Although prawns are found all year round fresh from fishmongers, they're in full season from the beginning of August to the end of October.
Different varieties of prawns
These jumbo prawns can measure up to 20cm in length and come from hot countries, notably Senegal. Their flesh is firm and strong, and three big ones are generally enough for one serving. However, smaller varieties also exist (6-8 prawns per serving). The black tiger prawn can mesure up to 40cm long, but is quite rare.
Tropical and North Atlantic prawns
These are the most common varieties, and have a fine, delicate flavour. Tropical prawns are bigger, with a salty, sugary taste. North Atlantic and cold-water prawns are often preferred for their succulent meat and are widely available fresh or frozen, though fresh is tastier.
Tiny grey prawns are a delicacy in Belgium. They come in different sizes, though, with some measuring up to 8cm long. They are usually eaten as a starter. Depending on their size, sometimes only the head is removed and the very fine shell or carapace is eaten.
They should be shiny. The colour isn't really an indicator, because the flavour depends on what the prawns have been fed. They should have a round shape, firm flesh and should be easy to shell (the head should be well attached to the body and come off in one go, and the carapace or shell should be supple but not soft, and should come off easily). Prawns are cooked as soon as they've been fished, on the boat, in simmering sea water.
It's difficult to tell whether they are good or not, so go by the use by date and where they were fished. Avoid small slow-cooked shelled prawns: their flesh will be full of water and not half as tasty.
The carapace should be grey and shiny, the prawn should be round in shape and should be moving (unless it's been frozen!). The eyes should be nice and black, not dull. Fresh prawns should be in a lying position and not curled up (cooking makes them curl up). They should not smell of ammonia.
Go for good-sized prawns, which freeze better. They shouldn't be frosty, otherwise they will give off too much liquid when they're defrosted and will go soft. Small, shelled prawns are usually deceptively dry and elastic. Defrost several hours prior to use in the fridge, not left out.
- Prawns are easier to shell with your hands than with a knife and fork!
- Start by removing the head, twisting it off in one go. Remove a few of the shells one by one, hold the body and pull the rest away along with the tail. You can then butterfly the prawns to remove the intestine from the back (it tastes bitter) by making a lengthways incision and removing the black thread. Some leave the tails on to make them look prettier for serving.
- Don't throw away the waste: use the heads and shells to make a small amount of stock you can then use to cook fish or rice in, or use to flavour white wine sauce.
How to cook prawns
Raw or cooked, prawns are prepared in pretty much the same way. Cooked prawns can be eaten as they come, heated gradually during cooking, or pre-boiled in salted boiling water for 3 minutes until pink.
Only use really fresh prawns for tartare! Season with a little olive oil, parsley, lemon juice or sea salt.
Raw or cooked marinated prawns are really tasty, especially cooked prawns because it makes them less dry and better for grilling or pan-frying.
Raw or cooked prawns can be grilled on skewers to make kebabs. Take care not to cook them for too long if they're already shelled, or they can easily dry out.
Sauté quickly on a very high heat in a wok or pan until they start to brown.
Add them in when the sauce is cooked so that they don't spoil and disintegrate. Heat raw prawns a little in a pan before adding them to your sauce.
Use prawns in Chinese soups, adding them in at the last minute. They look good and go very well with Asian flavours.
You can fry whole, shelled prawns with just the tails left on. Dip them in batter and fry.
To add flavour to ordinary butter, quiches, omelettes and egg dishes. Mince or dice some prawns and incorporate them into your recipe or dish.
What goes well with prawns?
- Spices: curry paste or powder, vanilla, chillies, ginger and cumin.
- Coconut, coconut milk and yoghurt-based sauces.
- Herbs: basil, coriander, mint, chives and garlic.
- Avocado, pepper, courgette and cauliflower.
- Exotic fruit (in salads): pineapple, mango, kiwi and lychee.
- Citrus fruit: lemon, lime and grapefruit.
- Poultry and white meat: use them in kebabs, sauces or stuffing.
- Cold meat: chorizo and bacon.