What’s all the buzz about BC spot prawns lately? What should I look for when I buy them, and how should I cook them?
The spot prawn - touted “Ingredient of The Year” by Vancouver Magazine in 2008 and headliner of its very own festival for the third year – is finally getting the local buzz it deserves. More importantly, British Columbians are, at last, getting to enjoy more of this ocean treasure harvested largely in our own back yard - from the inside waters of Vancouver Island.
Simply put, the Pandalus platyceros, largest of seven commercial species of shrimps in BC waters, is one of the most handsome and very best tasting shrimps in the world. Vibrant reddish orange in colour with white horizontal stripes on the carapace and distinctive namesake white spots on the first and fifth abdominal (tail) segments, spot prawns are sea-sweet and succulent in texture both raw and cooked.
Ironically, these very winsome qualities have led to voracious demand in Japan and, for many years, 90% of the commercial catch is shipped there, leaving only spotty availability locally. Lucky for us, significant price decline in 2007 due to various economic factors and increased competition in the Japanese marketplace from Argentinean and Russian products has led some prawn fishers to refocus on domestic sales. So from the first week of May to about the end of June this year, we’ll be able to buy fresh or live spot prawns from the seafood vendors in the Market [Longliner, Salmon Shop, and Seafood City], from Lobsterman on the Island, or right off the boats docked at the nearby government wharf. Post season, flash-frozen prawn tails will be available while supplies last.
But good taste is not the only reason why we should be eating local when it comes to prawns. Endorsed by SeaChoice – as a “best choice” seafood (click on this link: to see why) – and Oceanwise, the BC spot prawn is a shining star among sustainable seafood options.
For my money, whenever available, I try to buy spot prawns live, preferably kept in a live tank. But if you are squeamish, look for prawns that are well-chilled in crushed ice, vibrant in colour and translucent throughout. Avoid prawns that have a blackish tinge. The thin membrane that connects the shell of the head to the tail should be unbroken, clear, and supple. After you get them home, either cook them as soon as you can, or if you intend to keep them for more than one day, I suggest removing the heads as soon as possible. (You can make a flavourful stock with the heads and shells for use as a base for soups or sauces.) Rinse the tails well under cold running water, wrap them with damp paper towels and refrigerate. If you want to freeze them, spread tails onto a cookie sheet and freeze quickly. If desired, glaze them by spraying them with lightly salted water until evenly coated; freeze again; then transfer them to freezer bags for storage for a few weeks.
I recommend this off-with-their-heads procedure because I find that the flesh of spot prawns can deteriorate very quickly - the tail meat can become soft and mushy within hours of harvest if not chilled and handled properly. After various disappointments in restaurants and at home when seemingly perfectly cooked prawns arrive at the table yielded a pulpy mush when the shells are removed, I decided to investigate. Subsequent experimentation has led me to believe that it is the body fluids in the “head” of the prawns that may be the culprit for the deterioration. Starting with live prawns, I have discovered that the prawn tails retain their texture far better refrigerated when the heads are removed and thoroughly rinsed. And consistently, short of keeping them alive, the best quality spot prawns I’ve come across in fish markets are beheaded, rinsed, then frozen and glazed at sea.
When it comes to cooking spot prawns, there is only one rule: Do not overcook them. Otherwise, recipes are as varied as your imagination, from just eating them raw sashimi-style, to simply boiling and serving with melted butter or a dipping sauce, to prawns Provencale or a Thai curry.
Chef Robert Belcham, famous for his spot prawn boil at Refuel (Saturdays during the month of May) [www.refuelrestaurant.com] taught me his simple secret to some of the most succulent prawns ever: Just pour boiling water over a single layer of prawns in a roasting pan until covered. Wait 5 minutes, peel, and enjoy.
For variety, Chef Angus An is featuring 8 different dishes made from BC spot prawns on his menu at Maenam [www.maenam.ca] while the season lasts.
If you yen for prawns, during the next two months or beyond, make them BC spot prawns. Remember, the more we support the fishery, the more likely we’ll be able to keep them for ourselves.
Some links about Spot Prawns: