Gypsy Kitchens: A Mediterranean Crustacean Feast

Without our car and our well-stocked travel kitchen, we've had to work with whatever comes with a rental apartment. This can range from a microwave to a full stove and oven set. It almost always includes dull knives, which is why a light weight knife sharpener just may be the best investment for a traveler who plans on self catering. Sometimes, a kitchen's limitations can be frustrating. Other times, it can lead you in a direction you may not have gone. Our apartment in Valletta had a few badly scratched up non-stick pans and a bottle of corn oil. It also had a big ole pot. A pot so large that it could be best described as, you guessed it, a lobster pot. And with a name like that, who are we to use it for anything but?
Shellfish is just about the easiest thing you can cook, especially if you haven't yet invested in butter, olive oil, salt or pepper and have a broken plastic spatula to work with. Sure, cracking lobster open might pose its own challenges, but that's one of life's more pleasurable battles. Ever heard of the old lady who lifts a car to save a baby? Where there's a will. Curiosity and indecisiveness are traits that we, as a couple, carry with us on any market visit. So, our supper became a study in Mediterranean crustaceans. Our dinner was upgraded to a feast.
Also to blame (or credit) is the Marsaxlokk fish market's abundance and variety. Here is the man we purchased our crustaceans from. The shallow pan in front of his gutting slab is where the lobsters sat. You can see the big pile of langoustines and few scattered red prawns. With everything local and freshly caught, the sizes were far from uniform and the numbers varied. Our order went something like this: one ugly lobster, one pretty one, two shrimps with those long arms, yeah, those and ummm four of these red ones. He handed them off to his wife who weighed them and people crowded around to get their turn. He was the most popular monger of the bunch.
We have eaten a lot of shellfish in our day and, still, the field of crustacean identification remains a mystery. We just go with what looks interesting. What we thought were crimson shrimp are actually red prawns, and there is a difference. The paler "shrimp" with the long arms are actually lobsters, called "langoustines," "Dublin prawns" or "Norway lobsters." They are considered by some to be the single most important commercial crustacean in Europe. They would be the only true lobsters put in our pot.
The, left, spiny lobster and, right, slipper lobster are not true lobsters since they do not have claws. In the crustacean world, these two are each others closest relative - which would be why they were snatched from the same bay. From the top, side, underside, they couldn't have looked or acted more dissimilar. The pretty spiny tried to crawl away from us at every chance and the big, oafish slipper only really acted out when we went to uncurl its tail. THWACK! It curled back violently and forcefully - it is what the slippers use to move across the ocean floor and all. Still, it was incredible to feel its tail strength.
The beautiful spiny is considered a delicacy, able to appear on a plate in all its attractive. Its torso is spiky and furry, but the rest of it is a smooth, vibrant purple and orange pattern. The tail was as gorgeous as tortoise shell. The slipper is furry all over and brown. A combination which winds up resembling a kiwi. As you can see, it is almost all tail. So, its meat is what you are usually getting when eating lobster bisque or buying frozen lobster tail chunks from Trader Joe's. In the "lobster" world, the slipper is kind of the fat opera singer who is used to dub over the tone deaf starlet. Those plates on its head are actually its antennae.
After a day of exploring, we came home to free our lobsters from their refrigerator prison. A bittersweet freedom. They had been lulled to sleep by the cold and we worried about their livelihood. The more lively lobsters are, the healthier. The healthier, the meatier. Have you ever opened a lobster and found that there was less meat inside than you were expecting? It was probably kept in a tank too long. When a lobster is kept out of its natural environment its flesh begins to shrink. Anyway, it was sorta sad but also encouraging that the spiny began to climb on slipper's back to escape. We had to thwart their mission, but it was good to see they still had some healthy fire in them.
We were curious to see how all our little guys would look after their steam bath. The slipper needed a little makeover and we were delighted to see that it turned that wonderful lobster red that makes you want to dig in. The spiny lobster lost its beautiful purple color, but kept some of its orange flecks. The prawns' hue became a little subdued, less blood red, more brick red and the almost translucent orange-y langoustines' bodies turned pastel pink and its claws, red and white. With all the red lobsters before us, we got to missing our homeland variety. Call us Yankees, but there's just nothing like an Atlantic lobster. We're Team Claw in the great Claw vs Tail debate, after all.
However, you can't really argue with this plate of food. Indulgent but healthy. Decadent but simple. Having them side by side really brought out the subtle differences in each meat. The langoustine had the delicate almost watery taste and consistency of crab legs. The prawns were dense, snappy and sweet. The slipper lobster's tail was so chewy, meaty and substantial that we actually wound up pulling it apart and laying it on a piece of buttered toast to savor it longer and do better justice to its thick, tasty one note. The spiny lobster's tail was stringier and sweeter. The skirt steak to the slipper's flank. They may not be "true" lobsters, but they sure tasted like lobster. Our meal was beyond delicious and actually educational. What more can you ask for?

LinkNote: As you can see from the first photo, those branded wet naps accumulated throughout our time in Turkey really came in handy.

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