Spot Prawns in a Saffron-Tomato Sauce
with Mascarpone & Nero di Seppia Pasta
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I know how tempted we food bloggers are to toss around the words ‘date night’ when we want to sell our readers on a dish, but this recipe is and always will be one of my quintessential date night meals. This recipe is an homage to a dish that I enjoyed many years ago in a little restaurant in Montreal. As is so often the case, I can’t remember the name of the establishment, and a little bit of Google Street-View sleuthing shows me that the location is now a taco bar. But the memory of the dish has stuck with me for all these years, and now that I have kids and carefree restaurant meals are a little harder to come by, I figured it was time to breathe life into my reminiscences and to bring date night home with me. This certainly isn’t a faithful remembering of the original dish, which featured squid and certainly didn’t use Pacific spot prawns, but the core concept – a lightly spiced tomato sauce, squid ink pasta, seafood, and mascarpone – is everything I remembered and more. And let’s face it, when trying to recapture a great food memory, it can be pretty tough to live up to your own expectations. I can happily say that in this case, it’s mission-accomplished.
Date night reminiscences aside, let’s talk about what’s going on in this recipe and why you’re going to get hooked on it.
The nero di seppia (squid ink) pasta is wonderful, and spot prawns are one of my favourite seafoods (more on those later), but the real key to this whole thing is a simple, yet carefully crafted sauce. We start out with some Italian sauce 101 basic – good quality tomatoes (canned in this case), onion, garlic, and some spices. But a basic tomato sauce isn’t going to knock your socks off. The key to real success here (and in many, MANY recipes) is finding a way to tie all of your ingredients together in/with the sauce. This is one of those culinary concepts that many people already do, though often without realizing it. The basic idea is that any sauce will taste better if it incorporates elements from the rest of the meal, thus tying the flavours together. In this case, that means using the shrimp shells and the saffron to bring a briney, ocean flavour into the sauce itself. A simple scratch-made tomato sauce is fantastic, but it’s also something of a blank canvas. Left as is, it tends to feel like a tacked-on addition to many meals, rather than one with a clear place. Using the shrimp shells and the saffron lend a pleasing briny taste and vaguely hay-like scent to the sauce that works wonderfully with the squid ink and the spot prawns. The mascarpone adds a velvety richness that mellows everything out, and the subtle (and adjustable) spice brings a nice piquant buzz to the whole thing. It’s more than the sum of its parts, and certainly better than it could ever be if you were to simply cook the shrimp and toss them with a plain tomato sauce.
This concept of tying together sauces is one that can be varied endlessly, and it’s often the very trick needed to turn a good recipe into a great one. As subtle as the differences can be, our palates (and our brains) respond differently when very different tasting foods share some sort of connecting elements.
I feel like I say this kind of thing all the time, but let’s do it again: this looks like a fancy, gourmet treat, but it is NOT a difficult meal. The key to this is all in the quality of the ingredients and how they’re handled. Beyond that, the techniques are all exceedingly simple. In fact, if you’re a fairly novice cook but you’re looking to impress, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better recipe than this one. I’ve given a lot of notes below, not because this is difficult, but because many of these ingredients are less-familiar to home cooks. Read up and you’ll be all set.
I will also mention cost here, as there are quite a few ‘gourmet’ ingredients at play. If you bought this at a restaurant, you can bet that it would cost a pretty penny. When prepared at home however, it’s only moderately pricey. A special treat to be sure, but the expensive components are used carefully and in moderation. I’ll discuss them (and their cost) in detail below.
I’ve cooked with spot prawns on the site before, and I’m always eager to sing their praises. I’m very interested in sustainable seafood and fisheries, and spot prawns are a wonderful sustainable shrimp option that happens to be harvested right here in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, I was eager to get this recipe out now, as the 2017 Spot Prawn Festival is coming up this Saturday. Seafood lovers throughout the Vancouver area (myself included) are excited and ready to attend this fantastic annual event, featuring amazing recipes by a ton of incredible chefs, plus tons of great food and drink from some wonderful local businesses. If you’re in the Lower Mainland, try to snag a ticket before it’s too late. And if you can get your hands on some spot prawns yourself, I hope you’ll give this recipe a shot, but there are also a bunch more on the Spot Prawn Festival site that you can explore.
Spot prawns are a large, meaty, and flavourful prawn (or shrimp – the terminology doesn’t really mean much). They’re available, in season, up and down the Pacific coast. Because they’re in very high demand (many are exported for use in sushi and sashimi) and because they have a carefully regulated fishery, they tend to be pricey (I paid about $22 for a pound of tails, and that was quite good). That being said, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to try to craft a budget-friendly variation on this recipe. I don’t mean that to sound condescending; sadly we’ve become accustomed to inexpensive shrimp as a result of some very environmentally and socially damaging fisheries around the world. Mangrove degradation, slave labour, and heavy by-catch are just some of the problems associated with cheap shrimp production around the world. In addition to these issues, the cheapest shrimp tends to have a heavy iodine flavour, which is further amplified by the saffron, leading to an overly powerful and unpleasant taste.
Now, that’s not to say that you couldn’t use an alternative. Any high-quality, sustainable shrimp or relative (lobster, langoustine, crayfish) would work wonderfully. A different route (and a less expensive one) involves substituting squid for the shrimp. This is a fantastic option as long as you take care not to overcook the squid and render it rubbery. Without any shells, however, you’ll also need a bit of seafood stock to add to the sauce. As a final option, you could use mussels. The dish will definitely have a different overall character, but the flavours should work beautifully.
Nero di Seppia Pasta
Nero di seppia is Italian for cuttlefish ink. We frequently translate this as squid ink, and while squid (and most octopus) do produce ink, it is the related cuttlefish that generally provides the ink used to make pasta. The pasta itself is, of course, jet black. This visual element is a big part of the appeal, but it’s not the only reason to use the stuff. Cuttlefish ink also imparts a flavour that is at once briny and earthy. It’s distinctive, but not especially bold, meaning that it can be used in plenty of different situations.
Nero di Seppia pasta is not especially hard to find, though it’s obviously not as common as conventional pasta. Try an Italian specialty store or a gourmet store. If you’re in Canada, President’s Choice sells the variety that I bought and I love it. The price is higher than normal pasta too, but it’s not going to break the bank (I think it was about $5).
You can definitely make this with normal pasta too, though you’ll obviously lose some of the visual impact and the subtle flavour. If you do use regular pasta, consider adding a bit of seafood stock to the pot when you boil it. If you’re looking for the same visual impact in a gluten-free pasta, there are some really interesting noodles made with black beans that are a similar jet-black colour. These can be hard to find of course, but they are an interesting option.
Nero di seppia pasta doesn’t require any kind of special treatment, and should be cooked to al dente the same way you would cook any other pasta.
If you’re worried about the cost or difficulty of using saffron, don’t fret. I covered a lot of the details about saffron in my recent Sparkling Saffron Cocktail recipe, but I’ll cover the bases again here. First of all, you get the best flavour by lightly toasting and then soaking the saffron threads in warm water, ideally for about 4 hours. Secondly, while saffron is expensive by weight, you’re not using much of it here. A little goes a very long way. The recipe instructions below explain how to use the saffron, but if you’re interested in learning more, check out the cocktail recipe I mentioned above (plus, it makes a great drink to go with this meal!).
Chilies and Heat
There are a few different options when it comes to using chilies here, so I thought I’d explain. The recipe simply specifies crushed red chilies, though I specifically used Chinese Chilies (aka Chiles Japones). Any relative spicy, bold red chili pepper will work fine, and you can make you choice based on the degree of heat you want in the dish. As it is, the final sauce is only mildly spicy. This is in part thanks to the fact that the chilies are fried in oil, which brings out their flavour but diminishes their fiery punch. Adjust to taste, and bear in mind that the mascarpone will have a heat-quenching effect. If you want more heat, consider using a spicier chili pepper, or consider adding crushed chili flakes to the tomato sauce as it simmers.
This is another pricey ingredient used in relatively small quantities. To offset the cost, buy the smallest quantity that you can and/or plan a delightfully decadent dessert (e.g. tiramisu) to use up the rest. You could theoretically use a very nice (ideally homemade) ricotta as well, though it will lack the rich creaminess of the mascarpone.
Timing and Technique
Nothing involved in this recipe is difficult, but you do need to make sure that you’re organized and prepared well ahead of time. The saffron should be prepared well ahead of time – ideally 4 hours in advance. If that creates timing problems, simply prepare the saffron the night before and put the colourful saffron water ‘extract’ in the fridge over night.
Once the saffron is out of the way, the rest of the dish comes together quite quickly. Peel the prawns and make sure you keep all of the shells, then make your spot prawn stock immediately. While it cooks, you can prepare everything else you need for the stock.
As for the sauce itself, if you follow the directions you should find it easy enough. Use the best quality diced canned tomatoes that you can (you can use fresh, but I would only recommend this if you have experience making tomato sauce, as the cooking techniques differ). If you can’t find good diced tomatoes, buy whole canned plum tomatoes and dice them yourself. Make sure you keep the juice from the can! I like a relatively smooth sauce, but you can leave it chunky/rustic if you like. An immersion blender is one of my favourite inexpensive kitchen tools, as it makes blending sauces like this a snap. Without one, you can always transfer the sauce to a blender or food processor, though you’ll add a step (and dishes).
Nutritional information is given for a single serving (1/4 total recipe) including all components.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
Spot Prawns with Nero di Seppia Pasta
Spot Prawn Stock
- 2 tsp olive oil
- 4 crushed red chilies (see note)
- spot prawn shells from tails (see below)
- 3/4 cup water
- pinch saffron
- 1/4 cup warm water
- 450 g spot prawn tails (18-20 prawns, shell-on)
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 150 g white onion diced (~1.25 cups or 1/2 large onion)
- 4 cloves garlic
- 796 ml can diced tomatoes
- 1/2 tsp salt or to taste
- 350 g nero di seppia (squid ink) pasta (I used spaghetti, but other long/thin types are fine too)
- 1/2 cup mascarpone
- flat leaf parsley finely chopped, to serve
- (Optional but recommended) Wrap the saffron in a small square of aluminum foil, then toast in a hot pan or oven for about 1 minute. Remove from the pan and set aside to cool.
- Lightly crush the saffron threads (e.g. with a mortar and pestle) and place into a small container. Pour hot water over the saffron, then loosely cover the liquid and set it aside, ideally for about 4 hours (see note).
- Peel the spot prawn tails (take care - they've got some spines) and set the shells aside for making the stock.
Spot Prawn Stock
- In a small saucepan, heat 2 tsp of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the crushed chilies and allow them to sizzle for about 30 seconds. Add the spot prawn shells and continue to cook for another minute, stirring a little to mix everything together. Add 3/4 cup of water, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer.
- Cook the stock for 15 minutes, then remove from heat and cool. Strain the stock to remove the prawn shells and peppers, then set aside.
- Add butter and olive oil to a large saucepan or pot on the stovetop. Heat over medium. Once the butter has melted, add the onions and saute for 5-7 minutes, or until the onions are fragrant and somewhat translucent.
- Add the garlic and saute for another minute.
- Add the diced tomatoes and their tomato juice to the pot. Stir to combine.
- Add the saffron water to the pot and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cover the pot and simmer over slightly reduced heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the sauce thickens too much or is in danger of scorching, add a little water.
- Add the spot prawn stock to the sauce, stir to combine, and simmer for an additional 20 minutes.
- Use an immersion blender (or transfer the sauce to a blender/food processor) to blend the sauce to the desired consistency. I like it relatively smooth, but you can leave it chunky/rustic if you prefer.
- Salt to taste. If ready to serve, leave the sauce simmering over low heat. If not, remove from heat and return it to a simmer before continuing to the next step.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook the pasta until al dente, per the package instructions. Drain the pasta, retaining about 1/4 cup to add to the sauce.
- Add the spot prawns and about 1/4 cup of the pasta water to the sauce. Continue to simmer until the prawns are just cooked through (about 3 minutes). Take care not to overcook the prawns, as they will become rubbery.
- Plate individual portions of pasta. Top each serving with sauce. Add a large dollop (about 2 tbsp) of mascarpone, then top with 5 prawns and a little chopped parsley. Serve immediately.