ON COOKING: Tips for creative cooking with crustaceans

Crustaceans is the grouping that represent crabs, lobsters, shrimp, crayfish, etc. They are all more “creature-like” than mollusks because of their visible legs and eyes.

They are usually thought of only living in salt water, which is true for the most part, but there are some forms of crayfish, crabs and shrimp that also inhabit bodies of fresh water. Lake of the Woods in Kenora, Ont., where we vacation quite frequently, is a perfect example of this. There are many crayfish to be found, and some fishermen focus solely on these for their catch of the day.

The availability of prawns and shrimp is much more common than crayfish. Rarely available live, the markets near the coast will have prawns and shrimp available fresh (never been frozen). Elsewhere, they are usually purchased either frozen or thawed from frozen. Small shrimp are also available in cans.

Prawns and shrimp as we know them in the market are actually only the tails of these creatures. Some prawns are available with the legs and shell still attached, but rarer are some larger varieties sold in whole form, eyes and all.

When purchasing them frozen, there are many options, and you will need to take into account how you plan to serve them.

Very small shrimp, whether frozen, thawed or canned, are always sold pre-cooked, but with larger prawns one also has the option of purchasing them raw.

Frozen cooked prawns should be purchased for recipes that require little or no cooking of them since they are already cooked. Overcooked prawns are very rubbery and less flavourful.

Examples of applications for cooked prawns would be for a salad, shrimp cocktail, or for adding at the end of a cooked dish. Proper thawing of your prawns is recommended to prevent bacteria growth.

Whether cooked or raw, the recommended procedure for thawing them is in the refrigerator over a period of 24 hours. This is a gradual thaw that keeps them in a safe temperature storage zone.

If you are in a hurry, then a water thaw can be acceptable as a second choice. This is done by putting the frozen prawns in a bowl in the sink. Fill the bowl with cold water and continue to run a slow stream of cold tap water into the bowl.

The water level will obviously overflow, so make sure the drain is open. Keep running the stream of cold water until the prawns are thawed – approximately 15 to 20 minutes, depending on their size.

Raw prawns purchased fresh, frozen or thawed obviously need to be cooked, but one should never overcook any shellfish, because they become rubbery. They should only be cooked until they just turn pink for optimal flavour and texture, and be served immediately. Raw prawns are available peeled or unpeeled, with or without tails, and de-veined or not.

Deveining of larger prawns should always be done. The “vein” is the long dark intestine embedded along the top length of the prawn. If the prawns you have purchased are not deveined, this can be easily performed by running a knife blade along this line until it is exposed. It then can be simply pulled or scraped out.

Prawns that still have their shell on, but have already been deveined, are frequently called “zipperbacks.” These are perfect when you want to serve prawns as a finger food when your guests peel them as they eat – aptly called “peel and eats.”

Chef Dez is a chef, writer and host. Visit him at www.chefdez.com.

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