Camping is awesome and so is cooking outside. There’s something about cooking with fire and coals that’s so primal and satisfying –– you can make a mess and it doesn’t matter. Plus, I swear everything tastes better when you’re outdoors. I’ve made my fair share of hotdogs and hamburgers; I’ve even caught a fish or two and thrown them on the campfire, but preparing anything with a shell completely intimidates me. I just can’t figure out how to maneuver it and, well... that whole murder part.
Sarah Glover, chef/caterer, owner of the Australian cookie company Bondi Bikkies and author of the adventure cookbook, Wild, wants to eliminate fear of cooking shellfish, especially the intimidation a lot of people feel about preparing foods over an open flame. I was lucky enough to get a lobster tutorial from her while she was at a stop on her RV tour across the Northeast, where she was workshopping recipes using local ingredients and serving as an ambassador for THOR industries, one of the largest manufacturers of recreational vehicles in the United States. She parked the kitchen on wheels at a beachside campground in Long Island’s Westhampton Beach, where I was excited to have the best of both worlds, the convenience of an indoor kitchen plus the flavors of cooking outside – all within a few feet of each other. She promised to demystify the process and show me how to prepare and grill a crustacean, while some other guests helped out.
I arrived at the campground marveled at the stunning RV that was to be Sarah’s home for the next week and our test kitchen for the afternoon. This Class C (the kind you drive that has a section for sleeping over the cab; not the big bus kind) motorhome was quite luxurious with two flat-screen televisions, a shower, full kitchen, and sleeping space for six. She had already stocked the kitchen with everything we needed – all bought locally right down to the wine from a local Long Island vineyard – before I arrived. Doing just that was also one of her cooking tips: shop locally and at farm stands for the freshest food at good prices.
The plan was to prepare lobster two ways, boiled for lobster rolls and grilled in the shell. Sarah wasn't just going to show me, I was going to get in there and do it myself. Which involved murder. But I’ll get back to that.
First we prepared the giant lobster pot on the RV’s stove for the lobster boil ingredients: corn and baby potatoes. Earlier in the day, Sarah filled the pot with seawater, something this suburban/city girl would never have thought to have done. But as she pointed out, that’s where the main dish originally came from – and my Italian side always says to salt the pasta water until it’s as briny as the sea, so why not just use some actual seawater in your cooking?! We threw the potatoes and corn in the pot. Next up were the lobsters.
Our little sea dwellers were sitting in a tub of ice water, which as Sarah says “puts them to sleep.” The cold water numbs them, creating a more humane first step for what’s to come. We grabbed a few and put them in the pot and covered it. Oh, and Sarah says that whole lobster scream thing is a myth. I thanked my lucky stars for that and all was good.
Outside there were two kettle grills, heated up and ready to go. One of Sarah’s missions is to get people more comfortable with cooking using fire and coals; a project I my primal side could definitely get behind. Next we prepped the lobsters to grill but first the murder I promised. Sarah pointed out how the lobsters weren’t really moving from their ice bath; being “asleep” made the actual kill easier on us as well. This is one of those moments I found myself really torn – I’m a meat eater, but the actual hurting-another-living-thing part doesn’t come easy. I didn't want to do it, but I knew if I messed up or went at it too daintily, I’d just be causing more distress to the sea creature. Getting it right on the first try was the only way to do this without making the little guy suffer, so I raised the knife like I was in a horror movie and pushed it into his head and then split it in two. No blood, no mess, and I think I did it well. Ok. That’s done. Next, I split open the body and took out the guts, which was sort of like a giant shrimp deveining. And then I did the whole thing over with another lobster. The twelve-year-old kid in me was fascinated by the different textures of what I assumed were the intestines. When I pointed it out, Sarah said they just had lived on different diets, causing the different colors and textures. Eww. But cool.
Now the hard part was over, it was time to get them on the grill. Sarah had prepared a chili oil while we worked, first blistering some chilies on the grill top then heating them in a pan with olive oil. We poured some of the spicy oil on the meat and placed the lobsters face down on the kettle grill. We also cut lemons in half and put them on as well to give them a bit of a smoky flavor – plus grilling make them easier to squeeze. After the lobsters were on for a few minutes, we drizzled crème fraîche over them for a creamy flavor.
Preparing the feast
The boiling lobsters were ready so we picked out the meat and Sarah mixed it up with mayo, chili oil, garlic and lemon. Sarah had also prepared an herby topping similar to chimichurri to use how we wished – on our lobster rolls, grilled lobster, salad, etc. Next, she quickly put a cast iron pan atop the grill and added white American cheese, half and half, salsa verde, tomatoes, lime, and chives and whipped up a really fast white cheese and chive dipping sauce in no time. We chopped up and plated some local tomatoes and lettuce for the table.
When everything was just about ready, it all went to the table, already set with plates and utensils, shells holding down anything that would blow away. Our main serving dish for the day would be the now newspaper-lined table; the plates of tomatoes went on either end; the boiled potatoes and corn went down the middle and the lobsters were thrown in a heap the length of the tabletop. Sarah had chopped some fennel and sprinkled it across everything like Parmesan on a plate of pasta. Some chili oil was drizzled in the cheese sauce and the whole cast iron pan went on the paper-lined wooden table. Though this all sounds like a crazy mess, I don't think a food stylist could have laid it out better. The bright red of the lobster shells contrasted with the yellow corn and lemons; the wood table, newspaper, and shells gave everything a rustic look. It was a beautiful mess; curating it would have probably stripped it of its beauty. Sarah added lobster roll mixture to buns and placed one on each plate; from there we were to construct them as we wished from whatever was on the table.
This meal that was made up of a few simple pieces became this smorgasbord. The group all ate with our hands, reaching across each other with a polite “excuse my reach” as we all voraciously dug in. I added some cheese sauce, fennel, and tomato to my lobster roll; drizzled the herb oil across my grilled lobster (which I also dipped in the cheese sauce, because cheese). It was a simple feast that felt elevated in quality, yet we were as comfortable and casual and messy as any group could be. Everything was connected, the lobsters from the sea, the potatoes and corn cooked in ocean water, locally grown produce, and wine from the land – so they all seemed to go together even more naturally. And having had a hand in creating the whole thing and eating it in the sunshine over some good conversation with some good RV folks….well, indoor dining seemed so uncivilized!
We finished up with a walk by the beach where I stuck my feet in the surf and rinsed my hands and arms. The meal started from, was cooked with, and was cleaned up by the ocean. There’s something beautiful in the simplicity of the preparation and the meal’s congruity with nature. And I couldn't believe how easy everything was! Sarah converted me – I was ready to give it all up, hitch a ride in the RV, and create a life cooking local foods with fire.