Astice alla Catalana
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
"A woman should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it be lobster salad and Champagne, the only true feminine and becoming viands."
Lord Byron (1788-1824)
One of the joys of occasionally working on the market stall is the inevitable interaction you get with the fellow Seafoodies buying that day. Invariably recipes will be shared and, like for this particular lobster, fates may be altered. It was a gentleman called Alexander who brought to my attention a dish called Astice alla Catalana as we exchanged ideas for how to enjoy lobster at a time when we are inclined to buy it more liberally, being at its lowest price-point of the year. Within hours of getting home I had researched and made the, what transpires to be, Sardinian dish, from the town of Alghero, and it was an absolute no-brainer for inclusion on the blog. A dish like this could not be more up my street even if my street were one-way and the dish's transport had only one-way mobility.
Speaking of streets, I am quite certain that this is one of those recipes that, were you to knock on the doors of ten neighbouring households down a street in Alghero, you would emerge with fifteen or more different "correct" formulae.
But what makes it so special, like so often is the case of special dishes, is its simplicity and its respect for excellent-quality ingredients. Lobster, tomato, red onion and extra virgin olive oil are clearly at the core, with just lemon, salt and pepper to crown the glory. I came across other inclusions in my research such as celery and parsley, and I wouldn't wish to argue against these, but am inclined to like my simplicity simple. I also encountered various different ways of presenting the dish but as I considered each one my focus was increasingly drawn to the need to ensure that every mouthful could contain all ingredients at the same time. It goes without saying that all recipes I found advocated the use of Italian extra virgin olive oil. I will confess that I have so far only ever made this recipe using the Qadisha Valley olive oil (available from Rose Ash Foods) I have mentioned in the past, so ideal is it for a preparation like this.
One thing that Alexander seemed at pains to stress to me was the importance of the sweetness that the onion should have to achieve the best of the dish. I understand his point. It's a simple fact of life that vegetables grown in a Mediterranean environment are different. OK, it's not the Mediterranean, but I remember a salad that was served prolifically in the restaurants I visited on a trip to Porto which contained raw, sliced white onion, and this onion had a mildness and sweetness I have struggled to find in onions readily-available in the UK (that is not to say they don't exist, of course!). Several of the recipes for Astice alla Catalana I found gave the onions the same following treatment: they soaked them in cold water with a little vinegar for a short while. I'm sure this is the way in which the mellow, sweet flavour of the onion, so essential to Alexander, was achieved.
I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the tubs of picked lobster meat we can buy on the market stall be used to make this dish. However, doing so will inescapably lead to the absence of a key flavour in the dressing - the flavour that comes from the matter found in the body and head section of the lobster. I was truly enchanted to see that the majority (if not all) of the recipes I found online made use of this matter in creating the emulsified dressing, just as in Lobster Courchamps of a very recent post. In the event that a lobster head is not available to have its contents scraped out, I have suggested that a small quantity of pasted anchovy fillet be substituted, but that does not deter me from encouraging the whole lobster to be used in the making of this dish.
As a final comment, this discovery opened the question of Astice versus Aragosta. Having come across this question in learning about Spanish cuisine (see Paella de Bogavante, forthcoming), I was pretty confident I knew what the root of the question was. With the help of an Italian friend and this article, I can confirm that astice is the lobster-with-claws that are sold on the market stall, whereas aragosta is what are called "spiny lobster" or, sometimes "crayfish", and does not have claws. Looks like I'm going to have to rename my post for Spaghetti all'Aragosta! Curiously, as with the Spanish, the Italians will pay more for the claw-less beast than the clawed one (but the article does make the point that lobsters more widely available in Italy are the inferior North American ones!).
Clearly a very summery dish, I can only recommend to serve it on a sunny balcony, or in the garden, with some ciabatta and a a glass of Prosecco.
For an awfully long time I have worked with a rule-of-thumb when building salads - that the key components of the salad should be cut to approximately the same size. It's almost as if you have decided on the diners' behalf which implements are going to be used in the salad's consumption, even if one of those implements is a flatbread. It's all too often you are served a salad with hearty chunks of cucumber and halved cherry tomatoes that also contains small dice or slices of onion or spring onion which inevitably find their way to the bottom of the bowl and never make it on to your fork. Sweetcorn is another salad ingredient (which I am quite happy to see avoided) which is more of a pain than a pleasure when included in a knife-and-fork salad. But then, equally, chunks of tomato or green pepper are pretty annoying in a tabuleh-style salad that is to be eaten with a spoon or pieces of flatbread.
Although I found endless ways in which this particular "lobster salad" was presented, be it chunky or fine, what united all approaches is that to whatever size one ingredient was cut, the other ingredients were cut to a complimentary size. For me the 1-1½" size is spot-on here.
I haven't bothered with precise quantities, I think we can all judge when we've got as much or as little dressing as we'd like and whether the seasoning is to our liking. And with lobster there is every reason to enjoy it the way you like it.
Astice alla Catalana
Ingredients (Serves 2)
1-2 tsp white wine vinegar
One 600-700g or two 400-450g cooked lobster, or 150g picked lobster meat
2 vine tomatoes, cut into thick quarter-round slices
1 red onion, cut into thick quarter-round slices
½ tsp pasted anchovy fillet (optional, if using ready-picked lobster meat)
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Put the sliced onions in a bowl of water with the vinegar and leave to steep for 15-20 minutes.
If using a whole lobster, prepare it by removing the tail and the claws from the body. Remove the tail meat in a single piece and cut into 1-1½" chunks and put these into a mixing bowl. Separate the claws from the "arms" and remove the meat from each claw in a single piece if possible. Cut in half and add to the tail meat. Remove the meat from the "arm" pieces and add it to the rest. Cut the body in half and spoon the red and green material into a sieve set over a second mixing bowl, then scrape this through the sieve into the bowl for the dressing. If using ready-picked lobster meat, just cut the pieces into 1-1½" chunks and put them into one mixing bowl, then put the ½ tsp of pasted anchovy fillet in a second mixing bowl for the dressing.
Sieve the onions from the water and vinegar (you can pat them dry if you like) and add them and the tomato slices to the lobster meat.
Build up the dressing using lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil to your preference, seasoning with salt and pepper likewise. You want a generous amount of dressing for this "salad".
Combine the dressing with the lobster, tomato and onion, stir well, check and adjust the seasoning then leave for 5 minutes before serving.
"La differenza tra astice ed aragosta", ilgiornaledeimarinai.it, accessed 3 June 2020: https://www.ilgiornaledeimarinai.it/la-differenza-tra-astice-ed-aragosta/
Lobster Courchamps, Bute St Seafoodie
Paella de Bogavante, Bute St Seafoodie (forthcoming)
Spaghetti all'Aragosta, Bute St Seafoodie