Spring Thing 1: Spot Prawn Tacos

Yes, it’s been a while. As you’ll see, we’ve been busy cooking, but life hasn’t permitted us time to blog about it. With vacation upon us (well, one of us, at least), it’s time to catch up. Here’s the first in a series of posts on what we’ve done with some springtime delicacies.

Spot prawns: a sort of Faustian bargain. Once you’ve tasted them, you will always and forever be disappointed by almost any other shrimp, particularly the bagged, black tiger specimens that find their way to our freezers from some murky water-farm in the far East. Spot prawns are special. Sweetly, saltily rich. They’re very tender and delicate – somewhere between shrimp and sole – so their quality depends on their freshness, much more so than many other proteins. Try to buy them alive and literally kicking, taken fresh from the water at your command. (You can get good frozen ones, but it’s a gamble, since poor handling – namely, leaving the heads in contact with the bodies for more than a few minutes after they croak – leaves them mushy).

When you do find good ones, you’d do well to make Hapa Umi Spot Prawn Tacos. But beware – there’s a serious error in that recipe, so read on for the authoritative version.

First, swallow your aversion to killing long enough to throw the angry little beasties into a sauté pan with a little canola or peanut oil.

When they turn red, throw a little sake in the pan, give it a shake, scrape up any browned bits, and empty the pan into a bowl. Let the prawns cool enough that you can handle them, then tear off their heads and shells and reserve them along with the juice. Set the prawns aside.

Take the reserved heads and shells, and sauté them with the chilis, garlic, and shallots. Add 1C of canola oil, and simmer gently for half an hour.

Strain, and there’s your shrimp oil. Here’s where the recipe runs into trouble. “Whisk egg whites with vinegar and oil slowly to egg mixture and continue whisking to form mayonnaise.” Leaving aside the grammar and spelling, there are no egg whites in the ingredient list, and using them won’t give you mayo. So:

Blend egg yolks with vinegar. With your blender running, add the shrimp oil very slowly, drop-by-drop at first, then in a thin stream. Once it’s all incorporated, you’ll have shrimp mayo. Add a little salt (1/4 tsp or so) and some medium-hot chili (ancho or piment d’Espelette).

Get yourself some corn tortillas (no wheat wraps, please, ick), some home-made salsa, maybe a little mashed avocado, and build your tacos. Baja on a plate!


Insalata Formula 1

We had a lovely dinner a few nights ago at Ascari Enoteca 26, an Italian wine bar in our neighbourhood. The restaurant takes its name from 1950s Italian Formula 1 racing great Alberto Ascari, whose appetite for food and wine was legendary. The highlight of the meal was a simple salad of shaved celery, bocconcini di bufala, and white anchovies. It was a brilliant blend of contrasting flavours and textures: crunchy celery, barely dressed with a bit of lemon juice, cheese with a delicately rubbery rind yielding to a creamy interior, and brightly acidic, salty anchovies on top. Unexpected, and delicious.

This recipe depends on very specific ingredients; buying regular supermarket bocconcini and oil- or salt-packed anchovies will not get you even halfway there. The cheese must be fresh mozzarella made from buffalo milk: this has a delicacy, textural interest, and rich flavour that is miles away from standard bocconcini. In Toronto, products from fattorie garofalo are relatively easy to find, and very, very good.

The anchovies are a bit tricky to find. They are sometimes called “white anchovies”, or boquerones in Spanish. We found them yesterday hiding behind the prosaic title “fish salad” at Scheffler’s in St. Lawrence Market. Basically, these are filleted anchovies that have been marinated in vinegar and spices.

We decided to riff on the Ascari salad, adding super-thin shavings of fresh artichoke along with the celery. We dressed these with a generous lashing of lemon juice, some fleur de sel, and a scant drizzle of lemon olive oil.

With some of MC Warm Spice’s fresh pain a l’ancienne alongside…

… this was a great way to start dinner on a spring weekend evening.