Sometimes called Spot Prawns because of a distinctive white smudge behind the head, these fantastic Santa Barbara Prawns are delicious cooked simply and straightforwardly.
Although much of the prawn catch originates in British Columbia, here in Southern California they are always referred to as Santa Barbara Prawns since we still get a fair supply off the coast, around and about the Channel Islands. Those interested in eating as close to the source as possible should ask their seafood purveyor about the origins of their prawns. I try to make sure I get the Santa Barbara ones, in season (approx Feb to Sept, I think) to support California shrimping and to lesson my own guilt about carbon use in transporting my food.
Although they have a lobstery look about them, these prawns are simply a variety of shrimp. However, since it’s virtually impossible to get live shrimp these days it’s totally worth it to hunt these guys down. The flavor difference is astounding.
Most commercial shrimp, whether farmed or caught live, are treated with sodium bisulfite and flash-frozen shortly after catch. While the preservative is harmless, it does affect the flavor and consistency of shrimp, toughening them and leaching them of the sweetness that makes shrimp so delectable. I believe most Americans have never experienced what a fresh shrimp tastes like. Unless you lives in a shrimp-harvesting coastal area (and even if you do), you’ve probably only eaten frozen shrimp from Vietnam or Mexico. Yummy, sure, but any where near as good as these? Hell, no.
Of course these are alive when you buy them, so perhaps if you’re squeamish you might need to pass. They are definitely still squirming when I buy them, so it’s a little tricky to prep them for cooking. If the idea of killing these critters throws you off, but you’re still game to cook them, try freezing them for about 15 minutes. This will stun them and stop them from moving without disrupting the consistency of the meat.
You’ll need a sharp knife to split them lengthwise from head to tail. I find it easiest to start the point of the knife at the back of the head where it connects with the tail. With a quick downward movement I chop the head in half lengthwise. Then I rotate the prawn 180 degrees and do the same with the tail, until I have two separate, mirror-image pieces of prawn half.
At this point you can wash out the head-guts or leave them in. They are definitely edible, perhaps a trifle bitter. But I like it. Either way, you want to pat the prawns dry with paper towels to remove as much excess moisture as possible.
The flavor of these is so mild, sweet, and tender that I think to over-do it would be a real waste. Salt, pepper, olive oil, and lemon is all I suggest. A little garlic or minced parsley wouldn’t hurt, but I think the simpler the better. Let the taste of the sea shine through, ya know?
You can grill these over very hot coals or sear them on in a hot pan. This time I cooked them on a flat-top griddle, but the closest alternative home cooks will have is a large saute pan or skillet. Get the skillet very hot to approximate the griddle.
Season the prawns all over generously with salt, and less generously with cracked pepper. Drizzle olive oil all over and rub the prawns to coat evenly. Once your pan is hot, coat your pan with olive oil, press prawns cut-side down, and cook for about four minutes, or until they’re a little charred but not blackened. Flip and cook shell-side down for another three minutes. Repeat until all prawns are cooked.
Squeeze fresh lemon or lime all over and serve with tiny forks and a good bottle of dry white wine.
If you can find ’em, try ’em. They are sweet, tender, and delicious.