When Sam was a kid, he spent summers at his grandparents’ house in Maine. It was there that he got well and truly schooled in the art of eating lobster: the cracking of the shell, the careful extraction of the meat, the gentle dunk in a sunny pool of butter. His eyes still shine when he talks about it.
But we don’t live in Maine. Sam doesn’t often get to eat lobster anymore. Except on special occasions, like, whatever’s happening tomorrow.
It’s not really a surprise that lobster shows up often around Valentine’s Day. It’s the kind of sweet, succulent indulgence most of us only get very rarely, if at all. And very little needs to be done to it to make it sparkle.
So, in honor of my lobster-loving boyfriend, here’s a nifty twist I came up with on a classic special-occasion splurge: lobster “risotto” made with orzo pasta and lots of champagne.
In Italy, “orzotto” is risotto made with pearled barley instead of rice. In some cases, tiny rice-shaped orzo pasta stands in for the barley; I quite like it this way, as a kind of cheeky nod to the rice in risotto. When you cook pasta risotto-style–adding broth a little at a time, instead of all at once–it swells and takes on a velveteen texture, without the stodgy gumminess of a traditional risotto. It makes a lovely creamy cradle for bite-size nuggets of lobster meat.
This dish is not in itself that extravagant. I stretched one lobster tail and a quarter-pound of pasta to feed two people–though it was so delicious, Sam and I could each have scarfed down another portion easily. The one place I went a little crazy was the champagne; I wanted it to be one of the primary flavors in the dish, as opposed to just a shy supporting player. No way do you need to use fancy-schmancy champagne for this–I keep a few tiny bottles of supermarket champagne in the fridge just for cooking–but you certainly could go luxe if you wanted to. I ended up using about four times as much champagne as traditional risotto recipes call for, and the pasta greedily drank all of it up.
Even though you’re essentially giving the orzo a champagne bubble bath, the result is surprisingly subtle. The wine gives the pasta a fruity-tart edge–just barely–and with a whisper of lemon zest and a handful of herbs to round out the seasoning, the lobster really gets a chance to shine. It’s rare that I actually manage to coax such understated flavors out of something I made up on the fly, and I’m bursting to share.
This is such a fun twist on risotto, I’m seriously smug about it. It’s perfect for an intimate dinner, with a simple salad alongside and a luscious dessert to follow. It’s really a delicious way to enjoy lobster, no matter how far you are from Maine.
Lobster Orzotto (serves 4 daintily, or 2 generously)
Inspired by the Minimalist
2 lobster tails (about 6 oz each), thawed if frozen
1 quart water, or just enough to cover the lobster
1 bay leaf
Pinch of crushed red chili flakes
Salt to taste
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large shallot, finely diced
1/2 lb (about 1 cup) orzo pasta
2 cups champagne or sparkling wine (nothing fancy)
Zest of one lemon
1 tsp minced fresh basil, or 1/2 tsp dried basil
1 tsp minced fresh oregano, or 1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves, or 1/4 tsp dried thyme
2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
Place the lobster tails in a medium saucepan with water, bay leaf, crushed red chili and salt. Bring to boil over medium-high heat and cook for 8-10 minutes, or until the shell curls up and the meat turns white. Remove the lobster tails from the water and set aside until they are cool enough to handle; reserve 2 cups of the lobster cooking water to use in making the pasta.
In a deep-sided saute pan or skillet, heat olive oil over medium-low heat. Add shallots and a pinch of salt, and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add orzo pasta and stir until the grains are coated with oil and starting to turn fragrant. Turn the heat down to low, then add 1/2 cup of the champagne and the lemon zest; simmer, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is absorbed. Add a second 1/2 cup of the champagne and simmer, stirring occasionally, until this dose of liquid is absorbed. Continue adding champagne, 1/2 cup at a time, letting each dose absorb before adding the next; when you’ve added all the champagne, switch to adding the lobster cooking water, 1/2 cup at a time. Taste the pasta after each dose of liquid is absorbed; when it is tender and very creamy, stop adding liquid and stir in the basil, oregano and thyme. (You may not end up using all the lobster water you reserved.)
While the pasta is cooking, cut the shell off the cooked lobster–I used a pair of kitchen shears–and dice the meat. Once the pasta is cooked, mix in the diced lobster and cook until the meat is heated through. Remove from heat and stir in Parmesan (if using). Serve with a wedge of lemon to squeeze on top, if desired.