Since time immemorial, mankind has brought his food from a live state to the plate in short order. Sadly, the amazing modern preservation techniques discovered in the last 100 years have had the unfortunate side effect of causing major disconnect between the cock and the coq au vin, or in this case the prawn to the plate. It is so disheartening when I think of my personal experience with this travesty, I almost feel like chalking up nearly 20 years of my life as “lost years” merely because of lack of awareness and education.
I was a firmly established young California girl when my father got the idea to move his bi-racial city-dwelling family to the Ozarks of Idaho and plop us down on 10 acres complete with horses, cows, ducks, goats and even the odd stork or bullfrog. The townfolk weren’t entirely standoffish to my black mother and two much-darker-than-me older siblings, but let’s just say we weren’t winning any Idaho family popularity contests. Consequently my parents tried to make up for my lack of human friends by putting me in primary charge of bottle-feeding a feeble baby cow I named “Slobber.” Slobber and I were fast friends and became inseparable all summer long. When I returned to California at the end of the summer for a month-long visit with relatives, I cried all the way to the airport over losing my bovine companion.
The day I got home from California, my dad had made a special meal of hamburgers to welcome me home. He proudly asked me if I knew where the hamburgers had come from, to which I excitedly replied “McDonalds?” He said no, and encouraged me to keep guessing. “The store?” Nope. He chose that moment to reveal to me the source of the meal I was eagerly licking off my fingers. “These hamburgers are made with meat that we received from butchering your cow, Slobber.” At first I didn’t understand. The disconnect between animal and food was really so vast to my mind that I really could not fathom meat coming from a living, breathing kind-souled loppy-eared animal I had just said goodbye to weeks previous. Once the lesson sunk in, it was so overwhelmingly shocking that I vowed never to eat meat again. That vow lasted nearly twenty years and all I can think of now is “what a waste!”
That lesson could have been so meaningful, reverential, important, and yet it was tragic, heart-wrenching and completely off-target for what it was intended to accomplish. Once I cautiously stepped back into the waters of carnivorousness, I did so armed with education and respect. It is crucial to understand that there is an impact to popping back chicken nuggets like they were kernels of corn, and that impact can be traced back to a single animal. Eating animals is not something that should be taken lightly, but it is something that we were born to do. For this reason I feel like I should personally be comfortable with every step of the process from live animal to filleted fish, so I try to trace that process with every piece of meat I eat (yes, I consider fish meat since it is an animal and we eat its flesh). The process of how animals are butchered for human consumption is not always pretty, but don’t you agree that you should be able to stomach it if you desire the finished product? Out of sight out of mind just won’t work in our global society, as history has shown time and again.
We need to understand these processes in order to determine whether we are okay with accepting them, and for this reason every food chain should be transparent. You should be able to ask your local butcher where he sources his meat, and if you get any response besides the names of actual farms and ranches, know that there is something wrong with the picture (shame on you BILL THE BUTCHER). Further, I feel everyone should at least witness if not partake in the humane taking of an animal’s life for the sake of our dinner. If you can’t take it, should you be eating it? I have documented my own experience with killing my own Thanksgiving turkeys, and am constantly educating myself in this realm. It has had a twofold effect on my. On the one hand I am nearly cured of the squeamishness I used to exhibit around gizzards, livers and the general blood and guts present in any animal slaughter. On the other, it has caused me to eat less meat. This is a two-part reaction. First off, I now only want to eat meat that I trust comes from a clean, humane, organic-if-possible (but then, what does that even mean?) source. Secondly, meat really is a big deal, and it should be treated as such. Americans eat more meat than most other nationalities and yet we are the most disconnected and squeamish about the process. I tweeted out a picture of some chicken head and foot stock I was making recently and half the responses were along the lines of “ew” and “gross.” I am sure these same people don’t think twice about spearing into a juicy chicken breast, but come on people, isn’t it incredibly wasteful to just leave the whole damn animal by the wayside so you can suck salt off drumsticks and braise breasts in barbecue sauce?
I’m going to step down off my soapbox now, whew, guess I really needed to get all that out. I realize there are a lot of buzzwords going around right now surrounding the “sustainable” “organic” “farm-to-table” “foodie” movement, and I hope my words don’t simply add to the unintelligible din, but THIS SHIT IS IMPORTANT, PEOPLE! Take responsibility for what you eat. Ok, enough said. All that was a preamble for the wacky live prawn experience I had last week. In Seattle at Mutual Fish you can buy live spot prawns that come from Hood Canal, WA. They are so fresh you can eat them as sashimi, i.e. completely raw. I had some friends over for the prawn-cooking experience and I’m happy to report that most of them were completely ok with the fact that we would be killing the prawns in order to eat them. I mean, seriously, what is wrong with people who still don’t seem to get that just because you didn’t do it yourself doesn’t mean that they weren’t alive at some point before you ate them. If you feel this way you should be VEGETARIAN. Practice what you preach. And eat the whole god-damned animal aka SUCK THE HEADS. In many cultures it’s considered the best part.
I had some help from some amazingly creative people on twitter in coming up with this preparation, which is basically like a Mexican tequila shot version of drunken prawns. It’s easy. First you put live prawns in a pan (something deep like a Le Creuset bouillabaisse pot works best I learned the second time around since the little buggers jump high) then you douse them in tequila. Let them get a tad drunk and sleepy, then light the tequila on fire. Don’t worry if it doesn’t all burn off- this adds flavor. Obviously higher heat tequilas will burn more. Next up, douse them in cilantro, oregano, lime juice and enough Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt to cover them completely. It’s pretty important to use Diamond Crystal Salt because you don’t want to waste a ton of really nice finishing salt on them since you’ll need a few cups. On the other hand you don’t want to use Morton because it is much saltier than Diamond Crystal and imparts a saline flavor on the prawns. This is a good general kitchen salting rule, by the way.
Toss the now-lidded pot into your oven on super high heat. Cook for about five minutes (don’t overcook or they’ll be tough) then pull them out and rinse them from the salt. Reserve some of the liquid to flavor the hominy mixture.
To make the hominy mixture, sauté equal parts celery, carrots & shallot in butter in a dutch oven. Add chipotle in adobo and garlic to taste. Add hominy, chicken stock & tomato. Season with oregano and pepper. To finish the hominy add some of the reserved tequila-prawn liquid to taste. It will be salty, so as you’re adding, test the saltiness of the hominy and stop when you’ve achieved the right flavor balance.
Place a portion of hominy on the plate and surround with cooked prawns. Squeeze lime over everything. Put out discard bowls so guests can shell and set aside the exoskeletons, heads and tails as they eat. Believe it or not, kids love this super-interactive, fun meal, just be sure the alcohol from the tequila has really dissipated if you serve to little ones. The head-sucking bonus with this dish is that not only are you getting the supposed-best part of the prawn, it also tastes quite a bit like a tequila shot. Here’s a short video of the prawns being corralled into the too-shallow frying pan. I learned my lesson and used the Le Creuset the next time. *video not for the faint of heart.