Off with Your Heads, Pandalus platyceros!

Freshly caught spot prawns
Freshly caught spot prawns

I’d always been curious about spot prawns, the colorful wigglers I’d see from time to time in the live tank at Pier 46 Seafood Market in Templeton. They seemed at once so ethereal, so primitive, so delicate, and so … sharp!

Spot prawns, aka Pandalus platyceros, are technically shrimp, and not even prawns at all. That moniker comes from their reign as the largest member of the shrimp family — about 6-7″ long, though females can get up to 9″. The taste and texture are akin to lobster, only a bit more delicate, and they’re also listed as a “good choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which means they are a sustainable fishery.

Locally, spot prawns are associated with Santa Barbara, though they can be found from California up through Alaska. The season here is during spring and summer, so when the Facebook post went out from the market that they’d just gotten the first “batch” in, I decided to carpe prawn.

The first red flag went up when I asked the fish guy how to prepare them and he said his buddy just sucks the heads out and eats the rest raw. “Hmmm,” I thought. “Didn’t enjoy that approach with crawfish, so probably not going that route with these bigger beasts.” Then he added that you can cook them just as you normally would shrimp, so I felt better about the whole endeavor.

The second red flag went up when the fish market staff didn’t want to give me ice because it would kill the prawns. “Hmmm,” I thought. “Usually that’s what I depend on to numb Dungeness crabs before I back them. Does that then mean what I think it means?” I’ve cleaned shrimp before, but they’d always been dispatched and beheaded by the time I’d made their acquaintance.

Undeterred, I brought the four spot prawns immediately home, albeit flinching every time they flinched in their plastic bag on the passenger side floor. My reflexive flinching continued as I brought them in and put them in the sink. I was sure they were plotting their escape – cue the Annie Hall lobster scene. Yes, I was mildly on edge thanks to these not so shrimpy shrimp. I’m not proud of that, but at least give me credit for admitting it.

The third red flag went up when I started looking on the internet about how to deal with spot prawns and starting reading things like this:
“… unless you’ve grown up down south on the bayou where processing shrimp is second nature, catching and cleaning these alien-like critters can be a little intimidating.”
“It’s not for the squeamish, but it’s not difficult.”
“Watch out for the sharp telson on the tail, it can nick you when they start thrashing about.”
“WARNING:  THE FOLLOWING PICTURES MAY BE GRAPHIC IN NATURE, BUT ALAS, IT IS NATURE.” (And yes, it was in all caps)

I learned two main points in doing this research.

1) Spot prawns should be as fresh as possible when you cook them (or eat them raw), because once they die they excrete an enzyme from their heads that spreads through the body and starts to soften the meat. Well, that would explain the no ice protocol from the market.

2) In order to clean the prawns, you must first remove the heads by holding their head in one hand and the body in the other and giving a good twist. Actually, I take that back … FIRST, you have to PICK THEM UP! (Reference “flinching” above.)

Clearly, it was time to pull on the big girl pants and step up to the prawn. There was no way I was reaching into the bag to pick one up, but I managed to overcome that hurdle with the help of some kitchen tongs. Taking a deep breath, and I grabbed its body with one hand and slowly put down the tongs. Uttering only a little bit of high-pitched squealing, I grabbed the shrimp’s head with my other hand and twisted!

Darn if it didn’t go just like all those websites said it would, and once I’d snapped that first little head off I felt invincible! Good thing, because I still had three to go, but after that, it all came down to some garlic/ginger butter, white basmati rice and a nice crisp white Rhône.

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