This, the latest installment in my ongoing "I Hate to Cook But Love to Eat" campaign, also known as "You're Young - But, Hey, You Can Cook" or "How to Keep Us [and the Planet] Healthy Without Costing Much Money, Hassle or Regret," can only be called the "Thank God It's Spring" chapter.
Edit that to the "Thank God It's May" chapter, for May in B.C. means spot prawn season. And nothing makes a better, faster feast than sweet, succulent spot prawns that were alive and kicking an hour before they hit your plate.
Nothing, that is, except dressing up your prawn feed with the fresh and sassy extras to be had this time of year: fresh strawberries and asparagus from not too far south of the border, and local greens and radishes straight from Lower Mainland fields and greenhouses.
No excuses, now, for even looking at pears from Argentina or blueberries from Chile at the grocery store. Or, horror of horrors, tiger prawns raised on ginormous prawn farms in Southeast Asia, where one eco-disaster after another is the norm - from diseases that wipe out entire farms and all the prawns beyond to devastation of local mangrove forests.
Here in B.C., thank goodness, we're right in the thick of a prawn season that's healthy and sustainable. In fact, spot prawns caught in B.C. waters by trap are on David Suzuki's list of top 10 sustainable seafood picks.
If you don't buy your prawns fresh off the boat at your favourite wharf, then make sure you check that they aren't from Alaska, where spot prawns can be fished year-round.
In B.C. waters, by contrast, the entire prawn fishery is regulated so that prawns can only be fished after they have spawned. This works out perfectly for us - and for the prawn population - as prawns die after they spawn.
On commercial boats in B.C., spot prawns are sorted by hand as soon as they're landed so any by-catch is returned to the water immediately, as well as prawns that are too small.
Again, this works out perfectly as prawns start life as males, then transform into females in the final year of life. Plucking them from the water too young means they won't be able to reproduce and keep those delicious progeny coming for next year's dinners, and the next, and the next...
This year spot prawn season in B.C. officially started May 5. It kicked off with a festive spot prawn festival organized by The Chefs' Table Society of B.C., a chef-run organization that holds all kinds of interesting events. This year's event on Granville Island featured top chefs cooking up a feast, including Araxi's inimitable James Walt, who's also a director of the society.
But no need to feel left out if you missed out - three to five weeks remain in spot prawn season, so there's plenty of time to feast. We just bought two pounds of live prawns ($12 a pound) at False Creek's Fisherman's Wharf, immediately west of Granville Island, and had them home and in a pot of salted, boiling water before their heads hit ocean bottom. (The fisher snaps the heads off, if you like, and throws them back to sea, if the gulls don't grab them first.)
Yes, you can dress spot prawns up a million and one ways, but that's my favourite way to cook them: Heads off, then three to four minutes in a pot of water salted like seawater. Fish them out before they curl up tightly; the smaller ones will be done first.
Cook lots - this isn't the time to dole them out like the workhouse master in Oliver Twist . I can eat a pound myself (before the heads are removed), no problem.
On the side, what else but a dish of fresh asparagus? We whipped up the recipe below in no time. The hint of lemon and roasted walnuts were perfect foils to the asparagus, and even the prawns. If you don't even want to go to that bother, roasted asparagus is even simpler.
Whether you like thin spears, like I do, or you're from the thicker-is-better school, the key to picking out good asparagus is to go for the bright green ones with tightly closed tips. If the asparagus is shriveled or bends, but doesn't snap, it's over the hill.
Wash your asparagus and get rid of the coarse, stringy ends by holding the spears in both hands and bending them; they'll snap off where the tender parts begin.
Dump the spears in a small plastic bag, drizzle in some good olive oil and toss them till they're nicely coated. Place them on an oiled baking sheet in a single layer, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast in a preheated 400-degree oven. The time depends on how big the spears are. Mine were done after 15 minutes, but bigger ones may take up to 25 minutes.
Add a fresh green salad - we're so lucky to have lots of nice organic greens and herbs around right now that don't come in a plastic container. Use fresh, organic Romaine with a ton of thinly sliced local organic radishes and aromatic herbs - a good fistful of your own chives, if you're lucky enough to have a pot of them - and drizzle over a creamy dressing.
Top it off with fresh strawberries - Driscoll's organics are fragrant and sumptuous right now; they don't even need sugar - and Bob's your uncle.
So if you're of the school that if it takes longer to cook than it does to eat, why bother?, then this month is for you - strawberries, asparagus, fresh B.C. prawns and local salad fixings are yours for the taking.
Asparagus with Walnuts and Browned Butter
(From 1,000 Vegetarian Recipes )
½ c. chopped walnuts
1 lb. asparagus
2 tbsp. butter
½ tsp. grated lemon rind (or orange rind)
Coarsely chop walnuts and toast them at 350 degrees in a preheated oven (a toaster oven works fine) for about 8-10 minutes. Check them so they don't get too brown. You can also toast walnuts in a frying pan on medium-high, heating them about 3-4 minutes, stirring often.
Steam the asparagus to the level of doneness you like - crunchy is fine. Set it aside on a plate.
In a small frying pan, melt the butter over medium heat and cook it, stirring constantly until the butter browns and smells nutty. Stir in the toasted walnuts and lemon rind and pour over the asparagus. Serves 4-6.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-wining freelance writer who's queen of the kitchen with fresh ingredients like these.