Each year, during May and June, Lee Humphries gets excited about spot-prawn season. The executive chef at C Restaurant—which specializes in local seafood dishes—loves cooking and eating B.C. spot prawns so much that he keeps bags of them frozen at home for savouring off-season and says that he hasn’t touched a tiger prawn in nearly a decade.
“To me, it’s cleaner. It has a much milder, cleaner flavour,” Humphries says, describing how the spot prawn compares with a farmed prawn to the Georgia Straight. “The texture’s different. It’s a bit softer, sweeter, and not as chewy and rubbery.”
Humphries grew up in Cornwall, England and, like many chefs, he got his start in the kitchen as a dishwasher when he was a teenager. After working at hotel restaurants in London, Humphries moved to Vancouver with his wife—a Canadian—and cooked at West and the Opus Hotel, and for the Heather Hospitality Group before landing at C four years ago.
This year, Humphries is helping organize the seventh annual B.C. Spot Prawn Festival, which takes place at False Creek Fishermen’s Wharf this Saturday (May 11). He says the purpose of the festival is not only for attendees to enjoy freshly caught spot prawns, but to educate diners and cooks on the crustacean’s sustainable nature.
“Spot prawns, in my opinion, are one of the most consciously harvested prawns in the world,” Humphries says. The chef has seen spot-prawn fishing firsthand, and he says the prawns are caught in nets that are pulled straight up—rather than dragged along the seabed, damaging ecosystems. Prawns that contain eggs or are too small are released back into the ocean in order to maintain the population.
Humphries recommends that during spot-prawn season, home cooks head to False Creek Fishermen’s Wharf, where the Organic Ocean fishing boat will be docked between noon and 2 p.m. each day. If the fresh prawns aren’t cooked on the same day they’re purchased, Humphries says to twist off the heads to prevent the prawns from spoiling. (An enzyme in the head’s juices breaks down the flesh over time.)
At home, Humphries enjoys eating spot prawns in simple, fresh pasta dishes. While vongole (clam) sauce is traditionally Italian, Humphries adds a single Thai chili to inject some spice. The chef suggests pairing the dish with your favourite crisp white wine.
Chef Lee Humphries's Spot Prawn Vongole
12 oz (340 g) spaghetti or linguine
¼ cup (60 mL) extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic
1 Thai bird’s eye chili
1 lb (454 g) grape tomatoes
½ lb (225 g) fresh clams
2 lbs (1 kg) spot prawns (approximately 20 prawns)
1 cup (250 mL) white wine
zest of 2 lemons
juice of 1 lemon
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
watercress to garnish
1. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the pasta for 8 to 10 minutes, or until al dente. Drain and set aside.
2. Thinly slice the garlic and chili, and cut the tomatoes in half. Scrub clams with a stiff brush and rinse thoroughly in cold water.
3. With a firm grip, twist off the head of each prawn and discard the heads. Run prawn tails under cold water, thoroughly cleaning shells. Using scissors, cut shells along the midline down the back of each prawn. Peel back shells, remove, and discard. Remove dark vein by pulling on one end.
4. Add olive oil to a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook until golden, stirring occasionally. Add chili and cook 20 seconds.
5. Add tomatoes, arranging them cut-side down, and press down lightly using a spoon to release juices.
6. Add clams and cover pan with a lid. Steam for 1 to 2 minutes, or until clamshells open completely.
7. Add white wine and lemon zest and cook for 1 minute to reduce.
8. Add spot prawns and cook for 30 seconds, or until prawns lighten in colour.
9. Add pasta and parsley, and mix together. Sprinkle lemon juice on top.
10. Serve on a large platter family-style or divide between four plates. Garnish with sprigs of watercress.
Yield: four servings.
Recipe has not been tested by the Georgia Straight.