May 5, marks the official start of the Spot Prawn season here in BC for 2012. Much anticipation builds for this short 6-8 week season that is usually finished by the end of June. Spot Prawns are indigenous to the Pacific NW and can be found from Alaska to San Diego but account for the largest volume of commercial shrimp in British Columbia.
Sustainability is also a word we are hearing more of when relating spot prawns to our region. BC Fisheries has balanced harvesting with a strong sustainable future by carefully monitoring the following:
- restricting the fishery to trap gear
- limiting the number of licenses and the number of traps per license
- harvest log requirements
- minimum trap mesh size restrictions
- minimum harvest size requirements
- single haul per day limitations
- maximum trap volume
- effective monitoring programs
- license holders funding scientific research
- fishery closures when the number of spawning prawns reaches a pre-determined level
Direct from the source is always best, if you don’t live near Granville Island or Steveston Fish Market in Richmand, many quality fish mongers will have them live in salt water tanks. You may even find them live at your large grocery store chain or a T&T market. If they are not live, then check on their freshness (see the list below). Lastly, you can enjoy spot prawns year round as many are frozen and shipped around the world, but if your buying frozen be sure to ask if they were frozen in fresh water or salt water and where they frozen at sea. Salt water is the best as it is consistent with the environment they came from and if they were frozen at sea then their freshness is likely to be better. Some people note that frozen spot prawns can have a slight bitterness when eaten raw.
How to check for freshness:
- Always start with the smell, it should be reminiscent of the ocean. If you get a fishy smell and its not that bad, I would haggle down the price and enjoy them that day. If its distinctly smelling of fish, opt for something fresher as this is one seafood that only provides the wow experience when its fresh. If you pick up any indication of an Ammonia smell, then run for the hills, it’s far past its sales point and who ever is trying to sell them to you should be forced to eat the entire stock they are carrying.
- Don’t be afraid to touch, even the live ones. There should be firmness to it and no soft spots. One thing to consider is depending on when the prawn was harvested it may have a soft shell if it has just finished a molt. Most species that have an exoskeleton need to move out of their smaller shell and form a larger one. If your in doubt just ask your fish monger.
- Look for discolouration as spot prawns should have spots, but not darkness under the shell, this could mean it has started to deteriorate and should also be evident through smell.
Its important that spot prawns are not over cooked, in fact slightly under cooked is perfect. When a spot prawn is raw or at least still raw in the middle you will experience the most amazing texture and richness. A raw spot prawn starts with a natural sweetness to the meat and then the texture encompasses your entire palate with a rich creaminess. Many quality Sushi Restaurants will feature live tanks and during the spot prawn season look for Ama-Ebi which is the tail served raw nigiri style.
A properly cooked spot prawn has the natural unctuousness that our local dungeness crab has while delivering the bite and density of a lobster tail. The tried and true classic condiment is some drawn butter or garlic butter to dip in, but frankly what doesn’t taste better dipped in butter?
The Secrets to Cooking Perfect Spot Prawns
Keep it Short and Simple
One of my favourite preparations is grilling the whole fresh BC spot prawn and then tossing it in a drizzle of sesame oil and generous amounts of coarse or flaked salt and freshly cracked pepper. Similar to enjoying fresh dungeness crab, this will get messy so make sure you have plenty of napkins available. The goal of this dish is to have the salt and pepper on your fingers from peeling open the shell to dig out the meat. That small amount of seasoning you have on your fingers is all the condiments you’ll need to enjoy one of natures most decadent delicacies.
Cooking Secrets – When grilling whole prawns, you will notice a colour change in the shells. As they take on a brighter pink you can also see the meat go from a translucent grey colour to bright white. Grilling on a hot (400+ degree) BBQ should only take about 5-6 minutes. If in doubt, you can break the head off of one prawn to check inside. You don’t want to have to sacrifice more than one prawn as those juices that are escaping are full of flavour. Its traditional that as you crack into the prawns and twist the head off, your first taste should be all the wonderful liquid from the head cavity, then you dive into the tail meat.
Other Favourite Recipes
Poached Spot Prawns – Many chefs like to use a court bouillon to pouch their prawns in. They will load up the short broth with herbs, spices, vinegar, etc and try to infuse flavour into the seafood. Thats great if you have a simple or not so fresh piece of fish, but not spot prawns.
Keep the poaching liquid to just one or two ingredients. Salt is the most important ingredient, if you have access to pure clean ocean water then that would be my first choice. If not, a good kosher salt will suffice and add enough to make it taste like the ocean. Start with about a 1/4 cup of salt to every 4 litres of water and bring to a boil. Add your live prawns and cook until they start to come to the surface, quickly take them out and serve. You will endure some tender finger tips and few cuts from the shells but it is beyond worth it.
Grilled Spot Prawns with Tangy Herb Dressing – Grill about 24 fresh spot prawns on a very hot grill until they are 2/3rds cooked and toss in the following dressing:
- 1 tbls sesame oil
- 1 tsp rice wine vinegar
- 1-2 limes squeezed
- 1 tsp fish sauce
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- small red chili minced (optional)
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/3 cup chopped fresh thai basil
- 1 tsp coarse salt
I will mix all the above ingredients into a bowl big enough to toss the prawns in and take them straight from the grill into the dressing, toss, toss, toss. Enjoy. The juices from the prawns marry with the left over dressing in the bowl and also create the most wonderful dipping sauce for your fresh baguette as you happily drift into your spot prawn coma.
Feel free to share your favourite Spot Prawn Recipes.
What to Drink
Texture on texture, elegance on decadence. If its a simple poach or tossed with salt and pepper then my first choice is the best Viognier you can afford. Locally I am reaching for Le Vieux Pin’s, La Frenz, or Silk Scarf. If you want a little more muscle with your prawns then I am also liking some oaked chardonnay’s. Some of my favourites are Nk’Mip, Orofino, and Laughing Stock.