Updated: Dec 12, 2021
"You want to get yourself a bit of Prawn Creole, mate!!"
My pal, Al (7 June 2019)
This is what I nostalgically think of as one of my bestest school-buddies, Al’s, signature dish, and here made with British king prawns as cultivated conscientiously by, in my humble opinion, two UK seafoodie champions: FloGro Fresh and Great British Prawns. At it's heart it's essentially prawns and celery in a "Bloody Mary" sauce, but closer to my heart there's rather more to it to than that.
Back in the early 90s, Al used to cook this for us when we went to his place for band practice - it was about the only thing he ever cooked us. And it was made with the ubiquitous bag of frozen prawns (from somewhere in the World). Even without having ever seen the recipe (or knowing it came from a published one) I have regularly cooked this from a memory that sought to recreate the flavours. Only in the last couple of weeks have I asked him from where the original recipe came and it turns out it’s from “The Sainsbury Book of Suppers & Snacks” (1983) by Caroline Ellwood.
I was rather pleased with myself when I saw how similar my recreation of a recipe I had never seen was to the original. But then, on the basis that I had always known it to be "prawns in Bloody Mary sauce" (and I love a Bloody Mary!), there wasn't a lot of room to go wrong. I hadn't recalled there being peppers in this mix but on finally seeing the original recipe for "Creole-Style Prawns", as it turns out to have been entitled, there wasn't really any surprise to find green peppers among, as they are a recognised member of the 'Holy Trinity' in Creole cookery of onion, celery and 'bell' pepper (think Gumbo and Jambalaya). My interpretation had simply morphed into using (mild) green chilli which isn't so surprising as I do like a spicy meal. However, I must say, I was just a bit more than chuffed to see that the original recipe suggested garnishing the dish with celery leaf, as I had been inclined to do, if only for the fact that we rarely see celery leaf featured in a recipe yet, with a little judiciousness, I really enjoy its inclusion for the fabulous and very homely flavour contributor that it is.
This time last year I never thought I would be sharing a recipe like this on a blog dedicated to local, seasonal and sustainable seafood, what with so many question-marks over the practices of overseas prawn farming. But what makes this, I think, quite an enchanting seafoodie story, is that Al’s place – now his and his wife and son’s permanent home – is served by a local fishmonger, Cranleigh Fish, who, here in 2020, via Instagram, made me aware that king prawns were being cultivated in an environmentally-friendly, sustainable manner in the UK.
So, in a merry completion of a culinary circle, here I offer a recipe transported from a time when prawns were only an imported (usually frozen) luxury into a time that we can make the most of our homegrown “prawnduce”… And to keep the Bloody Mary theme intact, I’ve used celery salt for seasoning rather than the usual, regular stuff. Now, how many recipes use celery salt!?
Although the original recipe called for the use of shelled prawns, I am keen for this dish to be made with the king prawns from our UK producers which, at the time of writing, are sold whole, fresh and in-shell, and hence I write the recipe with that in mind. The benefit I believe this offers is that once the heads and shells have been removed they can quickly be transformed into a very simple 'stock' which can be used to adjust the consistency of the sauce to that desired whilst not thinning flavour in the process of thinning the sauce. With a thick coating, these prawns could be enjoyed in tortillas, flatbreads or lettuce leaves. Generally speaking, I don't care much for long-grain rice, though I've recently found it handy to serve to Artoo when he's got a sub-par tummy. But, with a thinner sauce, long grain rice, as an accompaniment to this dish, really is just the thing.
In terms of weight of prawns, we're really looking for around 250-275g fully-shelled weight to serve two. This equates to about 350g if the tails are left on as I have done in the photo (my preferred way of serving shelled prawns), but in any case requires 500g shell-on king prawns.
Of course this dish can be made with ready-shelled prawns but the stock then won't be available. In this case, some fish or vegetable stock would be fine, and water would work adequately too. Or just skip Steps 1 and 2 and make the dish drier and go the tortilla/flatbread route.
Note that Steps 1-3 can be made well ahead of time so, if serving for larger numbers, just multiply up the ingredient quantities and do these two steps in advance to make this a very convenient dish to offer when entertaining.
Ingredients (Serves 2)
500g prawns, shell on (or see recipe intro)
1 tbsp olive oil
75g onion (half onion), chopped
75g celery, thinly sliced (approx 2 sticks)
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 mild green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped (optional, or quantity to taste)
230g tinned tomatoes with juice
1 tbsp tomato puree
¼ tsp Worcestershire sauce
⅛ tsp Tabasco (or other chilli sauce), or to taste
Celery salt (or regular salt)
Freshly ground black pepper
Celery and/or parsley leaves, 2 tsp finely chopped, plus extra leaves for garnish
Remove the heads from the prawns and reserve. Remove the shells from the prawns, leaving the tails intact or otherwise, and reserve. If desired, score the prawn meats down the lengths of their backs and remove any gritty intestinal tracts with a pointed knife. If not serving the dish imminently, cover and refrigerate the prawns until close to serving time, but bring them back to room temperature before proceeding with their cooking.
Put the reserved shells in a small saucepan with enough water to cover (about 150-200ml), bring to the boil, then simmer gently for 20 mins then strain the resulting stock into a jug.
Heat the oil in a sauté pan, wok, or wide saucepan and in that sweat the onion and celery for 3-5 minutes until soft but only just starting to colour. Add the garlic and green chilli (if using), sweat for a further minute, then add the tomato purée and cook for a minute more, stirring regularly. Add the tinned tomatoes, the Worcestershire sauce and the Tabasco (or other chilli sauce), turn the heat up to high and allow the sauce to reduce to a pulpy consistency. At this point the sauce can be seasoned to taste with celery salt (or ordinary salt) and ground black pepper and, if desired, allowed to cool ready to be reheated before proceeding.
When ready to get the dish to the table, bring the sauce, with somewhere around 6 tbsp (90ml) of the prawn stock (or alternative, see recipe intro), to the boil. Incorporate the prawns, lower the heat a little, cover the pan and simmer for 2-3 mins until the prawns turn pink and are just cooked through. Stir in the celery and/or parsley leaves, lemon juice to taste and any additional seasoning according to preference. Serve straight away.
"The Sainsbury Book of Suppers and Snacks", Caroline Ellwood (1983), pp. 82: https://sainsburyarchive.org.uk/catalogue/search/sapub11-the-sainsbury-book-of-series-of-cookery-books