Losing Heads Over Local Prawns

The sign said “FRESH PRAWNS.”  This turned out to be an understatement.

I cautiously entered the small shed, full of gurgling tanks and the brine smell of ocean and looked around for some form of human life.  Live crabs – check.  Salesperson – nowhere to be seen.  Luckily after several minutes a gentleman came by – I wasn’t sure if he was there to sell me fish or ask me to leave, but he confirmed he did have fresh prawns from the Strait of Juan de Fuca – how many did I want?  After placing my order, he grabbed a net and dipped it into the nearest tank. Out came a bunch of living, jumping prawns!  He tossed them on the scale. After discarding one, they were grabbed up and placed in a ziplock and covered in ice.

As a long time lover of shrimp, I was familiar with peeling and removing the vein.  Of course, in the past the shrimp hadn’t jumped around or twitched.  What did I know about live shrimp?

Keeping the shrimp strictly on ice is essential not only to preserve freshness, but to minimize their activity level.  (This was very noticeable!)  The spines on the heads of the shrimp are certainly sharp and rumor has it they can stab pretty proficiently, though I managed to avoid any injury.

Next I had to decide whether to remove the heads before or after cooking.  Some quick internet searches turned up little on the practice of preparing live shrimp, so I did some investigation.  After confirming that there were sizable organs in the bodies, I felt that the best option would be to lose the heads before cooking.  Keeping the shrimp on ice until the final moment was essential.  I couldn’t afford any last minute twitches before the fall of cleaver.  A clean separation at the top of the tail requires a quick, deliberate stroke.

After harvesting the tails I sautéed them lightly in butter. Some fresh pasta and a quick, white wine, garlic, dill, and cream sauce felt like the perfect complement. Unlike the wild Gulf Shrimp I was familiar with from my childhood, these were sweet, with a subtle, delicate shrimp flavor.  They were amazing!  In fact, although I am biased towards shrimp, I believe these are superior to any lobster I’ve had.

It turns out the local season for spot shrimp (Pandalus platyceros) is extremely short, so I was lucky to have this opportunity.

I am ashamed to say the heads went to waste – I couldn’t find a shrimp stock recipe that made any sense and some squeamish dinner guests weren’t excited about my pot full of prawn heads!

Review: Bottomfeeder

Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood by Taras Grescoe is an insightful look at the way mankind’s greed and technology are changing the oceans.

Part travel journal and part call to action, the fundamental question posed by the book is this: given severe overfishing, high environmental impact from fish farms, and frequent mislabeling in the fish trade, is it possible to eat fish ethically?

I won’t spoil the detailed conclusion, but if you eat fish, you should read this book.  In addition to the big picture question, it includes enjoyable anecdotes on the history of fishing, examines cultural differences in fish consumption and deals squarely with the complex question of whether eating fish is healthy.

On a personal level (and of particular importance to the Pacific Northwest), the detailed look at salmon and shrimp farms was eye-opening.  Although I oft heard the mantra “wild fish are better”, I knew very little about the actual situation.  Much like the factory farms that raise cattle and pigs, it is clear that these farming operations are changing the nature of the fish they are raising, posing health risks (by over confinement) and producing huge amounts of pollutants.  Imagine this:

When it comes to farmed salmon in North America … antibiotic- and colorant-fed salmon can be packed 60,000 into a pen and still legitimately be called “organic.”

Although we’ve already changed the oceans forever and probably can’t avoid a large scale collapse of the fishing industry, we can try to make the most informed choices possible.  For more information on what to eat check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.