Prawn or Shrimp?
Whilst the names can, depending on who you ask, refer to different species, the labels ‘prawn’ and ‘shrimp’ are largely interchangeable when it comes to the little pink things we know and love on the seafood menu.
Shrimp are known as prawns in the UK; in the USA prawns are normally freshwater shrimp and both can be referred to as scampi- a term which in the UK almost exclusively describes a dish of breadcrumbed fried shrimp. Scampi in the USA can also relate to the way the shrimp (or prawns) are cooked, but with garlic butter rather than breadcrumbs. (In fact, chicken scampi is an American Italian dish that doesn’t contain any seafood whatsoever). Some people call big shrimp prawns, but bigger prawns can be jumbo shrimp, and most of us call the biggest kind langoustines. Langoustines are actually little lobsters, similar to crayfish, but crayfish live in fresh water, as do some people’s prawns, but not usually shrimp.
Glad we’ve cleared that one up?
In the UK, most big supermarkets stock fresh king prawns already cooked and peeled. These are great for throwing into a pasta dish or salad, but I’ll always try to buy the translucent grey, uncooked prawns if they are available. One step better than this is to buy fresh, shell-on prawns (normally ‘king prawns’ or ‘tiger prawns’) from the fishmonger or fish counter. You’ll need to buy double the weight you want to eat, as half will be lost in the head, shell and juices- so for a main meal for two people I’d probably go for around 450g head-on, shell-on uncooked prawns.
You can cook them with the head and shell on- just give them a rinse first in cold water. This keeps a lot of flavour in, but you’ll need to let them cool down before peeling, and your diners might not appreciate getting gooey, sticky fingers if you serve them shell-on. (On the other hand, a lot of people enjoy peeling their own, and it can be great for presentation –it really depends what dish you’re serving).
I normally peel and devein my prawns before cooking, especially for a curry or pasta dish. Twist the head cleanly off, trying not to squeeze it too much (without getting too graphic, this is the messy bit). Starting from the now headless end, find the soft part under the belly between the legs and peel the shell up sideways and over the back of the prawn until it comes away from the body. Sometimes the legs will come away with the shell, other times you’ll pull these off first. When you’ve worked your way back to the tail and removed each section of shell, gently squeeze the flesh from its tail sleeve until it pops off- unless you want to leave it on as a compromise between peeled and unpeeled.
Deveining isn’t essential but again I prefer to remove the vein- a dark strand along the length of the back that can sometimes taste gritty. Take a sharp knife and make a linear incision, from the head end down to the tail. The back should open up revealing a black string which is easy to pull away. Rinse the prawn with cold water to wash away any excess vein and goo.
Sounding yummy yet? It’s worth it, I promise. But if you’re not quite grossed out enough, here’s a tip I picked up in Thailand: for flavouring cooking oil and giving it a rich pink colour, keep the discarded heads (and, crucially, their contents) and simmer in a pan of vegetable oil for five minutes. The heads and the oil will turn bright pink. Sieve off the oil and keep it for cooking dishes such as Pad Thai or Gambas Pil Pil – and if you’re really not squeamish, the now crunchy fried heads are pretty tasty too. Alternatively, or with the rest of the shell, boil up some water to make your own fish stock.
Your clean prawns will now be ready for marinating or cooking. Add them to a stir fry, curry or fish pie- or try out my favourite Spaghetti with Prawns recipe.