From home-caught shrimp to giant prawns from the shores of Mozambique, Mark Hix says it's time to take the plunge

When is a shrimp not a shrimp? When it's a prawn. But which is which, and where do Dublin Bay prawns come into it? The answer is: it all depends where you live. Most of us understand anything larger than a brown or pink shrimp, the type used for potted shrimps, to be a prawn. When you go to the States you find they call our large prawns shrimps. Order a shrimp cocktail and it'll probably come with great big king prawns in it. In Celtic parts of this country when you see prawns talked about and on menus they turn out to be langoustines, identifiable by their claws and otherwise known in English as scampi, or Dublin Bay prawns.

It's all as clear as the North Sea in a storm. So if you're in a restaurant or fishmonger, I suggest you make absolutely sure what you want and what you're getting otherwise you could end up disappointed. Just so there's no confusion here, when I refer to shrimps I mean the tiny brown or pink ones. Prawns are the larger species, and scampi, langoustines and Dublin Bay prawns are one and the same thing.

My fondest, and coldest, memory of eating prawns is as a kid. Using specially made nets we used to catch them off the end of the pier in West Bay in Dorset after a bit of a storm when the water was murky and the weather was getting colder. The net consisted of a heavy steel ring with a two foot or so long net attached. Across the ring was tied a cross of twisted twine to which you attached the bait, the smellier the better, and a rope of about 40ft. We would drop about six of these nets each over the edge of the pier at different points and leave them for a minimum of 15 minutes. The prawns would be attracted to the smelly bait and when the net was pulled in at speed the prawns would get trapped in the bottom of the net. Once we'd got them in we'd keep them in a bucket of seawater until we had finished - which could be at 10 at night or so in the winter on school days and a bit later at weekends. The catch would never be that great, a couple of pounds maybe, but the satisfying thing was getting them home and cooking and eating them immediately. That was some midnight feast.

If I want to remember that taste I go to Borough Market and buy this type of prawn from Darren Brown at Shellseekers who gets them from that area. The prawns aren't big but they taste great. Cook them in seawater, or boiling water heavily salted with sea salt.

Prawns from our coastal waters don't come much bigger than 2-3cm, and so anything larger will be imported - king prawns is the generic name for the larger ones. I'd always recommend saltwater prawns rather than the farmed freshwater ones as the flavour is superior. Prawns freeze well so frozen raw prawns are fine if they're not overcooked.

Giant tiger prawns are farmed, mostly in Asia, with serious consequences for the environment. Farming has been a major cause of the destruction of about a third of the world's mangrove swamps and causes pollution with effluent and antibiotics. Check the packaging or ask the fishmonger about the prawns' origins. Look out for more responsibly farmed prawns. You can also find wild African prawns, and huge prawns from Mozambique which are quite delicious simply grilled. Look on the Fish Society's website www.fishsociety.co.uk or 0800 2793474 for these and various other prawns. Wild seawater prawns are always the tastiest as I found out all those years ago on the Dorset coast.

Sesame prawn toasts

Makes 8 toasts

Don't be put off by the greasy triangles from the Chinese takeaway that taste of nothing but sesame seeds. They're probably bought frozen. If you make these yourself it's quite a different story. Buy prawns in the shell if possible, then you can make the bisque below with the shells.

10-12 medium-sized raw large prawns in the shell
2tsp finely grated root ginger
2 spring onions, trimmed and finely chopped
2tsp sake, or dry sherry
Salt
2 slices of white bread with the crusts removed
2tbsp sesame seeds (mixed with black ones if you wish)
Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying

Remove the heads and shells from the prawns but leave the tail attached.

With a sharp knife cut along the length of the prawn leaving a thin strip of prawn flesh attached to the tail. Chop the rest of the meat finely with a knife, or in a small food processor. Remove the crusts from the bread and cut into rectangles (or mini soldiers), approximately 11/2 cm wide x 3-4cm long.

Mix the ginger, spring onion and sake with the chopped prawn meat and season. Lay the prawns with the tail attached on to the pieces of bread then, using a teaspoon, mound the chopped prawn mixture evenly on the toasts over the prawn leaving the tail sticking out at one end and pointing upwards. Dip the prawns carefully in the sesame seeds so they stick to the mixture. Ensure the meat is covered and re-align the tails if necessary.

Pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 150-160C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep fat fryer. Fry the prawns for 2-3 minutes until a light golden colour and drain on kitchen paper.

Prawn bisque

Serves 4-6

As far as I'm concerned prawns make two meals. If you've peeled them before cooking and saved the shells, or salvage the shells from your plates, you have the base of a great soup. After all, they're too expensive to waste and it's amazing how much flavour you can get from a few shells once they've been cooked and blended. I usually have either the shells waiting to be turned into soup, the stock or the finished product - a shellfish bisque - in the freezer.

Do not re-freeze raw prawn shells if you have bought them frozen. Either blanch them in water before you freeze them again or make your stock or soup and then freeze it. I find that leftover shells make a great base to, say, a Thai or clear broth and all you have to do is add some prawns, vegetables and herbs. Then save the new prawn shells for the next batch.

The other option for a good prawn bisque is to use small pink shrimps, which can be bought fresh or frozen. I've used rice here to thicken the soup, which is the way Italians would do it. It's surprising how much difference it makes to the taste compared with the flour we more usually use for thickening.

A good knob of butter
500g cooked shrimps or prawns in the shell or prawn shells
1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 leek, roughly chopped and washed
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tsp fennel seeds
A good pinch of saffron
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of thyme
1tbsp tomato purée
100ml white wine
80g pudding rice
2 litres fish stock (made from good cubes is fine)
100ml double cream to finish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a large thick-bottomed pan and gently cook the prawns, onion, leek, garlic, fennel seeds, saffron, bay leaf and thyme for 4-5 minutes with a lid on, stirring every so often. Add the tomato purée, white wine, rice and fish stock, season and bring to the boil. Simmer very gently for 1 hour then blend in a liquidiser until smooth and strain through a fine sieve. Re-season if necessary, add the double cream and simmer for another minute.

You can serve with some chopped or whole prawns and a chopped herb like tarragon, parsley or chervil.

Prawns thermidor

Serves 4 as a starter or 2 as a main

Occasionally on the fishmonger's slab you see giant prawns almost the size of a small lobster. They generally come from places such as Mozambique. Large langoustines or Dublin Bay prawns are difficult to come by, although Asian supermarkets may sell the big ones, or fishmongers can order large prawns or langoustines in advance.

Lobsters can be daunting because they are often cooked live (or killed just before cooking), but this way you can have a thermidor without having to deal with live seafood.

4 large prawns weighing about 200g each or larger if you wish, or serve 2 per person for main
60ml white wine
4 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
200ml fish stock (made from cubes is fine)
200ml double cream
2tsp English mustard
40g Cheddar cheese, grated
20g freshly grated Parmesan
1 egg yolk
Salt and pepper

Bring a large pan of water to the boil and add a couple of dessertspoons of salt. You will probably need to cook the prawns in two or three batches, according to the size of your largest saucepan and how many of them you're cooking. Plunge them into the boiling water f and cook for 4-5 minutes for the really large ones and 2-3 for the smaller ones.

Remove them from the water and leave them to cool. Meanwhile, in a pan, reduce the white wine with the shallots until it has almost all evaporated. Add the fish stock and reduce again to about a couple of dessertspoons, then add the double cream and the mustard, and reduce until the sauce is quite thick. Then add the grated Cheddar and Parmesan and whisk until the sauce is smooth. Season and leave it to cool. Whisk the egg yolk into the sauce.

When you're ready to finish off, pre-heat the grill to its maximum temperature. Cut each of the prawns in half from the back through the head and all. A serrated knife is normally the best for this.

Remove the meat from the tails and cut it into four or five pieces. Mix it with a little sauce and lay it back in the tail and head of the shell.

Spoon more sauce over the prawn meat and cook under the grill for 4-5 minutes until glazed.

Scampi Provençale

Serves 4

This is a proper, old-fashioned restaurant dish that always used to be on the room service menu in the grand hotels in London (and around the world, I shouldn't wonder). It seems extraordinary to think of that now. I remember big pots of Provençale sauce sitting in containers in the hotel kitchen fridge ready to be used for all sorts of different dishes and often in disguise. We didn't use fresh live langoustines, always peeled frozen tails, the type that gets breaded for scampi in the basket. Frozen scampi tails are not bad, actually, and you can find them in good fishmongers. They will be available in various grades from small to jumbo and I would recommend the jumbo for this recipe. Otherwise you could buy fresh in the shell and peel them. Or you occasionally see just the un-peeled scampi tails in fishmongers. If that fails, use large prawns and just peel them.

24 peeled, large raw scampi tails
Olive oil for frying
A good knob of butter for the sauce
4 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
2tbsp olive oil
1tsp tomato purée
A splash of white wine (about 50ml)
10 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped, or a 400g can of chopped tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tbsp chopped parsley
A good knob of butter

First make the sauce: gently cook the shallots and garlic in the olive oil for a couple of minutes without colouring. Stir in the tomato purée and white wine, then simmer for a minute. Add the tomatoes, season and simmer for 5-6 minutes until the tomatoes just begin to break up.

Meanwhile season the scampi, heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a frying pan and cook the scampi on a high heat for 3-4 minutes until lightly coloured. Add the tomato sauce, butter and parsley and mix well. Re-season if necessary.

Serve with plain boiled rice.

What else to munch in March

White asparagus and baby violet artichokes

The first white asparagus from Provence and southern Spain is a prelude to our gorgeous native spears in a month or so.

Monksbeard

These spindly green shoots are perfect in risottos, pasta or with simply grilled fish. Try specialist greengrocers.

New season garlic

Sniff out wild garlic in woodland. And look out for the heads of less pungent new season garlic, which hasn't developed individual bulbs and papery skin.

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