Doing the Shrimp Fantastic

Potted shrimps is the kind of experience that hits the pleasure buds situated inside the skull, slightly above the ears but below the level of the temples.*

What is potted shrimps?

Basically, little brown, coldwater shrimps, drowned in butter. And then drowned in butter again.

Now, do not imagine for one second that these shrimps are either inferior to or cheaper than the terrifying grey slugs that sit in plastic supermarket boxes labelled Tiger prawns. Oh no. These are almost 3 times the cost, at £3.50/100g. This despite the fact they have travelled only 30 miles (not 30,000) and none of them air. According to the irrepressibly cheeky boy in the fishmongers, this is because someone had to sit and shell every one of them.  Fair enough, one thinks and shells out £5.60 for 150g.**

However, the good news is that 150g does three people very comfortably indeed. And the recipe is EASY. Easy peezy.

So, commit to the following ingredients and don’t worry about the fat content. It isn’t necessary to eat anything else that evening, provided you make enough toast to go with it.

200g unsalted butter
150g brown Morecambe Bay shrimps
1/4tsp mace
1/4tsp white pepper
1/2tsp fish sauce (the brownish Thai stuff in a bottle – nam pla)
1/4tsp lemon juice.

1. Melt the butter until it splits. Don’t bother waiting for the flecks of buttermilk to turn golden; it’s too risky, just wait for it to drop to the bottom of the melty goodness.

2. Pour off the clear (i.e. clarified) butter and ditch the buttermilk.

3. Pour two thirds of the clarified butter back into the pan and add all the ingredients except the shrimps. Simmer gently for about 5 minutes.

4. Pack the shrimps into three ramekins and pour over the spicy butter. Bang them in the freezer for no more than 10 minutes – 5 are probably enough.

5. When the butter is hardened, warm the remaining clarified stuff and pour that over the top. Back in the freezer for another 5.

5. Serve with warm, non-buttered toast and a minor side salad if you must. I had to put my shrimps back in the oven for 30 seconds to encourage them to come out of their vessels.

Result? Tasted just like the delights you can get in a restaurant, but more of it!

No picture – we blatantly ate the lot.

*this is not scientific fact, just the part of my head that feels wonderful when I eat really nice olives, or potted shrimps.
**actually ‘fair enough’ wasn’t the thought. “Oh my god” was prevalent, followed by, “is there a discount if you get more than 100g?”

Prawns in Heaven

Eating in Mum’s home has mainly been great. Of course, there have been a few odd disasters, here and there, but none that really stick in the craw. Cooking in the Murdock household has always been about flavour and quality, even when we were teenagers and ate tonnes of plastic bread and margarine on the side. If flavour means that a few bones or stones get left in, so be it; mum hasn’t got the patience to fish them out (poor dad, how he has suffered) and she’s sure it improves everything.

The guaranteed meal to cause fights over the last few droplets of sauce; the one which is devoured in mere morsels of time is my mum’s Prawn Sauce. Magpie has to admit with shame that she has no definitive idea as to how mum makes it. It appears to be a roux and we know most of the liquid comes from fish stock bouillon but whenever she’s eaten it made by Magpie, Mother has declared that it’s not quite right.

Whatever the method, the recipe below is as close to the real thing as Magpie’s imagination can take us. Since we only ate it at Mum’s house under a week ago, we can both testify that this one tasted the same, at least to our uncouth tastebuds.

Prawn Sauce with Pasta

Serves: seriously, this serves 2. If there are more of you, you need more of everything.

Make up about 450ml fish bouillon, using a fish stock cube.

Saute some onion and garlic until soft. You can either leave them in the pan or reserve them for later.

Gently melt about 1oz butter and stir in just under 1oz plain flour to make a paste. Stir in a couple of teaspoons of tomato puree and heat gently, scraping the wooden spoon or curly whisk across the bottom of the pan. Stir, stir, stir; the flour and puree must cook.

Take it off the heat for a moment and begin to incorporate the stock, a little, then more, then still more, vigorous stirring is the name of the game. Keeping the heat at medium, stir until the sauce thickens. Add the onions et al to the sauce if you reserved them earlier and let them cook in the unctuous, orange sauce.

Cook the pasta – big shells are best because they hold the most sauce and whole prawns.

Take the sauce off the heat and add about 180g bag frozen, cooked, coldwater prawns (shrimps in the States) and a handful of parsley. For the first five minutes that the pasta is cooking, just let the shrimps defrost in the sauce.
As the pasta reaches the halfway cooked point, put the sauce back on a gentle heat and allow it to go as far as boiling for a few seconds. Stir it around as it begins to bubble quietly.

A Short Rant About Should and Shouldn’t When Cooking Prawns

The prawns require protection from being boiled. Their short existence before death gives them the right to expect freedom from being overcooked. What a waste of a death is an overcooked food, whether it’s steak, a dry turkey or bacon burnt to a cinder.
Prawns shouldn’t be rubbery or chewy. They aren’t Haribo sweets; they were living creatures before and they deserve a better destiny. They shouldn’t be curled up tight, with the texture of a power ball. Their flesh should have bite, with malleable resistance between the teeth. Inscisors should be able to slice straight through them – they shouldn’t need grinding and scraping through molars. Okay, we’re done with the lecture.

Treat the prawns in this sauce with respect. They just need heating through, not boiling to double death.

Get the pasta into the bottom of a couple of deep dishes and ladle the green speckled, orangey sauce over the shells.

Curry Night

The difference between cooking from a recipe book and working from your head is like being a busker who makes beautiful sounds in the street without sheet music and then puts on his tuxedo and plays precise, fast Mozart in a philharmonic orchestra. The skills are the same but the attitude’s different and you’re playing someone else’s beat.

There aren’t many days when I use a recipe to the letter, but when learning a style of cookery, it is essential to stick to the book. Curry isn’t curry unless you follow the rules. If you deviate before you are ready, all you have is a spicy stew.

Now most people will know that ‘curry’ was a watery stew invented for the sake of the delicate British palate, but the modern use of the word covers a vast array of dishes, from white chicken korma to Goa fish curry; egg curries, dried fruit curries and more besides. Far more than what you can find in a high street British Indian restaurant and way beyond the watery stew.

The book in question tonight is Carmellia Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries of India. It’s an unprepossessing book, but its pages dispense the magic of precise curry making with lovely pictures and if you are careful not to miss out any of the ingredients, it is possible to perfectly replicate the delicious concoctions inside.

A fast rundown of the recipe of the night: Panjabi’s Malabar Prawn Curry won’t do it justice, but it should give you the flavour of what you can expect if you part with £6 to obtain it for yourself from Amazon.

Malabar Prawn Curry, Magpie stylee

The smart curry learner gets the ingredients ready in groups, bowled-up like a TV cookery show. When you’re ready to get the show on the road, it will only take around 20 minutes to make.

100g creamed coconut melted into milk with 400ml water
1 tablespoon tamarind extract diluted in 100ml water

1/4 tsp mustard seeds
10 dried curry leaves

half a biggish onion, sliced thinly end to end

3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 heaped teaspoon grated ginger
4 green chillies, cut lengthways in half.

1 tsp dried chilli flakes
1 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tsp coriander powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cumin powder

2 tomatoes, chopped

200g (it will take 300g) prawns *preferably raw but needs must when the Devil drives.*

3 tablespoons of oil (yes, THREE).

Heat the oil and add the mustard seeds. When they start to pop, add the curry leaves to allow the oil to become infused with the flavour. Add the sliced onion and fry for 5-7 minutes. Keep stirring, the onion wants to be slickly yellow and flavoursome; not edged with dark brown.

Add the ginger, chillies and garlic. Fry for 2 minutes and then add the dried chilli and the powders. Add 2 tablespoons of water and stir to prevent sticking. DON’T BURN THE SPICES.

Add the chopped tomatoes, 100ml water and tamarind extract. Simmer for 5-10 minutes while you put on the rice. 

Pour in the coconut milk, salt the curry, stir and let it rise to a simmer. Taste. Too hot? Tough. There are ways to reduce the heat, but this isn’t a curry to kill. The tamarind will have given it a warm, sour flavour; salt is not needed in as great a quantity as you might expect.

Add the prawns, bring to a brief simmer again and serve with lashings of raita. (Diced cucumber and onion in cooling plain yoghurt).

Strangely, it doesn’t even begin to resemble the glorious sunset red of the photograph in the book, but the taste is unusual and heady and despite the accidental over application of chilli flakes, is not as hot in the dish as it is in the pan.