“Dear Saucy Dressings, I’ve attached a painting that might inspire you to do something fantastic with shellfish. It’s by an artist we’ve represented for nearly 20 years. She has a very recognisable style, always incorporating the frame into her paintings. Her name is PJ Crook and the painting is titled ‘Chefs’.”
Miranda Marks of the Brian Sinfield Gallery
Well – that was a gauntlet thrown down if ever I saw one…. something fantastic with shellfish… and to be true to the wonderful painting (entitled chefs) that went with it it looked, at first glance, as if it couldn’t be just any shellfish… it would have to be langoustes (yes, alright, I’ve now spotted that that the painting has a lobster in the foreground… not a langouste!).
In any case, I picked up the something-fantastic-with-seafood gauntlet alright and I found myself in the foothills of a mountainous learning curve.
For more about PJ Crook (she really is an incredible artist) see the note at the bottom of this post.
Other names for langoustes
First of all, it’s important to be clear about what exactly a langouste is. It’s a crustacea found in cold water – I found some in Italy imported from Argentina – but in fact some third of the annual haul hail from Scotland. They’re in season from September to May when the season stops to allow for breeding, so, if you’re buying live specimens, check you’re buying from a sustainable source.
There are many names: Dublin Bay prawns, cigalas, crevettes impériales, scampi, Norway lobsters…. and that last name is a very misleading one.
What is the difference between a langouste and a lobster?
“Certains pensent que le homard est le mâle de la langouste. Que nenni!”
The Gallic contributor to the delightful, and informative French blog, Quelle Difference poured scorn over anyone confusing lobsters with langoustes (what this says for me I prefer not to think) – especially those stupid enough to think langoustes are male lobsters. Lobsters and langoustes are different animals. Lobsters are carnivores with a couple of impressive claws (I was served up one once which could have sunk the Titannic). Langoustes on the other hand, like whales, feast only on plankton, and are without serious pincers.
Lobster flesh is a bit firmer and denser than that of the langouste, and, until recently lobsters have usually cost more. But these days some say that the langouste has a more delicate flavour and prices are increasingly neck and neck.
What is the difference between a langouste and a crayfish?
A crayfish is a crustacea, not dissimilar to a lobster (they’re related), which lives in freshwater, and eats live or dead prey. Crayfish also have well-developed claws. Langoustes are saltwater crustacea.
How to cook a langouste
There are many reliable writers (Rowley Leigh, for example) who will give instructions on how to deal with live langoustes. However, the majority (of langoustes, not writers) are caught far out to sea, and frozen immediately so most cooks will be more concerned with what to do with frozen langoustes.
Purists say live langoustes are best, but I say Life Is Too Short; and I am also a little squeamish, so the method below allows for frozen langoustes.
How to buy langoustes
Well, obviously they have to be in good nick, antennae still full-length and curling joyously, legs present and intact. But most essentially they must be BIG. Do not mess around with small fry – they will offer up less flesh than a juicy king prawn. Make sure each langouste weighs a minimum of 500g/18 oz . You won’t find a langouste much bigger than 25cm/10”. They are naturally a sort of orange corally sort of colour, and they won’t change colour when they are cooked.
What to serve with them
I think these langoustes are heaven with a bowl of warm fennel in yoghurt; but you could also serve them with mayonnaise mixed with a little lemon and salt, or with an aïoli.
Warm crusty white bread to soak up juices… or socca bread.
And to drink? Champagne of course! Or maybe, more creatively, a glass of crisp, cool, dry sherry.
Notes on the recipe below:
- Provide napkins and big plate to put the discarded shells on
- Provide lobster picks and crackers to enable your guests to gouge out the head and pincers – if you don’t have any you can use the handle end of a pointy ended teaspoon and some nutcrackers
- You can make the sauce and the flavoured butter ahead of time
Recipe for something fantastic to do with langoustes
- 4 x 580g/1 lb 4 oz langoustes, uncooked and defrosted thoroughly
- 1 lemon, the juice and zest thereof of half, and keep the other half whole
- 60ml/¼ cup anis – pernod, or ouzo, or raki
- 1 tbsp fennel seeds, dry fried and crushed in a pestle and mortar
- 100g/4 oz butter, at room temperature
- 1 chicken stock cube (or 1 tsp chicken stock powder)
- 2 tsps Spanish sweet smoked paprika
- 2 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed with a tsp smoked salt
- Take your butter out of the fridge if you haven’t already.
- Boil a full kettle.
- Preheat your grill to its hottest.
- Pour enough of the water in the kettle into a saucepan to probably just cover your langoustes – you’ll have to estimate, but it doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, you can always add more water later. You don’t want more than you absolutely need. Dissolve the stock powder in the water. Add the langoustes and boil for 4-5 minutes. Technically you should not need to do this if you are grilling (and boiling will make the flesh tougher, but with shellfish I like to be extra careful.
- Take the langoustes out, reserve the cooking liquid for soup. Check the underside of the tail – the flesh should be opaque.
- Mix the lemon juice with the anis.
- Mix the butter with the garlic, fennel seeds and zest.
- Cut the langoustes in half down their length and remove the black vein.
- Lay on a piece of foil on a grill tray, cut flesh side up.
- Baste with a little of the anis liquid and dot with the butter.
- Cut the remaining half lemon into four segments and add to the pan
- Grill for four or five minutes – take out, dust with the paprika, and the rest of the anis liquid and grill for two or three more minutes.
- Serve with a flourish!
- Remember to save the shells for soup.
More information about PJ Crook
Born in Cheltenham, where she still lives, PJ studied at Gloucestershire College of Art and Design which was eventually absorbed by the University where she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Arts in 2010 and in 2011 an MBE for services to art in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. She is represented by galleries in London, New York, Paris and Toronto, as well as here in the Cotswolds, and her work is in major public, corporate and private collections in many parts of the world, principally in Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, England and the United States of America. Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, Gloucester City Museum and Art Gallery; Imperial War Museum; Morohashi Museum of Modern Art; Standard Chartered Bank; Centrica; Paul Allen; the Marquess of Bath; the late Jackie Collins and Toyah Willcox are among those who have works in their collections.
From a studio opposite her house, she manages compositions on a monumental scale – paintings can measure 2 x 4.5 metres and also paints small pictures, some no larger than 10 cm square. She works in tinted gesso, acrylic and sometimes in oil on canvas, or on a corrugated wood support, which gives a three dimensional effect to her work, as does her practice of incorporating the frame within the composition. A recurring theme within her work is crowd interaction and some of these paintings have been used as covers for King Crimson’s recent albums.
PJ is a Patron of the National Star College, Cheltenham; a Trustee and Director of ACS (the Artists Collecting Society); President of the Friends of Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum; a Gloucestershire Ambassador; Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts; member of the Royal West of England Academy (and sometime member of its Council); Manchester Academy of Fine Art; Chelsea Arts Club and the Honourable Company of Gloucestershire.
PJ Crook’s paintings are available from The Sinfield Gallery.
This post is dedicated to Miranda Marks.