Whatever you call them; prawns, shrimp or even feisty, many-legged shell creature from the deep - it seems everyone loves these tasty, sweet crustacean treats. At our restaurant, we never, ever have trouble selling prawns. No matter what we put them with, as soon as punters see the "P" word, they order quick and order up big.
Due to their hefty price tag, most people think "special occasion" when buying prawns. And so it follows - when people think special occasion, they also think B I G. So naturally, when most cooks go shopping for prawns, they will hunt out the biggest specimens they can find - and this usually means king prawns, or jumbo shrimp. This display of grandeur will sometimes end up in a sublime meal, but most often - as some of your lady friends may tell you - biggest doesn't always mean…ahem…best.
Today, we took delivery of a few kilos of tiger prawns and there was only one word to describe them - tiny. They were barely half the size of your pinky finger, but as the old maxim states - size isn't everything. These seawater-dripping lilliputs tasted amazing - simply bursting with sweet seafood flavour. They were without question the best prawns I had tasted in many a while.
This morning as we peeled and snacked on these tasty treats, the question still remained - how were we going to use them for the lunchtime special? This is where commercial cookery gets fun - rifling through the fridges and dry store for ingredients to match up to the fantastic prawns. The first thing I grabbed was a big jar of marinated eggplant. Now I grant you - eggplant is probably not the first thing that should come to mind when considering shellfish - but this stuff was no ordinary eggplant. A while back, an Italian waiter that works with us brought in some of this stuff - made by his mother. I was blown away. I grabbed some petty cash and shoved it deep into his pocket with the simple instructions, "Get her to make the biggest damn jar of this stuff you can". We are now the proud owners of 2 huge jars of thinly sliced eggplant covered in garlic, herbs, chilli and some very fine extra virgin olive oil. I badgered him for an Italian name for the stuff, but all Mario could muster was Mellanzane con olio. Maybe it's just me - but eggplant in oil just doesn't have the same funky ring to it, so we just call it Maria's eggplant.
Into the mix we tossed quickly blanched snap peas, wedges of still sun-hot and ripe tomatoes, sprigs of watercress and a sweet balsamic dressing. The whole thing was simplicity itself - you really don't need to get complicated with prawns this good - and the finished product screamed of warm summer days that will soon be a memory as we head into winter down here.
Lets for a second suppose that you can't lay your hands on sweet baby tiger prawns - or even Maria's marinated eggplant. Let this not be a deterrent, as this salad really is only a guide, which can be swapped around and interchanged with huge success. I will stick in a few suggested substitute items, and as long as you stick to the basic tenet - that is fresh, sweet and flavoursome ingredients - you can't help but succeed.
Lets get cooking.
Peel the prawns and either discard the shells, or harness their flavour for another use. Place the snap peas into a small saucepan, and barely cover them with cold water. Add the garlic, some salt and pepper, and a splash of oil and set over a high flame. As soon as they come to the boil, drain and run them under cold water to stop them cooking and set their vibrantly green chlorophyll colour. Discard the garlic.
Place the remaining oil, balsamic vinegar, and some salt and pepper into a screw top jar and shake well to combine. In a large bowl, combine the prawns, eggplant, snap peas, tomato and almost all the watercress - leave a small amount aside.
Place a few sprigs of the reserved watercress onto the serving plates. Drizzle the salad with 3 or 4 Tbs of the dressing and toss well. Be thorough - you aren't after an oil painting, but rather a flavour explosion. Pile the now messy salad on top of the watercress, and drizzle over a little more dressing - topped off with a final grind of black pepper.
This will make 4 small plates, or 2 more substantial meals - for shellfish lovers. Serve with an surfeit of good crusty bread, and a well chilled, crisply dry riesling.