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Catching Spot Prawns ?

Catching Spot Prawns ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

When I was a kid, we’d load up the family RV and head to Emerald Isle, North Carolina, about four hours away. Often these trips were quick getaways that were less about sand castles and more about fishing. 

We sometimes fished from the beach, but our main fishing happened from piers that stretched up to 1000 feet into the Atlantic. I have fond memories of parking the RV at the Indian Beach pier, which also served as a campground. If the fish were biting, we’d be out on the pier for hours at a time, casting lines with two hooks and a sinker as far as we could. Sadly, Indian Beach pier eventually crumbled in the wave of hurricanes in the late 90s.

A pier similar to Indian Beach via BlueWaterNC.com

Our bait was usually limited to bloodworms and raw shrimp. I thought little of it at the time, but bloodworms are frightful little creatures that bleed profusely when you cut into them. They are venomous carnivores that are capable of biting humans. I have been bitten by a bloodworm and it’s not fun. But, the fish love them. We mostly caught spot, and occasionally pompano, sheepshead, puffers, and more. I also set basket traps for blue crab.

Those days and nights on fishing piers were fun for a kid like me, and exposed me to a lifestyle of sport and self-sufficiency. On a good trip, we’d be able to fill the freezer with fish and give them to friends and family. My mom was the most gifted fisher and always seemed to catch fish when no one else could. Over the course of an afternoon, you’d notice other fishers sidle up to try to get in on the action. Those salty characters who now live in my memory as the shark hunting character, Quint, in the movie Jaws.

One of my clearest memories is fishing with raw shrimp as bait when I was about ten years old. Over the course of the evening, my face seemed to explode with a reaction to something. My eyes got red, puffy, and itchy. I sneezed and wheezed and tried to contain what felt like a bad cold. I washed my face and hands and it passed, but remained a mystery. 

As an adult, I became a fan of sushi and noticed something odd. When I ate raw shrimp, my mouth would feel anesthetized and my throat would feel swollen. Sometimes my lips would puff. It didn’t take long to realize that I was allergic to raw shrimp. Thinking back to those childhood fishing trips, I remembered that I was baiting hooks with shrimp and then touching my face. Thankfully, the reaction only occurs from raw shrimp and I have no problems with cooked shrimp or any other shellfish. 

And that’s a good thing because shrimp, or “spot prawns” to be precise, are a recent entrant on our list of foods we pull from the Salish Sea around Orcas Island.  

Despite living in the area for so long, I never knew much about spot prawns. Our Canadian friends to the north always raved about them and got excited for spot prawn season. On visits to Vancouver we would pick up spot prawns for dinner. It seemed odd to me that this prized seafood was not well-known in Seattle, which shares the same waters. I still can’t explain why this is the case, but we now count ourselves as spot prawn enthusiasts. 

It didn’t take long to hear about spot prawns after moving to Orcas Island. Like the fishers at Emerald Isle, islanders here are always aware of what’s in season and how to catch them. Our contractor, Drew, took us out for our first spot prawn experience, which involved dropping a few hockey puck-shaped pots in 400 feet of water, waiting an hour, and then pulling them up with a battery powered pulley. It was like magic and we wanted to do it ourselves. 

Unfortunately, our little boat didn’t seem like a candidate for an automatic “puller” and the idea of pulling shrimp pots by hand from 400 ft deep seemed daunting. That all changed when we met a neighbor at our marina who hand-pulled small pots at a depth of 250 feet with great success. His bounty influenced our decision to invest in a single shrimp pot, 400 feet of line, two buoys, and shrimp bait. We were set for the 2021 shrimping season.

Perhaps the reason spot prawns are not well known in Seattle is that they are a protected resource. This year’s season lasts a total of twelve days, split between three long weekends. During these times, each licensed shrimper can use two pots and bring home 80 prawns per day. A productive and law abiding shrimper could bring home a maximum of 1,280 prawns in a year. A couple like us could keep over 2,500. The lesson: get while the getting is good.

Last week was our inaugural shrimping trip and our friend graciously allowed us to follow him to his coveted shrimping spot. Spot prawns, conventional wisdom tells us, like to feed in the short period of time when the tides change known as the “slack tide”. This means that within a limited number of days in a season, there are only a few hours a day when the shrimp feed. For our first trip, that meant leaving the marina at 6:30 am. 

By 7:00 am our little shrimp pot was baited with cat food, shrimp pellets, and sardines and lowered to the bottom. To wait out the trapping, we tied our boat to our friend’s boat and hoped for Camelot. He bottom fished for lingcod until his giant hook snagged something on the bottom and had to be cut free. We drank coffee and talked story. 

On our first pull, we got about 40 spot prawns, which felt like a victory. Because the slack tide was longer than usual, we stayed for another round and came home with just over 80 prawns. The next day we went out twice and came home with a similar amount.

After that, the weather turned and made shrimping more difficult. We stayed home and filled our bellies with those sweet buttery little crustaceans. They are the best-tasting shrimp I’ve ever had. The Canadians are onto something. 

The final opening of the season is in the middle of June and we plan to take advantage. Like every shrimper, our goal is to “limit out” which means catching the legal limit in a day. With two people and a second pot, we may be able to do it. Maybe next year we’ll get an electric puller. 

For now, pulling one small pot and 400 feet of line is part of the fun and a reliable form of exercise. Instead of using teamwork, we challenge each other to pull the entire thing in one shot. It’s harder than it sounds and highlights why everyone thinks we’re crazy for not using a machine. 

Sachi, of course, is our head shrimper and I’m the navigator and alternate puller. She baits the pots, removes the prawns from the trap and de-heads them on the way home.

If the prawns die with their head on, they release an enzyme that softens the meat. Once we’re home, she prepares them for the BBQ or a boil. I supervise, as I’ve learned my lesson with raw shrimp. No one wants my face to explode again. 

Related:

SMASHBURGER! ?

SMASHBURGER! ?

Every once in a while, you come across a dish that seems to defy the laws of cuisine; something so simple that it has no right to be as good as it is. The dish I’m referring to is SMASHBURGER! (Yes, I’m yelling, it’s required.) Below I’m focusing on the burger itself. Feel free to apply it to your own cheeseburger.

What you’ll need:

  • Ground Beef
  • Cooking Oil
  • Salt

We’re going to take that ground beef and smash it into a pan until it’s thin. Then, we’ll cook that thin piece of meat until the edges become brown and crispy. I’ve also heard the term “lacy” edges if you want to feel fancy. The key here is the taste of charred ground beef and salt.

Pour a bit of cooking oil into a skillet at medium-high heat. Let the pan and oil get good and hot.

Grab a fistful of ground beef and keep it loose. Do not massage it or turn it into a meatball. Instead, briefly, softly shape it into a ball like you have a bird in your hand.

Place the beef in the center of hot pan.

Place the bottom of a sauce pan on top of the beef and SMASH THAT SHIT until it’s about a centimeter thick. Foil on the sauce pan will keep it clean.

Then, salt it more than you think is reasonable. This is very important. It should look like a dusting of snow. See the loose and lacy meat at the edge of the burger below? That’s what turns into the most delicious bits.

Let the smashed burger fry in the sweet salty oil for a couple of minutes. Don’t worry about overcooking the meat. A perfect medium rare is not the goal. You’re looking for deep browning and crispy edges.

Flip it once and salt that side a bit too much, too. The other side may not get as brown, but you need to cook it. Throw some cheese on there if you’re going for a cheeseburger.

You’re done.

Now, the SMASHBURGER! is not precious. It’s lowbrow and should treated as such. Do you like ketchup? SMOTHER IT. Do you like meat frisbees? Throw it with a friend. Put it between pancakes, I don’t know. Just enjoy how good a salty fried burger can be.

We’ve made SMASHBURGER! many times and usually we have it with rice and a dark brown sauce called katsu sauce. It reminds me of when my mom used to make hamburger steak. It goes well with cheap beer, too. Enjoy!

This is About the Ham ?

This is About the Ham ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

I’ve always helped in the kitchen, but over the pandemic, I have become Sachi’s sous chef. Along with chopping and preparing, I’m learning about flavor and sauces. She’s my teacher and I try to follow instructions. Sometimes the most mundane things, like chopping onions, have a secret technique that makes it easier. 

A few days ago, we came home with a four pound hunk of ham from Costco. It was one big piece of meat, similar in size to a spiral cut holiday ham. Then, yesterday, the power went out as a result of a wind storm and the ham, being fully cooked, started to look like dinner. Preparing for the power outage, Sachi had boiled some somen noodles, which are often served cold with a sesame soy sauce. With the ham and somen, we could have a classic Hawaii dish for dinner. 

Kirkland Ham

It got dark, we lit candles and I concocted brandy drinks with a syrup I made from leftover peach juice and Serrano peppers. We had a couple of drinks to celebrate the novelty of being powerless. Then, just as we got comfortable in the candlelight, the power returned. With a sigh, we moved into the kitchen, five paces away, to make dinner under the lights. 

The ham, sitting as a heap of protein on the counter, was a puzzle to be solved. We needed a portion for dinner, maybe 10% of it. The rest needed to be cut into pieces and stored in the fridge. This is where the discussion began. 

I asked Sachi, “So, how would you approach this?” 

Being the sous chef, I wanted to know what she would do in terms of cutting up the ham. Left on my own, I could certainly do it, but I thought it was a teachable moment. 

At first, she just kind of shrugged, “Whatever you think.” So, I looked at the ham, then at our storage containers. She said, “That one.” pointing to a larger Tupperware. I didn’t think it was large enough, so I brought out two large containers and looked at Sachi as if to say, “These?”

She didn’t respond directly, but she didn’t have to. Her silence in these situations tells a story. She had thoughts, but she was holding them close and letting me squirm, just a bit. I felt it. She clearly wasn’t sure about needing two containers.

This tiny decision about the containers and the ham was the perfect setup for an animated discussion. If you were to watch from afar, you might have thought we were arguing. While these discussions might include a bit of passion, they remain civil and kind-hearted. Behind the words is a genuine competition to verbally outmaneuver the other side. 

Sachi relishes an intellectual battle. She will pick a logical side and stand her ground, just as she did with her brother, Mark, when they were growing up. When the opportunity arises, she expects me to challenge her in the same way. I didn’t grow up with that kind of competition and it took me years to figure out how to fight for an idea with a smile on my face. This was my chance. If you can’t smile about ham, what can you smile about? 

We both looked at the ham on the counter and I asked, again, what she would do. She said, flippantly to my ears, “It’s a puzzle. I think it can fit in the first container.” In our relationship, this is loaded language. I’m famously bad with abstract puzzles and Sachi is famously good. Rather than teaching me how she would approach the ham, I heard in my head, “Dance for me monkey boy – let’s see you solve this puzzle.” Maybe alcohol influenced my perceptions just a bit. 

In my mind, time efficiency mattered. Looking at the ham compared to the first container, there was no way it could fit; a physical impossibility. I declared, “There is NO WAY that will fit!” Left on my own, I would not waste time trying to solve the puzzle when we could just use two containers from the beginning. I could have it done in ten seconds. We both could have left it alone and disengaged, but what’s the fun in that?

Instead, I pleaded my case. Why go to all the trouble of trying to make it fit? It seemed like an inefficient use of time. All the while, Sachi implored me to try. She also argued, correctly, that two containers was an inefficient use of limited space in the fridge.

Instead of settling with, “Fine, just use two containers.”, she kept saying, “Try it, see if it will work.”  I scoffed. There was no way that big ass ham was fitting in the Tupperware. No way. At this point it wasn’t about storing ham as much as the sides we’d picked. 

We both have times, during these discussions, when we’ve exhausted our talking points and it becomes repetitive. Sometimes this provokes a subtle shift where other subjects get wrapped into the main debate. In our discussion about the ham, Sachi brought up a point about cleaning up coffee grounds that felt like one of these extensions. At first, I took it as a grievance about me not cleaning thoroughly and said, “Let’s not go there, this is about the ham.” 

She understood my redirection and seemed to agree. Looking back, this was a strategy I’d never tried before. We were in a debate about ham and as long as it stayed about ham, we could argue and parry without hurt feelings. 

Sachi stuck up for her coffee example by saying it supported her case about the ham. Whether it’s ham or coffee, I often take the easy route versus the most thorough or deliberate route. Point taken. These debates often relate back to the fundamental differences between us. That’s why it was important to me to keep the focus on the ham and not our personalities. A fine line indeed.

We could both feel the discussion coming to an end without a clear winner. The only thing left to do was to solve the puzzle. I grabbed a knife and started cutting up the ham as Sachi prepped other dishes.  

As I cut fist-sized portions and placed them in the Tupperware, the outside of the ham seemed to fill the rounded corners of the container. Four portions covered the bottom with a better fit than I wanted to admit. I kept cutting, all the while looking at what remained and glancing at Sachi. “There’s no way this is going fit”, I thought to myself. Layer by layer, the ham filled the container. Sachi heard me mutter, “No fucking way” as the final pieces of the puzzle filled the Tupperware to the brim with ham. It was going to be close. 

I was prepared to eat crow, but held out hope. The container still needed the lid to fit properly! Only by successfully affixing the lid could we be sure that the ham fit. That was a rule I made up on the spot. I tried once with no luck. Then, I shuffled the top few puzzle pieces and tried again. Sachi smiled, or maybe it was a smirk, I’m not sure.

The successful click of the lid snapping into place was met with more profanity from me and laughter that forced Sachi into a chair to recover. I hadn’t seen her laugh that hard in months.

In some ways this was the perfect ending. She won, but it didn’t feel like I lost. My approach was emblematic of my personality, but the debate was about the logistics of storing ham. In the end, the winner was clear and I could laugh about losing because it wasn’t really about me. It was about the ham.