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Eric Akis: B.C. spot prawns, the Louisiana way

Like a recipe I did a few weeks ago for Cajun-style fish fry, this week’s dish is also inspired by a trip I took to Louisiana several years ago.
spot prawns recipe eric akis
Spot Prawn Etouffee: This version of Louisiana-style etouffee features succulent, in-season, B.C. spot prawns. [Eric Akis]

Like a recipe I did a few weeks ago for Cajun-style fish fry, this week’s dish is also inspired by a trip I took to Louisiana several years ago.

On that journey, I visited a farm that grew rice near a town called Crowley, located in the Acadia Parish, part of the state that’s also known as “Cajun Country.” Like other farms growing rice in that area, they also commercially sold crawfish, which they raised and trapped in the same water–soaked fields they grew their rice in.

One of the farmers I met said that, when he ate rice, he always had to have “gravy” with it. But what he meant by gravy is a sauce used in dishes such as crawfish étouffée.

Étouffée is a French word that literally means “smothered.” In culinary terms, it refers to a sauce thickened with a roux, a fat-and-flour mixture, that’s cooked until richly coloured. Into that roux goes a mixture that’s important in Louisianan cooking called “the holy trinity,” a diced mix of celery, onion and bell pepper. Depending on the recipe, fresh or canned tomatoes, stock and seasonings are also added to the sauce that’s simmered for a while.

To make crawfish étouffée, you then add and cook peeled crawfish tails in the sauce. In Louisiana, you also see shrimp étouffée being served, where peeled shrimp replace the crawfish.

That, in turn, brings me to today’s recipe, which uses B.C. spot prawns instead of crawfish. Spot prawns are somewhat like crawfish, in that the tail meat is rich, sweet and succulent. In other words, perfect for étouffée.

It’s best to buy fresh spot prawns tails the day you’ll cook them. You are most likely to find them for sale at stand-alone seafood stores and, occasionally, at some supermarkets. If you bought whole spot prawns, you can remove their heads by swiftly turning and pulling them away from the tails. Do that soon after bringing them home and refrigerate the tails until ready to cook.

Spot Prawn Étouffée for Two

B.C. spot prawns are served up Louisiana-style, in a nicely spiced sauce anchored with the “holy trinity,” onions, bell pepper and celery. Serve the prawns with steamed rice.

Preparation time: 35 minutes

Cooking time: about 50 minutes

Makes: two servings

14 to 16 fresh spot prawn tails (see Eric’s options)

1 tsp vegetable oil

1 1/3 cups chicken or fish stock, plus more if needed

1 1/2 Tbsp butter

1 Tbsp all-purpose flour

1/4 cup finely diced onion (see Note 1)

1/4 cup finely diced green bell pepper

1/4 cup finely diced celery

1 small garlic clove, minced

1 tsp Cajun spice, or to taste (see Note 2)

3/4 cup diced, ripe, on-the vine tomato

• salt to taste

1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley

1 Tbsp minced green onion

To peel each prawn, hold the end of the tail in one hand and use your other hand to grab onto its swimmerets, the little legs under the shell. Now carefully pull off the shell, leaving the very bottom portion of the tail intact. (Peeling the prawns is a little finicky; so take your time.) Set the peeled prawns on a plate and refrigerate until needed; reserve the shells.

Heat the oil in a small pot set over medium-high heat. When hot, add the reserved prawn shells and cook and stir until bright red/pink and almost crispy, about three minutes. Pour in the stock and bring to a gentle simmer (small bubbles should just break on the surface).

Lower the heat as needed to maintain that gentle simmer. Simmer shells 20 minutes, and then strain this prawn-flavoured stock into a glass-measuring cup. You should have 3/4 cup, but if you don’t, add a bit more chicken (or fish) stock until you do.

Melt the butter in a 10-inch or so skillet set over medium heat. Mix in the flour creating a roux. Stir and cook the roux until nut brown in colour, about two to three minutes. Mix in the onion, bell pepper, celery, garlic and Cajun spice. Cook, stirring often, three to four minutes, until the vegetables start to soften. Mix in the prawn-flavoured stock, and then add the tomatoes.

Bring this étouffée sauce to a gentle simmer, adjusting the heat as needed to maintain that gentle simmer. Simmer sauce, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes. Add a little more stock to the sauce if you find it too thick. Taste the sauce and season with salt, if needed.

Add the prawns and parsley to the sauce and cook two minutes. Turn each prawn over and cook one to two minutes more, or until cooked through. Divide spot prawn étouffée between shallow serving dishes, sprinkle with green onion and enjoy.

Note 1: Finely diced in this recipe means to cut into 1/8- to 1/4-inch cubes. With regard to the tomatoes, diced means to cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch cubes.

Note 2: 1 tsp of Cajun spice will give the étouffée a mildly spicy kick. But you can add more or less depending on your taste. Cajun spice is sold in the bottled spice/herb aisle of most supermarkets. If you want to make your own Cajun spice, in a small jar, combine 2 tsp paprika, 1 tsp dried oregano, 1/2 tsp dried thyme, 1/2 tsp onion powder, 1/4 tsp garlic powder, 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper and 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper. Use what you need for the recipe and save the rest for another time.

Eric’s options: Frozen, thawed, spot prawns tails, patted dry, could, of course, also be used in this recipe. If spot prawns are unavailable where you shop, other peeled, raw prawns could replace them. If those prawns are large, you’ll only need 12 of them.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.