderful main course salad. One that feels festive and casual, and actually takes very little work.

The bright white meat graced with rosy stripes is sweet and versatile -- whether you play up the sweetness with a cradle of something creamy or set it off with some acidity and crunch. These three recipes will give you an idea of the possibilities.

Each calls for fresh lobster, which can be found in seafood stores and neighborhood groceries with lobster tanks. The novice needn't fear: Many places that sell live lobsters will also cook them for you.

For example, Santa Monica Seafood Co. charges $2 to cook your lobster (allow about an hour for cooking and cooling-off time or phone ahead). Lobsters there start at $13.99 a pound. At Albertsons on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, where there's no charge to steam the lobster you select from the tank, live lobsters are $9.99 a pound.

Don't hesitate to get to know your lobster. The key to flavor is absolute freshness.

"The lobster should be extremely lively," says Stephan Samson, executive chef at Valentino. "When they are very fresh, they flop their tails when you pick them up."

Samson, whose first job after culinary school was at a lobster house in Maine, advises buyers to avoid the slower-moving crustaceans in the tank and to stay away from the bigger specimens, anything over a pound and a half, which he thinks tend to be tougher.

"We cook the lobster ahead of time, and then ideally I like to cool it at room temperature. Some people cook it and shock it in ice water, but I think that toughens up the meat a little bit."

Instead of the usual 10 minutes in boiling water, Samson suggests cooking lobsters just five minutes in boiling water with such aromatics as onion, carrots and celery. (When you immerse the lobster, let the water come back to a boil, then start timing.) When you remove the lobster from the water, it continues to cook as it cools.

Samson's salad highlights the lobster medallions and whole-claw meat on a mound of farro, a nutty grain also known as spelt. The meat and farro are simply dressed with olive oil and lemon juice and topped with tiny leaves of celery, carrot tops and chives.

"It's great for the summer," says Samson. "It's elegant, yet you can prepare it ahead of time for a party at home. It's creates a nice impression that you've put some work into it."

At the Lobster in Santa Monica, where up to half the diners order some form of lobster dish, executive chef Allyson Thurber makes an all-American lobster salad with a lemony mayonnaise that she says "is like what you'd get if you lived in Maine -- only they might not bother with the green onions and tomato." She presents it with avocado and champagne vinaigrette on a festive green salad.

"I love avocados," she says. "They're creamy and sweet and sort of similar to lobster in a way, really rich. Then you need to have the champagne vinaigrette. Because lobster is sweet, you need the tart to bring the flavors out. That's why it's traditional to serve pickles at lobster bakes."

The salad from Jenny Adams at Laguna Culinary Arts in Laguna Beach combines sweet and tart at each step. Lime juice is squeezed on the lobster before broiling; apples brighten a pasta-salad base. And as a finishing twist, ginger spikes the beurre blanc dressing.

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Ginger lime lobster salad

Total time: 50 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: From Jenny Adams at Laguna

Culinary Arts

Salad

2 (1 1/4-pound) lobsters

6 tablespoons lime juice, divided

Salt, pepper

1 1/2 cups orzo

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 cup red apples, peeled and diced small

1 cup celery, diced small and blanched

2 tablespoons chervil leaves

1. Halve and clean the lobsters. Brush with 3 tablespoons of lime juice; season with salt and pepper. Broil for 10 minutes; cool. Remove the meat and cut into bite-size pieces.

2. Cook the orzo in a medium saucepan of boiling salted water until al dente, about 7 minutes. Drain and transfer to a small bowl. Toss with 1 tablespoon of olive oil; set aside.

3. In a small bowl, combine the apples and the celery. Toss with the remaining lime juice and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Chill.

Ginger beurre blanc dressing

2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots

1 cup dry white wine

1 1/2 teaspoons ginger, minced

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1 tablespoon lime juice

Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a medium saucepan, combine the shallots, wine and ginger. Over medium-high heat, reduce the mixture until it's almost the consistency of syrup. Remove from heat and strain, discarding solids.

2. Replace the strained wine-ginger mixture in the saucepan. Over medium heat, whisk in the cream; bring to a gentle boil. Whisk in butter, lime juice, salt and pepper. Remove from heat and cool to lukewarm.

Assembly

1. In a large bowl, gently combine the lobster meat, orzo and apple-celery mixture. Drizzle with the dressing, add the chervil and toss to coat. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 829 calories; 18 grams protein; 76 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 47 grams fat; 25 grams saturated fat; 154 mg. cholesterol; 156 mg. sodium.

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Valentino's lobster-farro salad

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: Chef Stephan Samson serves this salad with both red and golden beet vinaigrettes. To make golden beet vinaigrette, substitute a golden beet for the red beet and champagne vinegar for the balsamic vinegar. Farro, also called spelt, is a barley-like grain available at Italian markets and at health food stores.

Red beet vinaigrette

1 large red beet

1 teaspoon chopped shallots

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

2 tablespoons water

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1. Cook the beet in boiling salted water until tender, about 40 minutes; trim and peel.

2. Cut it into quarters, and place it in a blender with shallots, vinegar, honey, water, and salt and pepper. Puree, then slowly add one-half cup oil until the mixture is smooth (covering the blender with a towel to prevent splatters). Makes three-fourths cup.

Assembly

1 cup farro

5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided

Salt and pepper

1/4 cup celery leaves

1/4 cup total destemmed carrot tops and chives cut into 1-inch pieces

2 (1 1/4-pound) lobsters

1 teaspoon chopped chives

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Red beet vinaigrette

1. Boil the farro in a quart of salted water until al dente, about 30 minutes. Drain. Place the cooked farro in a bowl and dress it with 2 tablespoons of oil and salt and pepper. Set aside.

2. Combine celery leaves, and mixed carrot tops and chive pieces with 1 teaspoon of olive oil; set aside.

3. Tie a stick to each lobster tail to prevent curling. Place the lobsters head first in a large pot of boiling water. Return to a boil and cook for 5 minutes. Remove lobsters from the pot and cool to room temperature.

4. Place each lobster on its back and using a knife or shears, cut into the underside of the shell, catching and reserving juice. Reserve the green tomalley (liver). Remove meat from tail and slice it into medallions. Carefully remove meat from each large claw in one piece.

5. In a bowl, whisk the lobster juice, tomalley, chopped chives, 1 to 2 tablespoons of the remaining olive oil, lemon juice and salt to taste. Dress the lobster meat with this mixture.

6. To serve, put a ring mold (4-inch by 2-inch) on each plate. Layer salad by placing one-half cup of dressed farro in the bottom of each mold, then an equal number of medallions and claws, then an equal amount of the greens. Carefully remove the mold so the salad is presented in a stack. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the lobster and on the plate. (If you don't have ring molds, mound and layer the ingredients to create a neat stack.) Serve immediately.

Each serving: 636 calories; 11 grams protein; 50 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 47 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 16 mg. cholesterol; 114 mg. sodium.

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Lobster-stuffed avocado with champagne vinaigrette

Total time: 40 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: From the Lobster's Allyson Thurber

Lobster salad

1 pound cooked lobster meat cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup diced celery

1/4 cup thinly sliced green onions

1/4 cup peeled, seeded and diced tomato

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Salt and fresh pepper to taste

1. Combine all the ingredients. Chill.

Champagne vinaigrette

1 tablespoon finely minced shallots

1/2 teaspoon finely minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon fresh chopped thyme

1/2 cup champagne vinegar

3/4 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper

1. Combine the shallots, garlic, thyme and vinegar.

2. Slowly whisk in the oil, salt and pepper.

Assembly

1 large head romaine (about 8 cups chopped)

1/2 cup julienne carrots

1/2 cup shredded red cabbage

1/4 cup chives cut into 1-inch pieces

24 cherry tomatoes, cut in half

1/2 cup champagne vinaigrette

2 large Hass avocados, peeled and halved

lobster salad

12 endive leaves

1. Combine the romaine, carrots, cabbage, chives, halved tomatoes, vinaigrette and toss.

2. Divide the salad onto 4 dinner plates. Place an avocado half in the center of each plate and top each with an equal amount of lobster salad. Garnish with endive leaves.

Each serving: 880 calories; 28 grams protein; 21 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams fiber; 79 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 98 mg. cholesterol; 625 mg. sodium.

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