The supreme quality of seafood available in the Outer Hebrides is hard to compete with and I feel ashamed that I have yet to champion Hebridean seafood by featuring it in a recipe so far (except mussels, of course).
I am thinking specifically about crustaceans. Recent posts highlighting super-fresh Crustacea by My French Haven (langoustines) and Food, Frankly (crayfish) have further served to remind me to do so, as well as a superb meal cooked for us by friends at the weekend and featuring a star dish of lasagne with local crab.
Langoustines – King of Crustacea
My King of Crustacea award goes to langoustines (Nephrops norvegicus), also referred to variously as scampi, Norway lobster and Dublin Bay prawn. Prawn, the local name here, is confusing nomenclature as they are more closely related, and have a flavour and texture similar but superior to lobster. Eaten when fresh, langoustines have the sweetest most delicate flavour of all crustacea and indeed, are sublime, but they should be fresh i.e. live when you acquire them.
The life of the langoustine
Langoustines are found where there is suitable muddy sediment, the habitat in which they construct and occupy burrows where they spend most of their time. They can be found in shallow coastal waters a few metres deep, including sea lochs and up to water depths of more than 500m to the west of the Outer Hebrides at the edge of the continental shelf.
They are opportunistic predators and scavengers feeding on marine worms, other crustaceans and molluscs. Females mature at about 3 years old. Mating takes place in early summer, with spawning in September . The ‘berried’ females carry the eggs until they hatch the following spring. The planktonic larvae develop, metamorphosing through several fascinating larval stages, before settling on the seabed about 2 months later.
The Outer Hebridean langoustine fishery
The fishery is extremely important economically for the Outer Hebrides and has been growing since the 1960’s. Scotland contributes to about 1/3 of the total catch of langoustines worldwide. Here in the Uists, a good proportion of the catch is made by small local boats using creels, mainly in coastal waters. This method of fishing is more sustainable than trawling since it causes less ecological damage as it is more selective. The prawns are also of very high quality as they are less damaged and stressed than trawled specimens. The Scottish Government consider this fishery to be healthy around the Outer Hebrides.
The main markets are for export and most of the stocks caught here are transported live to Spain and France and also to a number of discerning hoteliers and restaurateurs on the UK mainland. Vehicles carrying live prawns can be seen leaving on the ferries most days. For residents, you have to know where to intercept this prime export at source before it leaves the island. I am fortunate to have a friend with a langoustine export business, so my prawn quarry is easy to find. I consider it foraging by proxy. Visitors to the island are likely to have to do a bit of homework to pin down some langoustines while here. While I am familiar with ecology of this species, my friend had provided fascinating insights into the live langoustine business here on the island and beyond.
Cooking with langoustines
There is no doubt that langoustines are luxury produce and therefore are very expensive, especially around Christmas and New Year, when market demands are high and they are in good condition. Last time I saw them for sale in Glasgow they were £35 a kilo – and that was for dead cooked prawns. Buying them dead is not without risk as they can be like cotton wool inside and quickly lose their sweetness if they have been sitting around for too long.
I get about 2 kilos at a time and tend to make several meals out of them to celebrate the luxury. Langoustines are graded according to size and the bigger they are, the more in demand and expensive they will be. I tend to go for medium/large.
First, out of respect for the animals, they need to be dispatched quickly. I have a huge pot that I fill with tap water and bring this to a rolling boil. I place a few prawns in at a time, leave them for about 2 minutes and remove them. Some recipes I read suggest plunging them into ice-cold water once removed but I think this waterlogs the flesh and risks losing some flavour. Provided they were only in the pan for a couple of minutes, yes, they do continue to cook a bit, but letting then cool at room temperature seems to work.
The most recent batch I had served me well to make 3 meals and I made absolutely certain nothing went to waste.
Langoustine salad with hot garlic butter, parsley and lemon dressing
This is a recipe I have used for many years and is a variation on a Nick Nairn recipe from his book Wild Harvest 2. Once you have peeled the prawns, this recipe is quick, easy and the flavour combination brings out the sweetness of the prawns.
1kg live langoustines, cooked
50g unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves
2 tblsp lemon juice
zest of 1/2 lemon
a few handfuls of mixed salad leaves
2 tomatoes, seeds and skin removed, flesh finely diced
a handful of chopped parsley
salt and pepper
- Prepare the cooked langoustines by removing the flesh from the tails. Keep all heads, claws and shells.
- Melt the butter with the garlic and lemon zest for a few minutes to tone down the garlic a bit.
- Add lemon juice then season with a little salt and pepper.
- Heat this dressing until just boiling, add the prawns, parsley and tomatoes and mix well. Serve with the mixed leaves, and some fine homemade bread to mop up the dressing.
.Split and grilled langoustine with chilli, lime and coriander
This recipe couldn’t be simpler, and with a hot grill or barbecue, is ready in about 3 minutes. Enough for 4 people as a starter, 2 as a main course, but I could easily eat the whole kilo myself…..
1kg of langoustines, cooked
2 garlic cloves, crushed
juice of a lime or a lemon
1 large red chilli, finely chopped
a bunch of chopped coriander
4 tblsp of rapeseed oil
a few turns of pepper
- Mix the chopped coriander, chilli, garlic, lime/lemon juice, pepper and oil together.
- Split the langoustines down the centre, place on the grill pan and drizzle over the dressing.
- Cook under a hot grill for 3 minutes, or until just hot. Serve with lemon/lime wedges.
This recipe is more time-consuming and complex than the last two but uses the remains of the whole animal to provide an outstandingly rich and decadent bisque.
1 onion, finely chopped
2 stalks of celery, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 red chilli
1/2 fennel bulb, sliced
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
2 bay leaves
juice of a lemon
a pinch of saffron
1 tblsp of brandy
a small bunch of parsley
1 tblsp tomato puree
1.5 litres of water
500ml fish or shellfish stock
small glass of Noilly Prat
150ml of double cream
- Heat the butter until foaming and gently fry the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, chilli, fennel, bay leaves until the onions have softened a bit.
- Add the Noilly Prat and cook until reduced by half.
- Add the shells, heads and claws of the langoustines to the pan, crushing them to extract a lot of flavour. I use a potato masher to do this.
- Add the fish/shellfish stock and water, tomatoes, tomato puree, most of the parsley and saffron. Allow to simmer gently for an hour or so.
- Sieve the mixture into a clean pan, again squeezing all the flavour from the langoustines and add the brandy, cream and lemon juice and season, as required. Heat gently.
- Serve and garnish with parsley and swirl in some cream.