Although California in the midst of Pacific lobster season, it's surprisingly hard to find the hyper-local crustacean at area fish markets or restaurants. That's because the bulk of SoCal's most abundant and sustainable seafood has become an in-demand and pricey export to Asian countries.
No plans for a trip to Baja or San Diego or a midnight poaching dive off Laguna Beach? No worries, as spiny lobsters are available as close as the Sunday Hollywood Farmers Market or via FedEx from California Offshore Products.
The Sea Fever's John Wilson's popular booth at the Hollywood Farmers Market overflows with his fresh-from-the-sea cracked sea urchin, rock crabs and halibut. The Santa Barbara Harbor-based fisherman and lobsterman expects to have locally caught spiny lobsters (at a varying market price close to $19.50 per pound) until the season's end March 17.
"I like being able to expose the public to a great resource," Wilson says of his efforts to promote the tasty crustacean at his weekly stints at the market. Wilson asks, "Where else can you buy a lobster from the guy who caught it?" When he picks one out from a small portable pool (typically the lobsters are one to one and a half pounds in size), their tails flap aggressively.
Wilson is one of 15 permitted lobstermen still plying the waters off Santa Barbara and beyond the newly designated marine reserves surrounding the Channel Islands. (They are 72 commercial fishing permits in the entire state).
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Spinys have a distinct flavor profile and no front claws (unlike Northern Atlantic lobsters); they taste a bit like slightly briny, meatier sweet shrimp. Fresh lobster must be cooked while it is still alive; boil them in a very large pot of water with a touch of vinegar (to harden the shells) for approximately five to 10 minutes (max). The traditional Baja-style preparation requires another step: Cleave the lobster in half or twist off the head and then split the tail and grill for a few minutes -- do not overcook. Baste with a simple broth of lemon and butter to brighten the flavors.
Tommy Gommes, of Catalina Offshore Products, explains that his San Diego-based fish company sources its Pacific spinys locally to Southern Baja. He works with chefs, like the Sea Rocket Bistro's Chad White, in promoting the locavore protein. Lobsters can be picked up directly from the facility or shipped overnight.
Because of spiny lobster's per-pound wholesale prices (due to supply and demand), the seasonal seafood is a rare find on menus. At Ortega's Ilegal mezcal reposado an offshoot of the Puerto Nuevo eatery in San Diego -- a market-price grilled lobster comes with traditional sides of tortillas, pinto beans and salsa. In Long Beach at the waterfront eatery and fish market Berth 55, order up a plate of quick grilled lobster with sides, where market price for the Pacific lobsters is currently $29.99 per pound -- making that midnight poaching session not such a crazy idea after all.
For more deliciousness, follow Kathy A. McDonald on Twitter: @writerkathymcd.