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Blog : BC Spot Prawn Tales - a Culinary Adventure Blog : BC Spot Prawn Tales - a Culinary Adventure

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BC Spot Prawn Tales - a Culinary Adventure

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Thai Spiced Grilled BC Spot Prawns 600w

It never ceases to amaze and delight me, just what this beautiful country promises eat-local food enthusiasts.  Like most people born here, I frequently take for granted how much our Canadian mother earth provides - most particularly in Southern British Columbia/Vancouver Island.  Early last week, I was served a delightful, delicious reminder.

On my way home from the city, I had detoured, hopefully, to Granville Island in Vancouver's False Creek, to make a quick stop at  Fisherman's Wharf.  It was mid-day and I planned to catch the fishing boats as they arrived back from sea. At this time of year - BC Spot Prawn season to be precise, the fishing is relatively easy (so I'm told).  I was in luck, two prawn boats had just tied up and another was drifting in to catch the last vendor space at the fish sales float.

Fisherman's wharf Granville Island Vancouver 600w

I headed straight for the Lormax vessel.  Your quintessential aluminum-hulled fishboat with temperature-regulated and oxygenated below-deck holds, nets and rigging hanging dry, and a personable crew.  A (much) larger than life sign invited purchase of live prawns and the gathering crowd was eager to oblige.  After a quick introduction, I was invited aboard. How fun.

I felt very much at home on board, taking part in one of the world's oldest trades.  A full sensory overload to be sure; smell of deisel and the sea, cry of the gulls, wind at my back and all that.  It was glorious.  My host was Captain Stewart McDonald, a third generation westcoast fisherman, working four fisheries as weather permits (and when it doesn't) for 35+ years.  Stewart named his boat after his children Lauren and Maxwell. His email handle is none other than Salty.

B CSpot Prawn Fishing Boat and Crew 600w

At our stern, aboard another aluminum vessel, a very rugged and work-weathered (a la Deadliest Catch) crew was doing a brisk business with a steady flow of customers clearly familiar and loyal to them.  At our starboard bow, a tidy eco-branded fishing company complete with logo gear and custom-printed packaging, began serving a growing line-up of international tourists who no doubt read about the offering online in a Top 10 things to do in Vancouver blog.  How fabulous, the choice and diversity that exists for customers, even among fishing vessels.

On that day anyway, Lormax customers were almost exclusively professional and hobby chefs, retired fishermen, and eat-local food enthusiasts hell bent on procuring Stewart's live BC spot prawns.  I was in heaven to be sure, and took every opportunity to ask too many questions of any and everyone who came alongside to buy.

Semi-retired fisherman Neil Jensen was a spot prawn veteran who handily beheaded 30 pounds of live prawns, on the spot, to take home and double cryovac seal in portion packs for freezing.  Resident crows and seagulls, well-versed in the art of snatching, were permitted to swoop in for cast offs here and there.  Ever-mindful about food waste, I volunteered to take several pounds of prawn heads home to make stock and bisque.   The heads will remain packed away in my freezer until the days cool down, and I am recovered from the busy, seemingly endless business of collecting and putting up summer's fruit and veg.

Neil prefers his prawns barely cooked (saute 45 seconds, each side) in equal parts olive oil and butter with a very small sprinkle of salt and more of pepper.  He has tried prawns every way to Sunday he said, adding that simple is best. 

BC Spot Prawn Boat and Crew 600w

A young female chef on-dock buying prawns for evening service, purchased a few pounds to take home to her husband.  He tosses them briefly in one part lemon juice, two parts white wine (enough to coat plus several extra tablespoons to mop up with fresh bread), before finishing them (marinade included) quickly in a hot pan with a pat of sweet butter.

A very charming Italian-Canadian gentlemen purchased two pounds (apparently he does this several times a week, during the season) to make a spaghetti recipe that he saw demonstrated on Food Network.  He explained that he first beheads and shells the prawns and uses the cast-offs to make a simple stock.  He then cooks the pasta noodles al dente in the salted stock and also uses it to thin his home-made tomato sauce.  Just before serving, he poaches the prawn meat in the tomato sauce. He wasn't keen to share his sauce recipe, but regardless, this is a technique I am keen to perfect on my own and I will share the recipe.

I asked Stewart to tell me his favourite way to prepare prawns, but judging from his polite bob and dodge, it was clear to me that he doesn't cook prawns at home.  He did offer however, that in his perfect world, BC spot prawns and house-made saffron aioli dip from the Fish Counter on Main Street, figure prominently.

The highlight of my spectacular afternoon was enjoying fresh prawns with ToJo's (yes, that Tojo's) Manager Dragon Ryu and Apprentice Chef Oikawa Kazuma. When I asked them how the venerable Chef Hidekazu Tojo prepares spot prawns, they recommended his lightly steamed and sauteed spot prawns in garlic and soy, or the spot prawn sushi roll, but they offered that during the season, Tojo guests have a choice of two or three spot prawn preparations. 

BC Spot Prawns Tojos Chefs Dockside 600w

With unforgettable enthusiasm, they suggested that fresh prawns, right out of the trap, were the ultimate delicacy, particularly among Japanese chefs.  With that, Dragon and Stewart beheaded and shelled two live jumbo spot prawns, rinsed them in clean seawater (reserved from 300 ft down), and handed one - still wriggling - to me.  Dragon thoroughly enjoyed the other. Big smile.

It was, I admit, incredibly sweet and fresh like nothing I've ever tasted.   According to Dragon, cleaned prawns sweeten considerably with a wee bit of age (a relative term in the world of refrigerated seafood) and are at their sweetest three or four hours after being killed.   Until then, top-shelf restaurants like Tojo's keep their spot prawns alive and happy in seawater provided by Stewart.  In a temperature-controlled tank hidden somewhere at Fisherman's Wharf, more than 2,000 gallons of clean, clear seawater, collected from a depth of 300ft is oxygenated and controlled for salinity, just for chefs.  Stewart's seawater is theirs for the asking, which might in part explain the line-up.

After a blissful hour or so, was on my way home with 10 pounds of BC spot prawns and 10 pounds more of heads, tucked away on ice in a cooler.  A giant canning pot full of live prawns delighted the kids when they returned home from school, and my husband volunteered to clean the lot of them* provided we could enjoy a generous portion for dinner.  He did and we did - dressed simply (the prawns, not Walter) in Domenica Fiore Olio Classico, pinot gris, lemon juice, sweet garlic confit, and tender baby thyme on-the-stock straight out of the garden - and just flashed and tossed in a single layer in a very hot pan, for about a minute.  They continued to cook to perfection once plated.

BC Spot Prawn Prep and Freezing 600w

The local organic market near where I live was offering moderately-sized spot prawns on ice, for $79.99 per kilo, or $36.28 per pound.  The everyman price for huge live BC spot prawns at Fisherman's Wharf on the day of my visit was $17 per pound.  The chef price of course was slightly less.  Shortly before leaving Fisherman's Wharf, a refrigerated truck pulled up to load prawns from Stewart's boat.  The prawns were destined for a processing plant in East Vancouver, where they would be sorted and processed for live and frozen delivery locally, across Canada (see for where to buy in Canada) and to as far away as China.

After hearing Stewart describe the delicate and precise balance of temperature, oxygenation and salinity required to keep spot prawns alive here in Vancouver, I could only wonder at the level of complication, risk and expense involved in flying live prawns to China, and indeed what price they would command at market.

The privilege of buying straight from the source, in a beautiful environment like False Creek at Granville Island, was priceless to me.  A reminder to stay mindful of eating local, supporting our fishers, farmers, producers, growers, farmers and foragers.

If you are lucky enough to own an ocean-going boat, or know someone who does, try fishing for spot prawns yourself.  One unseasonably cold and breezy May morning, we joined friends on their boat, as they pulled up prawn traps set the night before.   We didn't net so very many spot prawns and they weren't spectacularly huge, but I have to say with no disrespect to Stewart (or Dragon), that they were the most delicious prawns I've ever eaten.

CH BC Spot Prawn Fishing with Maddy 600w

Visit Fisherman's Wharf before the BC spot prawn season ends in the next few weeks - as early as the end of June and as late as mid July, depending on stocks.  To check for-sale fish and seafood availability, anticipated arrival times of fishing boats daily, and the end of BC spot prawn season, visit the fish for sale page of the False Creek Harbour Authority website.

P.S.  At the time of writing, the prawns we cleaned and froze so recently are already gone.  Plenty of friends mysteriously dropping by (they knew about the prawns) left me no choice but to share Stewart's bounty.  Time to go back for more.  I still have to perfect that prawns in spaghetti recipe.

*BC spot prawns freeze beautifully, which is why you sometimes see them for retail sale and on restaurant menus long-after the season closes.  Seal prawns in an air-tight container or vacuum bag and freeze immediately after cleaning.  If you prefer shells on, then remove the heads and icky bits therein, before freezing. Thaw in the refrigerator.

Visit the in-season pages of the We Love Local website for current offerings from land and sea.

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