Why It Works
- Making a simplified, low-volume lobster stock extracts flavor while shaving down time and effort.
- Using the lobster shells in the stock as a steaming “rack” for the claws and tails further improves efficiency and flavor capture.
- White wine and a generous dose of olive oil are ideal solvents for flavor and pigment molecules in the lobster bodies and shells.
Several years ago, I published a recipe for shrimp fra diavolo in which I made a pointed argument about why it was not a recipe for lobster fra diavolo. Shrimp fra diavolo makes more sense at home, I said, whereas lobster fra diavolo was a more logical restaurant dish, given the number of lobster bodies required for a sufficiently lobster-y tomato sauce. I also made it clear that I preferred eating lobster when it's steamed and dipped in drawn butter.
My opinion hasn't entirely changed. I'd still rather pick apart a lobster at the table and enjoy its sweet flavor as purely as possible, and I still think that, most of the time, lobster fra diavolo isn't a particularly convenient dish to prepare for home cooks, but to every rule there's an exception. In fact, I was so deeply committed to developing an absolutely killer version of this recipe—one that hit every possible right note while being streamlined enough to make it doable at home—that I've softened more than I expected on whether lobster fra diavolo belongs on the dinner table; I may even make this for myself from time to time. And for a special occasion like the Feast of the Seven Fishes, I'd absolutely make it.
Even at restaurants, I've almost always been disappointed with the versions of lobster fra diavolo I've eaten (including the two I used to make as a line cook when I worked in restaurants). My main goal in developing this recipe was to address my laundry list of complaints with those other versions and arrive at a pasta that shines with lobster flavor. Too many recipes fail to highlight the lobster sufficiently, obscuring it under an avalanche of tomato, oregano, intense spiciness, and/or the vanilla-oak flavor of brandy. So many platters of lobster fra diavolo also come with rubbery little nuggets of lobster meat.
How then could I create something that is recognizably lobster fra diavolo while addressing these common shortcomings? And how could I do that without making the recipe outrageously complex? It took a lot of lobsters for me to get here, but these are my steps to lobster fra diavolo success.
Make an Intense Stock, but a Quick One
One thing I noticed while doing research for this recipe was that many versions out there have you make a full-blown lobster stock, similar to the traditional French style. That means using tomato paste, adding the full cast of aromatic vegetables and herbs, deglazing with brandy, and what you end up with is a relatively large volume of liquid.
None of this makes much sense, especially in the context of home cooking. First, since the final sauce has a good deal of tomato, we don't want to create a needlessly large volume of lobster stock. A larger volume of lobster stock just means more time reducing it later, or only using a portion of it and losing the flavor that's contained within the rest. So the first step for me was reducing the amount of liquid in the stock to the bare minimum, just enough to cover the shells and extract their flavor, and not a bit more. This left me with a smaller volume of more concentrated stock.
Next, I simplified the stock. The final fra diavolo sauce has tomato in both the form of canned tomatoes and paste, so I didn't see any reason for the tomato redundancy.
I also nixed the brandy. Brandy, as any student of classic French cooking knows, is a common companion to lobster, added to stocks, soups, sauces, and more. They work well together…usually. But in this context, the brandy was driving me nuts. While it has a vanilla note that pairs well with lobster's natural sweetness, I felt its oaky character was a total distraction and clashed with the other flavors (lots of garlic, dried oregano) in this otherwise very Italian dish. Still, I wanted alcohol in the stock, since alcohol is a great solvent for flavor molecules (see: vodka sauce), which was exactly what I was trying to extract from the lobster bodies and shells, so I used white wine, which has a more reserved flavor and a bright acidity that plays nicely with the other elements in the sauce.
The last adjustment I made to the stock was late in my development process: I added way more fat to it. My earlier renditions of the recipe got close to my goal, but I was still struggling with the tomato-heavy sauce, which wasn't delivering enough lobster flavor. After taking a break from working on the recipe, my mind started putting together an image of a sauce that was, yes, tomatoey, but not in the basic pomodoro sauce way. I wanted a richer tomato sauce slicked with olive oil and packed with lobster flavor. Much of the color and some of the flavor of shellfish is fat soluble, so increasing the amount of lobster-infused oil in the sauce suddenly seemed like a no-brainer. After bumping up the oil used to sauté the lobster bodies in the stock from a quarter cup to a full cup, everything fell into place. I ended up with a richer sauce that delivered on its lobster potential.
Have the Stock Double as a Steamer
Before starting the stock during one test of this recipe, I had broken the lobsters down into bodies, claws, and tails. The bodies were in the stockpot, and the tails and claws needed attention. Shelling raw lobster meat is nearly impossible (I've seen some people do it, but it's incredibly difficult), so it needs to be cooked enough to come out of the shell easily. This is best done by steaming the tails and claws separately because they have slightly different cooking times.
About to set up a small steamer, I peered into my stockpot and realized I already had one. Thanks to the low volume of liquid in my stock, the shells were poking above the surface, which I realized meant they could be used as a makeshift steaming rack. By setting the claws and then the tails on the shells and covering the pot, I was able to steam them without trouble, and any juices that dripped out went right into the stock. (Mind you, it's fine if the claws and tails become partially submerged; it's such a short cooking time that they'll come out fine.)
The benefit of this approach and the exact steaming times called for in the recipe is that the meat comes out of the shell easily, but it's still underdone enough that when it finally gets tossed into the hot pasta, it ends up perfectly cooked and not at all rubbery.
Use Tomato, but With Restraint
Connected to my decision to make an oilier tomato sauce, I also wanted a less soupy tomato sauce. Given that there are a few cups of lobster stock that end up in the sauce, it can become overly wet if you also use an entire can of tomatoes and all their juices. By draining the whole peeled tomatoes before crushing them up, reserving the liquid they're packed in for another use, I was able to produce a distinctly tomatoey sauce, but one that was richer and, as I said above, not so full of tomato juices that it looks and eats like a classic pomodoro sauce on spaghetti.
Go Spicy, but Try Not to Nuke It
How much chile heat is appropriate to add to the sauce is a personal decision, but I would encourage everyone to at least consider some restraint here. Yes, the dish is called fra diavolo (“brother devil”), which is meant to convey hellish heat, but there's delicate lobster in this dish and even Satan himself might hesitate to ruin all that flavor under an assault of fiery spice. Again, the goal for me was to put the lobster front and center in what is an otherwise assertive pasta. So, yes, make it spicy enough to wake up your tastebuds, but maybe not atomic.
Gremolata Breadcrumbs for the Win
Late in my development process, I told Sasha I was considering some kind of lemon zesty breadcrumbs to sprinkle on top of the pasta, for a light crunch and bright citrus note. He suggested I just use the gremolata breadcrumbs he'd developed for his bean stew with ‘nduja and kale. There's nothing I like more than not reinventing the wheel, so I copied his recipe directly to make the breadcrumbs a component of this one, and they're just perfect.