Homard a l’Américaine
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
"There is only one way to cook the lobster quickly - that is to cut it into pieces and throw them into the sauce."
Pierre Fraisse, restaurateur (c.1860)
When I posted the recipe for Lobster Armoricaine almost this time last year I was perfectly aware of the existence of a dish whose title included the word "Américaine" but little did I know that I had become entwined in an enduring controversy over the origins of this classic dish among so many for so long. This is all explained in my recent post for Sauce Américaine so we can focus here instead on the rather enchanting story of the origins of Homard a l'Américaine.
In her article "Fine Bouche" published in the Sunday Times on 4 November 1956, Elizabeth David explains the history of the restaurant in France as according to a book of the same name written by one Pierre Andrieu. She mentions that amongst the engaging content of the book is the story of the true origin of Homard a l'Américaine.
According to "Larousse Gastronomique" the story goes thus. At the end of one day's service, somewhere around 1860, in his Parisienne restaurant, Pierre Fraisse, who had until recently been working as a chef in Chicago, was visited upon by some 8 to 10 hungry diners demanding a meal within an hour. With little remaining in the kitchen, and being an obliging fellow, Fraisse served a soup and an hors-d'oeuvre while he contemplated what to serve for the main course. Having little time to hand, a fish dish would have been the answer but for the lack of fish. However there were some live lobsters waiting for the next day's service and there were tomatoes in the pantry and cream in the fridge. Fraisse set about creating a tomato cream sauce graced with the generous contribution from some brandy, and to complete the dish, well, the quote above explains. When asked the name of the dish by the delighted customers, Fraisse, having only recently returned from America, replied "Homard a l'Américaine".
The iconic dish has become rather more refined than tossing chopped up live lobster in a tomato cream sauce these days and the recipe that caught my eye was written by Stéphane Reynaud in his encyclopedic compilation of classic French dishes, "Ripailles". Although his recipe begins with the cooking of the lobster, flambéed in Cognac, in the end it is cooked lobster that is finally added to the tomato cream sauce (in fact, this is thematic among several recipes I have encountered for this dish). In this regard I was inspired to simply split the recipe into two and focus mainly on the sauce in which already cooked lobster could be finished.
Summer is the time when lobster prices are at their lowest of the year but prices came down much sooner than normal this year because of the pandemic and the consequent restrictions on transportation between producer and consumer. Made with already cooked lobster, whole or picked, both of which are available on the market stall, this is really quite quick and easy to make.
"Larousse Gastronomique" describes Homard a l'Américaine as France's best lobster dish and I don't suppose a dish of lobster-in-sauce will be easily surpassed. It's a classic for a reason: it's delicious!
This is a superb use of the cooked lobsters that are sold on the market stall and can be pre-ordered much of the time, and using them avails of a very quick meal. It is also a great use of the tubs of picked lobster meat that are available particularly in the summer months. The whole cooked lobsters have the advantage of allowing you to extract the meat in their natural form which look stunning on the plate, and you have the shells left over to make up the stock for your current or next batch of Sauce Américaine. The tubs obviously relieve you further of the picking job, but also relieve you of the benefit of putting the shells to use. That said, it's worth noting that the shells, as waste product from the picking process for the tubs, are sometimes available for free on the stall.
I was tempted to think that this dish might be closely emulated with some cooked lobster meat and a tin of Cream of Tomato soup (perhaps embellished with some brandy). I suspect that would have M. Fraisse turning in his grave. As simplified as I have made this I'd like to think that there is enough sympathy in the recipe to show respect to the original.
Once the Sauce Américaine has been made (a matter of minutes) the recipe is very quick to complete, especially if using the tubs.
Homard a l'Américaine
Ingredients (Serves 2)
1 x 700g or 2 x 400g cooked lobsters, or 150g picked lobster meat
1 quantity Sauce Américaine
Make the Sauce Américaine until the point of adding the cream.
Gently reheat the lobster meat in the sauce and transfer to serving plates.
Add the cream to the sauce, adjust the seasoning then pour on the lobster and serve straightaway.
"An Omelette and a Glass of Wine", Elizabeth David (1984), pp. 143: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Omelette-Glass-Wine-Elizabeth-David/dp/0670807699
"Larousse Gastronomique", Joël Robuchon (2001), pp. 17: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Larousse-Gastronomique-Hamlyn/dp/0600620425
"Fine Bouche: A History of the Restaurant in France", Pierre Andrieu (1956): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fine-Bouche-History-Restaurant-France/dp/B0000CJIZZ
"Ripailles", Stephane Reynaud (2008), pp. 312: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ripailles-Stephane-Reynaud/dp/174336633