Celebrating Summer Lobster Rolls
by: Sarah Leah Chase
“New England is a great place for many reasons. For one, it’s the birthplace of our nation. Two, it contains a wealth of natural beauty. People travel from all over the world to get a glimpse of its fall foliage. And then there are the lobster rolls. With butter or mayonnaise, we won’t discriminate.”
– The Huffington Post (May 2013)
A really good lobster roll is simultaneously the simplest of summer dining pleasures and the most indulgent. I’m frequently asked, depending on whether I am at home on Cape Cod or visiting friends and family either on Nantucket or Down East, which establishments make the best lobster roll. It is a question I’m reticent to answer, despite the on-island accolades for noteworthy lobster rolls proffered at Cru, Straight Wharf Fish Store and the 167 Raw food truck and market garden, because I believe the very best lobster rolls are the ones made lovingly at home in your own kitchen.
Lobster, in one form or another, is a de rigueur summer treat savored on sandy beach strands and rocky shores alike throughout all of coastal New England. After years of donning flimsy plastic bibs and amassing an entire kitchen drawer filled with sundry lobster-eating paraphernalia, however, I’ve come to the conclusion I’m happiest getting my summer lobster fix in the form of a lobster roll, either as a stand-alone lunch or the starring component of an alfresco summer dinner.
For most of my life, the type of lobster roll that tickled my fancy was the one I grew up eating at my family’s summer vacation home in Maine. The standard Maine lobster roll is always served in a split-top “New Englandstyle” hot-dog bun whose outer exposed sides have been pan-sautéed in butter to a toasty golden brown and the bun then plumply loaded with discernable chunks of fresh lobster meat mixed with only a whisper of chopped celery and lightly bound together with mayonnaise.
If using commercial mayonnaise, the brand absolutely must be Hellmann’s. What makes a Maine lobster roll so seductive, especially on a hot summer day, is the sublimely tasty and textural contrast between the hot buttery roll and the abundant and cooling, coral-hued lobster-salad filling.
My longstanding love affair with the classic Maine lobster roll was challenged when I was doing research for my “New England Open House Cookbook” (Workman, 2015). It was then that the Connecticut-style hot buttered lobster roll began to show up on my culinary radar. Even though I had been born and raised in Connecticut, I had never experienced my home state’s signature lobster roll until one day back in 2012 when I stopped for lunch at Lenny & Joe’s Fish Tale restaurant in Westbrook, and immediately discovered that the same type of toasted “New England-style” hot-dog bun filled with warm lobster meat sizzled in clarified butter did indeed have swoon-worthy merit. I knew I would need to include both lobster-roll styles in my “New England Open House Cookbook.”
Another key component I discovered in the course of doing my lobster-roll research is that the brand of butter used for browning the hot-dog buns and warming the lobster meat for the Connecticut-style roll can make all the difference between a decent and truly great lobster roll. My go-to butter brand hails from Maine and is called Kate’s “Batch Churned” Sea Salted Homemade Butter and is fortunately available in supermarkets throughout New England.
Just as the state of Maine welcomes visitors with the slogan “The Way Life Should Be,” Kate’s Maine butter has the magical ability to make lobster rolls taste absolutely the way they should taste.
When you order a lobster roll at most seaside shanties throughout New England, the accompaniment more often than not is a side of potato chips and sometimes a dill-pickle spear. When planning a lobster-roll dinner at home, I like to elevate these accompaniments. My two favorites are homemade Cucumber Refrigerator Pickles and a Fresh Corn Salad made with locally-grown island corn.
The pickle recipe has been passed around on a hand-written piece of paper via a string of longtime Nantucket residents and everyone who has ever tried the pickles in my lobster-roll cooking class has deemed the recipe a keeper. Adding to the allure of the pickle recipe is the fact that these addictive cucumber pickles are quickly made in a microwave with no scientific canning procedures involved.
The corn salad is one of my very favorite summer salads and it would not be August without a big bowl of the salad on the table to accompany lobster and other seafood summer dinners.
In Maine, lobster-roll feasts usually conclude with some sort of wild blueberry dessert. On Nantucket, I tend to finish off my lobster-roll dinner menus with something lighter and a bit more sophisticated. Enter my recent discovery of Lemon Posset, a chilled British pudding combining thickened cream with some sort of enlivening citrus.
As simple as assembling a summer lobster-roll dinner may seem at first glance, if you opt to cook your own lobsters to extract their meat, the task can be messy and time-consuming, and my corn-salad recipe also requires a fair amount of labor. No doubt, you’ll see the wisdom in rewarding any and all labors of love with a dessert that’s easy on the cook and sure to please all with its refreshing and slightly-foreign novelty. ///
Sarah Leah Chase is a cookbook author and culinary professional. She writes “Good Dish” for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.