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How-To

Lobster Napoleon

Prepare the simple elements ahead and build a dazzling appetizer just like a restaurant pro

Fine Cooking Issue 27
Photos: Scott Phillips
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If you want a knock-’em-dead starter for a small dinner party, here it is—a lobster, avocado, and papaya napoleon, just the type of dish I like to serve at my restaurant, Charlie Trotter’s. A napoleon is not only gorgeous, but it also offers contrasting flavor and texture in every layer, and in every bite.

There’s a bit of handiwork and patience involved in constructing a napoleon, especially at the restaurant where we turn out many each night. But as you’ll see, this version consists of simple elements—delicate potato wafers called tuiles; smooth, mashed avocado; succulent boiled lobster; tangy pickled papaya—that you can prepare in advance and assemble when you’re ready to serve. Just take it step by step and you’ll get delicious, beautiful results that will really wow your guests.

Tuiles Provide The Framework

Tuile is French for “tile.” You may have been cookie-like tuiles (pronounced WEEL) as an accompaniment for sorbets, but I like to make them with a potato batter and use them as a framework for a napoleon. The tuiles support the other ngredients, as well as adding their own crisp texture.

Make a template from a plastic lid. Tuiles need to be paper-thin and consistent in shape, so you’ll need to use a template. I like to cut out the center of a plastic yogurt, sour cream, or ice cream lid (you probably have one around the house). You can even make tuiles freehand to get varied freeform shapes, but with a template, you’ll get more precise rounds. An offset spatula for spreading the batter keeps your knuckles clear of the work surface. If you don’t have one, experiment with a small, very flexible rubber spatula.

Spread the batter when it’s warm. This potato batter doesn’t spread evenly when it’s chilled. Rice the potato while it’s still warm and mix the batter right after. The batter will keep for up to two days in the refrigerator, but if you make it ahead, let it sit out for a while before using, or warm it gently over a water bath for easier spreading.

Bake the tuiles on a solid, nonstick surface. For such a thin, quick-cooking wafer, insulated baking sheets, with their cushion of air, don’t work very well. At the restaurant, we use a nonstick silicone liner, which you can find at a good cooking supply store. If you don’t have a silicone liner, lightly oil a solid baking sheet, or use nonstick sheets; again, just make sure they’re solid. Because the tuiles are paper-thin, it’s important to check on them often and to rotate the pans during baking to ensure even cooking. At the restaurant, we bake the tuiles in a convection oven, which helps them lie flat and brown evenly, but a regular oven works, too; the tuiles just won’t be quite as flat.

You can make the tuiles a day ahead and store them in an airtight container. If they lose their crispness, you can crisp them on a baking sheet in a 300°F oven for just a few minutes.

Tying The Lobster’s Tail Keeps It Staraight

It’s crucial that the lobster be alive just before cooking or the meat will be mealy.

You’ll use meat from both the tail and the claw. The tail meat will be easier to slice into neat medallions if you tie a soupspoon or a table knife to the tail to keep it straight before cooking the lobster. The tail cooks faster than the claw, which has a thicker shell, so I recommend erring on the side of undercooking— you can always quickly sauté the meat that’s not as cooked as you’d like. When the lobster is done, it’s important to shock it in ice water immediately to prevent it from overcooking, but don’t let it sit in the cold water; this will dilute the wonderful flavors.

Cooking and shelling the lobster one day ahead is okay, but to keep the meat good and moist, wait to slice it until just before you assemble the napoleon. Lobster meat tends to dry out after it’s sliced.

Other Elements Gove Flavor, Texture and Color Contrasts

Paying close attention to a few other details will go a long way toward making this dish look great and taste terrific.

Pulped avocado is the “glue” that secures the layers.Make it as close to serving time as possible because avocado turns brown fast. Some cooks think that leaving the pit in mashed avocado discourages browning. I wish it were that easy. Lemon or lime juice will help avocado keep its bright color, though, as will covering it tightly with plastic wrap to reduce the contact with air.

Pickled papaya gives a hot and sour flavor. I love the tangy counterpoint that pickled fruit provides. I’ve given it a short pickling time so the fruit flavors aren’t overwhelmed.

Basil oil is a striking, fragrant accent. If you decide to make your own, you’ll need to start the oil at least two days before you serve the napoleon to give the basil flavor time to fully develop (you can even make the oil up to a month in advance, as long as you refrigerate it). I find that making my own infused oil gives more intense flavor, but if you have to rely on store-bought, try Consorzio, which you can find in many supermarkets.

An Assembly Line Speeds Setup

When all the components are prepared and you’ve selected your plates, you’re ready to begin assembling. If you’re making this dish for a dinner party, corral a few guests to pitch in, assembly-line style.

Line up all the components. Arrange everything in small containers in the order you’ll use them: avocado, tuiles, greens, lobster, papaya, vinaigrette, basil oil. You’ll want to work swiftly—the moist avocado and lobster will turn the crispy tuiles soggy if they’re left sitting. Make sure that each ingredient is set firmly on the previous layer, or you’ll end up with a Leaning Tower of Pisa that will tumble on its way to the table. When your assembly is complete, serve the napoleons immediately.

After this appetizer, serve a simple main course, such as a grilled tenderloin of beef or seared tuna.

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