March 16, 2010

Shell-shucked

— RICHMOND — Annie Hall would have loved this contraption.

click image to enlarge

John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, May 16, 2008...Shucks Maine Lobster uses a machine they call "Big Mother Shucker" that uses water pressure to shock lobsters from their shells, allowing the raw lobster to be easily packaged for sale to the restaurant industry. Employee Brian Swift lowers the basket of lobsters into the "Big Mother Shucker" for processing.

click image to enlarge

John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, May 16, 2008...Shucks Maine Lobster uses a machine they call "Big Mother Shucker" that uses water pressure to shock lobsters from their shells, allowing the raw lobster to be easily packaged for sale to the restaurant industry. Brian Swift dumps the processed lobsters onto a tray after running them through the "Big Mother Shucker".

Additional Photos Below

In the classic Woody Allen film, Diane Keaton as the title character gets the willies and freaks out when it's time to throw a live lobster into a pot of boiling water.

If only she could have come to this small industrial park, where Shucks Maine Lobster processes thousands of pounds of soft-shell lobsters every day. All she'd have to do is push a button and lower the lobster into oblivion.

The huge shucking machine uses high-pressure water to send crustaceans to their Great Reward and to loosen the raw meat from their shells. And it's all done in 60 seconds.

We're talking pressurization on the order of 87,000 pounds per square inch. That's seven times the pressure in the deepest part of the ocean, according to Charlie Langston, chief operating officer at Shucks.

''Basically what happens is you just compress everything that's in there,'' Langston explained. ''With the lobster, the whole animal shrinks, but the meat loosens from the shell. This kills them like that, much faster than boiling or steaming or even hammering with a knife.''

THE 60-SECOND SHUCK

The day I visited, workers shucked almost 1,000 pounds of lobster. On a big day in summer, they'll handle 10,000 to 15,000 pounds.

The technology was developed to kill the bacteria and other pathogens that cause food to spoil. When seafood processors tried it on Gulf of Mexico oysters, they noticed an interesting side effect -- the oysters fell out of their shells. Turns out it does the same thing to lobsters, without deforming or squishing the meat in any way.

For chefs, especially those outside of Maine, raw lobster falling out of its shell is a dream come true. Until now, their only choices were to buy live lobsters or use cooked and frozen lobster meat.

If they buy lobster live, they have to deal with shipping issues and pay their staff to process it by hand. That usually means blanching to loosen the meat, then picking whatever meat they can out of the shell.

The problem with buying already cooked and frozen lobster is that ''it's kind of like buying cooked and frozen filet mignon,'' Langston said. ''You've got to cook it twice, and you end up ruining it.

''Well, it's good for mixing with mayonnaise and making lobster rolls,'' he said. ''Or oftentimes what chefs will do with that cooked and frozen lobster is chop it very finely so people can't tell how chewy it's become.''

The lobster that's shucked by the machine in Richmond comes out whole, with claws in one piece and even the meat from the flipper and swimmerets intact. It's either frozen or packed fresh into a small tub. There's a whole lobster in each package, including the hard-to-get meat from the legs.

Shucks Maine Lobster calls the leg meat ''lobster spaghetti'' and promotes it as a good ingredient for stuffing a fish dish or for use with pasta.

Other products include lobster packaged with the perfect amount of butter for poaching, and ''fluffed and stuffed'' lobster tails that come with three different sauces.

Shucks has also started processing Maine shrimp during the off season.

''Basically to get raw shrimp out of the shell now, they have to soak it in fresh water for 24 to 48 hours, and then that loosens it enough so they can pick the shell,'' Langston said. ''The problem is that you soak flavor out of it, and you end up soaking shelf life out of it, because as it's sitting there, it's starting to decompose.''

The shucker at Shucks does the same job in 60 seconds, retaining the flavor and shelf life of the shrimp.

But lobster is the company's bread and butter.

While you can find Shucks Maine Lobster products in a couple of stores -- Hannaford sells 8-ounce tubs of raw claw and knuckle meat, for example -- the company typically does not sell retail. Its main customers are chefs, restaurants, seafood distributors and wholesalers. Most of them are out of state, where lobster is a costlier, occasional treat that's served a little more elegantly than the traditional Maine lobster pound-by-the-sea experience.

'IT COOKS VERY QUICKLY'

Langston and Margaret McLellan, a chef who handles food-service sales at the company, have found that a lot of chefs don't know what to do with raw lobster meat.

The most typical blunder is overcooking it, usually by sauteing it over high heat.

''We're all used to cooking lobster in their shell, and there's a lot more mass there that you have to heat up,'' Langston said. ''And when you take the shell away, it cooks very quickly. It doesn't require much heat.''

Others have tried -- what else? -- boiling it.

''That's what they think you do with lobster, but would you take a salmon filet and boil it?'' Langston said.

Steaming is fine.

''Chefs are using it in their lobster stew, and they're actually not even cooking it before,'' McLellan said. ''They're making the stew, bringing it up to temperature and then just adding the raw lobster meat.

Shucks' European customers use the lobster for a dish they call tartare, ''but it's like a ceviche where it's raw, they chop it up and use a little citric acid with it,'' Langston said.

Maine customers include restaurants as varied as Walter's and Five Fifty-Five in Portland, On the Marsh in Kennebunk, and McSeagulls in Boothbay Harbor, where the restaurant has been using the Shucks leg meat in some creative ways.

While McSeagulls uses Shucks' whole lobsters in some more traditional dishes, such as lobster gnocchi with a basil cream sauce, it's also having fun marketing just the leg meat in summertime dishes such as a ''Crazy Leg Lobster Margarita.'' The legs are deep fried and served in a margarita glass with a garlic aioli sauce for $12.

''They look cool, they taste great,'' said Elena Smith, assistant manager of McSeagulls. ''For some people, they're a little scared to try it because they're saying 'Is it real lobster meat?' It's not something people expect.''

The restaurant also uses the leg meat sauteed in butter in a ''Crazy Leg Lobster Roll'' for $14.

The lobster-leg dishes have been popular with tourists, Smith said.

''I personally think it's probably the most overlooked part of the lobster, and the most delicious,'' she said.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

20080515_Shuckerce
click image to enlarge

20080515_Shuckerce

Gordon Chibroski

click image to enlarge

John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, May 16, 2008...Shucks Maine Lobster uses a machine they call "Big Mother Shucker" that uses water pressure to shock lobsters from their shells, allowing the raw lobster to be easily packaged for sale to the restaurant industry. Employee Brian Swift lowers the basket of lobsters into the "Big Mother Shucker" for processing.

20080515_Shuckerce
click image to enlarge

20080515_Shuckerce

Gordon Chibroski

click image to enlarge

John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, May 16, 2008...Shucks Maine Lobster uses a machine they call "Big Mother Shucker" that uses water pressure to shock lobsters from their shells, allowing the raw lobster to be easily packaged for sale to the restaurant industry. Employee Brian Swift fills a metal basket with lobsters prior to putting them into the "Big Mother Shucker" for processing. At right is co-worker Kevin Warren.

click image to enlarge

John Ewing/Staff Photographer: Friday, May 16, 2008...Shucks Maine Lobster uses a machine they call "Big Mother Shucker" that uses water pressure to shock lobsters from their shells, allowing the raw lobster to be easily packaged for sale to the restaurant industry. Employee Ines Olivera separates lobster meat from the legs of processed lobsters.

 


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