Foodie Tuesday: Not the Raw Prawn

It should be noted that while I prefer my prawns cooked in various ways, I would trust a sushi master to feed me uncooked ones without (as my Oz friend and colleague John taught me in grad school would be a less kindly gesture) either giving me or coming the proverbial ‘raw prawn‘. Old-school colloquialisms aside, it can be a great kindness to feed me well prepared prawns in a number of guises, as they’re not only tasty protein sources but well respected in a number of the world’s great cuisines. I’ve had the good fortune to live and/or vacation in a few places noted for particular kinds of prawns and shrimp, and when they’re ‘done up right’ I would be hard pressed to resist them as a top choice for eating.

In their compact and sturdy form they do lend themselves to skewering and grilling or to the great dive-in-and-get-messy kind of eating in a traditional Shrimp Boil or rekefest (the classic Cajun and Norwegian shrimp-eating parties, respectively), and I’ve certainly been served spectacular ones whole in dreamlike paellas, gumbos, cioppinos and other dishes. No complaints here! But when it comes to fixing things myself, I’m more inclined to think my fellow diners might like to be as lazy as I am, given the chance, and prefer most often to peel and devein shrimp and prawns before using them in my cooking. There’s no reason not to use the shells then and there for cooking up in a great batch of broth, of course, so I don’t see the necessity of wasting them, but I love to be able to eat meals unencumbered by the slowing process of dressing out the food unless it’s really a necessary part of the experience. Once the critters are cleaned, the meal prep is just as easy anyway, and if broth is on hand as a result, it’s the perfect base for an enriched soup or sauce in the bargain.

So what do I use these splendid shellfish for, finally? Nearly anything is good with such a sweet, clean taste and firm yet delicate texture. Shrimp puree, as I’ve mentioned before, is a fantastic binder for fish cakes because they don’t dull down the flavor like a starch binder (flour or crumbs, typically) would do, and though I haven’t tested it yet I’m certain it’d make a grand seafood soup or sauce thickener as well. But beautiful prawns deserve respect, too, in their unadulterated-yet-naked form, so they feature in a wide variety of dishes chez moi in addition to the aforementioned international classic presentations.

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Butter Prawns—my style—in Basmati.

Curries probably top the list hereabouts, mainly because both members of the household are fans of curry in a wide range of styles. Many classic Indian and Indian-influenced sauces and dishes, in fact, lend themselves beautifully to showcasing shrimp: butter sauce, mainly seen on American plates napping chicken, is one marvelous option, as are Tandoori-spiced grilling on a skewer, prawns biryani, and prawns simply seared in ghee and garam masala and served with fragrant rice.

Italian cooks, too, have given us a multitude of glorious ways to honor the delicious beauty of these shellfish, not least of all in a beautiful marinara sauce over pasta. If you want any advice or inspiration whatsoever regarding Italian cookery, you can’t do better than to visit my friend Chicago John over at his blog From the Bartolini Kitchens, and you can do your own happy swimming through all of his shrimp- and prawn-related dishes with a quick search there. But despite my reverence for John’s glorious and historically rich cookery, I have been known to dabble in my own variants at times, and think I didn’t do too much harm to the image of the Real Thing. One example of this would be when I make my version of prawns Fra Diavolo, which according to Signore Mario Batali is Italian-American anyway, so I have no compunction about further stretching the idea. For mine, I make a sauce of tomato passata with shallots, a splash of a nice, intense red wine if I’ve got one open, a squeeze of lemon juice, a good grind of black pepper, oregano, basil, and a hit of red pepper flakes, varying the amounts to the tastes of my fellow diners, and finally, warm the prawns in the sauce just until they’re pink and curling like a charming devil’s tail.Fra Diavolo can be a friendly little devil.You who love shellfish equally will know that I could go on rhapsodizing about them and the many ways in which to dress them up and swallow them down, but for now I think that that should be the end of this tale.

Foodie Tuesday: Once Cooked for Eight Equals Four Times Prepped for Two

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Roasted cauliflower and red capiscum, sautéed celery, steamed green beans–what do they have in common? A new ‘recipe’ for dinner’s vegetable dish, apparently . . .

The complication, if there is any, of having a household of two (or one) is that so many foods, dishes and meals are easier to prepare in larger quantities than are appropriate or even desirable for a single meal. It’s very easy, if planning isn’t finely tuned, to have things spoil and go to waste before we’ve plowed through them at our own pace. The upside of this very problem, though, is that if I do plan reasonably well (and have a little luck as a side dish) I can make several meals out of little more than one prep.

I do this, in part, via the method of complexification and conglomeration. The one or two elements remaining after one meal get combined with each other, with some new element or ingredient from the next meal’s intended menu, or both. Yes, it’s quite possible and even sometimes preferable to simply repeat a dish as-is, especially if it’s already its own elaborate concoction. But often, things seem a little less tired and tiresome if they appear in new guises each time so as to stimulate the palate, if not the imagination. So the small amounts of leftover vegetables from lunch and dinner the last couple of days may find themselves married in a new mixed-veg medley with a little sauce or seasoning that helps them play together as nicely as possible and suddenly, they’re not just two spoonfuls of This and a handful of That but an actual, sort of, recipe.

photo‘Mains’–the central or focal items on the meal’s menu–are seldom hard to incorporate into some new iteration of a main dish. Even when they have already been prepared with a hard-to-ignore or -disguise sauce or presentation, they can find new playmates on the plate next time they head to the table. Roasted chicken, for example, whether homemade or grabbed ready-roasted on a busy day as one flies through the grocery store, is a truly marvelous ingredient when it comes to flexibility. Once seasoned or sauced distinctively, it can pose a slightly more complicated puzzle for renewal, but even then, if the dish is well liked once it’s pretty likely to be popular on a second visit.

So the chicken, whether it was already dressed in the satay-like peanut sauce–I took a shortcut with a pre-made one this time–or not–we liked it well enough to use the same pre-made sauce at the second meal even though it was not already on the chicken–can be reincarnated as a different dinner altogether simply by changing its context. One day, it’s served with a very simple wedge salad dressed with citrusy vinaigrette and a tangle of Pad Thai style rice noodles seasoned lightly with rice vinegar, a squeeze of lime juice and a splash of soy sauce and sprinkled with black sesame seeds.

photoNext day’s ‘satay’ is served with butter-steamed green beans, fresh cold apple slices and fried rice made from–yes, you guessed it–the fridge stash of jasmine or Basmati rice previously cooked up in broth and now pan-toasted until almost crisping with Persian lime olive oil, soy sauce, a touch of raw honey and a handful of chopped sushi gari (pickled ginger, if you somehow haven’t yet noticed, is one of my favorite seasonings for practically everything!). A sprinkling of white sesame seeds, just for a little visual contrast with yesterday’s offering, and there’s Chicken Pseudo-Satay 2.0 ready to be eaten.

And while there’s certainly nothing that says dessert is a required part of every meal, some of us kind of think of it as a specific food group, so even for dessert it’s nice to have some fine ‘recyclable’ ingredients for whipping up something to finish the day’s eating nicely. One of the things that very regrettably can go to waste far too often in a small household is fresh produce, and when I’ve a beautiful batch of fresh fruit on hand I can’t bear to think it will spoil before we can reasonably eat it all. So a large ‘find’ of sweet fresh strawberries, though it was far too great a quantity for two people on the day it was at its peak, got cleaned, sliced and frozen until the other day when it beckoned to me, siren-like, and I blended it thoroughly with a little whole-milk yogurt, splashes of vanilla and rosewater, a tiny pinch of salt and a bit of honey, poured it into a flat sealable container and froze it until it became a brightly fruity semifreddo or granita of sorts for later consumption.

photoNo matter what the small tidbit, most leftovers that are not on the edge of spoiling really do beg for a kindly reinterpretation before we give up on them. Once I get fully in my Friendly Frankenstein mode and think hard about how to zap new life into worthwhile remaindered ingredients, it’s only a matter of letting the locals trade their pitchforks for dinner forks and we can all remain good friends without fear of monstrosities. Good eating!