As regular readers will know, it’s become a traditional here at Memorie di Angelina to feature an Italian-American dish every Columbus Day weekend. This year’s entry is Lobster Fra Diavolo, or “Brother Devil’s Lobster”. A distant cousin to Southern Italian seafood and pasta dishes like spaghetti allo scoglio, its pairing of what would be, in Italian food culture, a second course with pasta—a kind of seafood version of spaghetti and meatballs?—not to mention its combination of seafood with tomato sauce heavily seasoned with prodigious amounts of chopped garlic, oregano and red pepper flakes, gives away the New World origins of this dish. It’s another example of the rough-and-ready exuberance of Italian-American cooking.
- 400-500g (14-16 oz) spaghetti or linguini
For the initial searing of the lobster:
- 6 small lobster tails, split down the middle lengthwise (or two whole lobsters—see Notes)
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, slightly crushed and peeled
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
For the tomato sauce:
- 4-6 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 1 large can of crushed tomatoes
- A pinch of oregano, to taste
- A pinch of red pepper flakes, to taste
- More olive oil, if needed
- A small jar of clam juice or, if using a whole lobster, a ladleful of lobster broth (optional)
Put a large pot filled with water on the boil for the pasta. When it comes to rolling boil, add a generous amount of salt and the pasta, and cook very al dente.
While the water is getting ready to boil, prepare the lobster and tomato sauce:
In a sauté pan large enough to hold the lobster and pasta later on, sauté the crushed garlic in the olive oil until it just begins to brown and discard it. Add the split lobster tails and sear them on both sides, seasoning them generously with salt and pepper. As soon as the shells turn a bright red color and the meat should begin to turn an opalescent white, remove the lobster pieces from the pan. You should not cook the lobster through at this point.
Add more olive oil to the pan if needed. Add the chopped garlic and sauté until very lightly browned. Add the crushed tomatoes, a pinch of oregano and a pinch of red pepper flakes, and, if using, the clam juice or lobster broth. Simmer until the sauce is well reduced.
About 5 minutes or so before the pasta is done, add the lobster back into the sauté pan and let it simmer in the sauce until just cooked through. Remove from the pan again and keep it warm.
Once your pasta is done, drain and add it to the sauté pan, along with a good ladleful of the pasta cooking water. Let the pasta simmer in the sauce, mixing it well and making sure every strand is nicely coated with the sauce. (Add more pasta water if things get too dry—you want to the pasta to ‘slither’ around in the sauce.)
Pour the pasta on to a serving bowl and top with any remaining sauce in the pan and the lobster pieces.
While lobsters tails are a great convenience, Lobster Fra Diavolo is traditionally made with a whole lobster. The thing about whole lobsters is, you have to kill them before you cook them. There are various ways to dispatch a lobster, the easiest (if not necessarily the most humane) being a quick dip in boiling water. For this dish, though, you need to take another tack: place the lobsters in a freezer for about 30 minutes, which will put them to sleep, then deliver a decisive cut between their eyes, which will kill them instantly. Cut off the tails, then split them in two lengthwise, then, if the lobsters are large, into two cross-wise as well. Cut off the claws and bang them with a meat pounder or the back of a skillet to crack open the shells. Proceed to use them as indicated for the lobster tails above.
The great advantage of using whole lobster is that you also get the carcass, from which you can get some wonderful lobster broth. Just simmer the carcass in water to cover seasoned with some sliced onion, celery, a sprig of fresh parsley, a bay leaf and a good pinch of salt, for about 30 minutes—or longer if you want a more concentrated broth or fumée. Strain and use about a cupful as indicated for the claim juice. (Extra broth is great for cooking a seafood risotto.)
Lobster Fra Diavolo has any number of variants. Some modern recipes call for adding onion or shallots along with the garlic, for a more ‘refined’ taste. Taking things even bit further, some have you add some cognac and flambé the dish before serving. Some recipes call for adding a spoonful or more of tomato paste to the tomato sauce, which, to my mind, just makes things a bit too ponderous. Not all recipes call for the clam juice or lobster broth, but I find it adds a certain depth of flavor. Some recipes omit the initial searing and have you add the lobster meat directly to the sauce to simmer until done but, again, the initial searing in seasoned oil adds another layer of flavor. To make for easier eating, some recipes have you shell lobster meat and cut it into bite-sized pieces. The pasta can also vary, although long pasta seems to be a sine qua non, angel hair, fettuccine and thin spaghetti all being common choices.
Finally, you can make other types of shellfish using the same method: Shrimp Fra Diavolo, for example, may have become even more popular than the original lobster. Clams and mussels also lend themselves to this treatment; omit the initial searing and add them directly to the reduced tomato sauce a few minutes before your pasta is done, just long enough to open them. Calamari can also be made this way; you’ll need to simmer it for a fairly long time (30-45 minutes) until tender. And there are even recipes out there for Chicken Fra Diavolo for the piscatorially challenged.
The word “Fra”, by the way, is short for fratello, which means “brother” in Italian. In Medieval times, Fra was a title given to members of monastic orders, like Fra Filippo Lippi, the famous 15th century Italian monk and painter. I can’t help think of him whenever this dish is mentioned, even though the connection is tenuous at best. It is common in Italian cooking to name spicy dishes after the devil, but how the “fra” got tacked onto the name of this dish, I haven’t been able to discover. And, indeed, it seems that the origins of Lobster Fra Diavolo are shrouded in mystery.