Lobster may be a sign for all things high-end these days, but there is nothing fancy about the humble lobster roll. The origins of this lobster-mayo mashup in a bun are misty and factious, but the idea is that it started as a roadside treat, a way to offload an overabundance of lobster quickly and easily.
At least, that's what Ben Sargent says.
"You didn't have to put a bib on, there was no cracking," he says. "You just stopped on the side of the road and had this unbelievable bite of something you just never knew could be so good."
Sargent knows a thing or two about lobster rolls. Born in Cambridge, Mass., Sargent spent his summers fishing, surfing and hanging out in his grandfather's tackle shop on Cape Cod. In his book, The Catch: Sea-to-Table Recipes, Stories and Secrets, Sargent writes about watching his grandfather as he flawlessly cooked New England culinary standards. Sargent says he's caught lobsters every way you can, including with his bare hands.
But what gives Sargent crustacean cred is a stint in New York City's illicit lobster roll trade.
When Sargent moved to Brooklyn a dozen years ago, he was shocked by Gotham's take on the humble seafood sandwich, calling the New York City lobster roll "too chef-y."
"This sounds ridiculous but there was too much lobster. It had too much mayonnaise, it had a garnish, it was spilling out over the top," Sargent says. "It was trying to be impressive because if you're going to charge $30 for a lobster roll, it's got to look like $30."
So he went underground — literally. Sargent set up shop in a basement apartment and started pumping out about 200 lobster rolls a day. He sold them for $14 — cash only, word of mouth, only in secret — under the alias Dr. Klaw.
To get one of Dr. Klaw's lobster rolls, his customers sent a text to a secret cellphone number, and at any given hour Sargent, as Dr. Klaw, would hand off a steaming, delicious roll.
"Dr. Klaw had a very, very religious following of lobster roll aficionados," Sargent recalls.
He kept Dr. Klaw shrouded in mystery because he was operating illegally.
"For the most part you never really saw Dr. Klaw's face," Sargent says. "Dr. Klaw operated mostly at night and was essentially a hand that would come out of a mail slot with a lot of bling, a lot of gold jewelry, and it handed you an illegal lobster roll."
But then, it all fell apart. He says one of his most loyal customers accidentally ratted him out.
Sargent came home to find a cease-and-desist order from the city health department. The city had found out Dr. Klaw's secret identity and told him if he didn't give up his trade he'd go to jail. It didn't help that his landlord got the notice, too.
Things have gone all right for Sargent since then; he went on to own a handful of restaurants and host a show on the Cooking Network. But he still misses being the self-styled seafood-slinging gangsta known as Dr. Klaw.
"Every night was such an adventure when I was Dr. Klaw. There was the high rolling, the money, the women — you name it. It was a pretty wild lifestyle," he says. "And I don't think I'll ever do it as Ben. It's just not as much fun."
Dr. Klaw's Lobstah Rolls
There are three secrets you have to follow to make the perfect lobster roll: 1) Keep it simple — keep the green stuff out of the mix, and never ever add celery. 2) Steam the lobster in a salty bath. 3) Never toss out the lobster liquids that are in the shells. That liquid is like lobster extract or lobster flavor on steroids.
1 large onion, halved
2 tablespoons coarse sea salt
4 large garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns, cracked
4 (1 1/2-pound) lobsters
8 tablespoons (1 stick) salted butter
1 teaspoon garlic powder
6 top-sliced hot dog buns
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
Fine sea salt
Old Bay seasoning
1. In a large clam or lobster pot, add 2 inches of water. Put in the onion halves cut sides down and add the coarse sea salt, garlic, bay leaves and black peppercorns. Bring to a boil over high heat.
2. Put in the lobsters head up, the first two sitting on the onion halves, and loosely stack the other two lobsters, making sure all the lobsters are evenly spaced apart. Cover and cook over medium-high heat until bright red all over, about 6 minutes. They will be a little undercooked for a reason!
3. Transfer the lobsters to a large rimmed baking sheet and let cool. Working over the sheet to collect all the lobster juices and fat, twist the tails and the claws from the bodies. Pull off the tail ends or flippers from the tail shells and push the tail meat out of the shells with your thumb. Cut down the top of the tails and discard the dark vein. Twist the knuckles from the claws. Cover the claws with a kitchen towel and, with a mallet or the back of a large knife, gently crack the claws on both sides to loosen the shells from the meat. Break the shell off of the claws and pull out the meat, preferably in one piece. Break up the knuckles and push out the meat.
4. Cut the tails down the center and give all of the lobster meat just a few chops; the meat should be in nice chunks. You should have about 5 cups of meat. Put the meat and the collected juices in a large skillet and set aside.
5. Heat a griddle. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, melt the butter with the garlic powder and stir. Open the hot dog buns and brush only the insides with some of the garlic butter. Toast the buns on the hot griddle on medium-high heat until golden brown and crisp, about 2 minutes per side. Reduce the heat to medium if the griddle gets too hot.
6. Very gently reheat the lobster meat over low heat until barely hot. Remove the skillet from the heat, stir in the mayonnaise, and season with fine sea salt. Pack the lobster meat into the toasted buns and drizzle each with a little more of the garlic butter. Sprinkle with Old Bay seasoning and serve right away. You should have a nice pink-orange sauce developing around the meat as a result of the mayo and lobster juice cooking just a bit.
The cooked lobster meat and juices can be refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature, then reheat very gently if you are assembling the rolls the following day. Save the lobster bodies and shells for bisque or stock. Store in the freezer for up to one month.
NOTE: Lobster rolls should taste like lobster, not celery! Just use a good sweet hot dog bun, big chunks of lobster, a little mayo and some butter, and you will have perfection.