If there are fresh spot prawns at the fish market, this must be May. Much like cherry blossoms, wild leeks and the return of pedicures, the wild B.C. spot prawn has become a marker of spring.
What's not to like about these plump, sugary, crunchy crustaceans? They're a local, sustainable seafood choice, caught by a well-managed, targeted fishery in baited traps on long buoy lines. In other words, there is no ravaging of the ocean floor or innocent bycatch sacrificed on the way to your dinner table. When compared to the bland, farmed, antibiotic-fed tiger shrimp that have destroyed one million mangrove hectares in Asia and Central America, spot prawns are an ethical no-brainer.
Never mind that by virtue of taste and texture - sweet and clean au naturale, yet meaty enough to cop a strong seasoning - they are an absolutely magnificent species for eating.
The season opened on May 5, but really kicked off last Saturday with the Fifth Annual Spot Prawn Festival, which attracted an estimated 1,100 people to the False Creek Fishermen's Wharf in the pouring rain. Over the next six to eight weeks, you won't be able to swing a cocktail in any decent restaurant from Tofino to Ottawa (where they're flown in fresh) without bumping into some sort of spot prawn dish on the specials menu.
BUYING AND HANDLING
Is there a difference in the spot prawns available on the docks, at a fishmonger or from supermarkets like T&T? You can't get them fresher than live off a boat - most notably at the False Creek Fishermen's Wharf starting at 1:30 p.m., each day for just $12 a pound - when they've been caught that very same day. And the fresher the better, because spot prawns are extremely delicate. Even the live spot prawns in fish-market tanks have passed through a couple of handlers, are at least a day old and have already begun eating themselves (gross, but true).
If you find them dead with their heads on, do not buy. Spot prawns release an enzyme when they die that turns the flesh soft and mushy. Fresh tails, which typically cost twice the price, are a safe bet, although you'll miss out on the heads, which some say are the best eating. When buying tails on ice, look for prawns with firm, translucent flesh. If the skin is white, they're old. Avoid any with black spots (that's the enzyme spreading). And make sure they smell fresh with no hint of ammonia.
Don't buy prawns at places that charge twice as much as anywhere else, but be cautious about deals that seem too good to be true. Last weekend, one otherwise all-around reputable fishmonger had a pile of spot prawns on ice - heads on - that were weak (barely alive), or had just recently died. The price was good, but is it worth saving $3 for prawns that are already spoiling?
And some spot prawns are brought in from the United States, where they are caught sooner, smaller and often "berried" (before spawning, with eggs attached). One Asian grocer is selling live B.C. spot prawns for $9.99 a pound now. But the spot prawns it was selling in April would have to have been from the United States. The B.C. season opens later, when the prawns have grown to full size and are about to die naturally. So buyer, beware.
Once you get your live prawns home, cook them right away or get those heads off as soon as possible. If taking the heads off, rinse the tails under water to remove any traces of enzyme. Tails can be packed on ice and refrigerated for up to three days.
COOKING AND EATING
Spot prawns are so creamy and luscious they don't even need to be cooked. Raw spot prawn nigiri - with crispy deep-fried heads - is my favourite way to eat them. Hapa Izakaya in Kitsilano (1516 Yew St., 604-738-4272) has a great deal on spot prawn sushi at five pieces for $12.
Robert Clark, executive chef for C Restaurant, prefers his with the slight crunch acquired when barely cooked. Mr. Clark, who pushed harder than anyone to open up the local market for spot prawns, recommends pouring boiling water over top and letting them sit for 30 seconds to one minute. C Restaurant (1600 Howe St., 604-681-1164) is offering a five-course menu, which includes poached prawns, for $65.
Neil Taylor, executive chef at Cibo Trattoria (900 Seymour St., 604-602-9570) loves the prawns' natural sweetness. He suggests splitting them from head to tail and searing them in a smoking hot pan flesh side down for one minute. That's just one of the many ways he'll be cooking them for his daily changing spot prawn menu ($16 to $30 per dish) until the end of the month.
Although lovely in their natural state, spot prawns soak up flavours like a sponge. In Chinese restaurants, you'll often find them pan-fried with supreme soy sauce. Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant (3711 No. 3 Rd., Richmond, 604-232-0816), which has won best prawn dish at the Chinese Restaurant Awards for two years running, offers them this way for $18.80 a pound.
Special to The Globe and Mail