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When I watched Justin serve up fried fish bones, in ‘The Next Food Network Star’, I cringed. ‘Another one of  those recipes’. Someone was bound to write an open letter to the world about how fried fish bones make you a star. Or how instagram makes you the photographer of the year. 

Warner is referring to one of his final challenges in which he fried fish bones like potato chips and fed them to restaurateur, Food Network t.v. personality Guy Fieri, who loved them.

“It’s been done in other cultures for many years, but in America, bones have always been bad,” said Warner. “But it’s actually really tasty; it’s like eating fried lace.”

Sigh. I thought ‘showy, with sufficient shock factor to stun guests into submission, and admittance of the cook’s excellence’.

I looked away. In wonder. And faint disgust.

Till I deep-fried prawn heads and swooned.

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Long-poached prawn heads, in all their glory

And served them up, to family, to daughters….to friends, with equal delight. In fact, my 9 year old daughter tasted one, and fell in love, till I mentioned shrimps, which she ‘hates’. Still she went on to eat them and request some the following night.

Anyhow, there was not a single pretentious thought or feeling, with me on the serving end.

And so I take back my entire first paragraph. Apologies Justin. I’m really glad you won ‘The Next Food Network Star‘!

On to prawn heads. Crispy, spiced, juicy orange, heads!

It all began with my neighbor, Oti coming round on an afternoon when I was bone-tired yet struggling to sleep, with my youngest two children keeping me busy. Anyways, she was going to ‘Town’ market and wanted to know if I needed anything.

Port Harcourt Town market is ‘the’ market for all things fresh – giant tiger prawns, all manners of fish from Red Snapper to Tilapia, Barracuda and Catfish. Even dried fish – stockfish, dried prawns and crayfish, poultry, vegetables…Town market teems with it. Its the market my sister’s mother-in-law shops at, when we want to get special things to cook or to send abroad. Its in the heart of the old city, and for me a journey so I haven’t been there ever. Soon, I say, soon.

I love having tiger prawns in the deep freezer. My favourite way to eat them is spiced with cumin, black pepper and herbes de Provence and fried; I also have them in Nigerian soups and in fresh fish stews.

The only thing I’ve ever done with prawn heads is make a ‘stock’ by blending with water, sieving and using the resulting liquid to flavour stews and sauces.

This time, the prawn heads were large and sea fresh that I couldn’t treat them as usual.

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They start out grey, and then turn a gorgeous coral-orange

And off I headed to Google.

I was surprised to see that I’d left an answer to a question 8 months ago on the Food52.com hotline when someone asked ‘What can I do with a whole lot of prawn heads and shells after a BBQ? Stock?

I said ‘I would sautée the prawns leavings in onions, garlic, some herbs; de-glaze with some white wine; add water and then simmer with other seasoning. Then I would puree the whole lot and sieve out the chaff, leaving delicious, seafood infused liquid. In Southern Nigerian cuisine, we puree the heads and shells and use them to thicken a soup in the manner of a chowder.’

With this comment under my belt, I went ahead and did just that – make the base for a seafood chowder or bisque like I’ve done before, but also I discovered a great prawn oil recipe that resulted in the crispest, tastiest prawn heads ever. And I don’t think you were meant to eat the heads.

Now I’m not suggesting you go out and buy prawn heads, all I’m saying is if you happen to have them on hand, don’t discard them. There are a few good things you could accomplish with them that are flavourful.

Recipe #1: Fried Prawn Heads and Prawn Oil, adapted from Food.com

Ingredients
1 cup prawn heads
1 medium onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
1 bouquet garni (with bay leaves, and dried thyme)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Directions

In a large heavy based pot over high heat add a few tablespoons of olive oil and sautée the carrot and onions until soft, about 5 minutes.
Add the heads and tomato paste and continue to cook a further 5-8 minutes. Carefully pour in the remaining oil, add the bay leaves and thyme, make sure that all the ingredients are covered in oil, you may need to add more depending on the shape and size of your pot – you want the prawn heads to be totally submerged in the oil.

Leave on high heat for 5 minutes and then reduce to low and allow to cook for at least an hour. Turn off the heat and allow to cool for at least 2 hours.
Once cooled, strain though a colander and allow solids to drain of all the oil.  Transfer the oil to a bottle and it will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of months. When using the oil in recipes you will need to remove it from the fridge about an hour before you need it so it can become liquid again.

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Halfway through, I topped up with more oil to submerged the prawn heads

According to the original recipe: Use it as the oil called for in any seafood pasta dish. Toss it through any al’dente pasta along with a little chopped parsley. Drizzle it on top of any soup. Cook scrambled eggs with salmon in it. Once you understand the flavours in it, let your imagination run wild with where you use it.

Feast on the warm prawn heads as soon as you can.

Don’t they look gorgeous? They tasted absolutely divine – the shells were crisp and juicy, and incredibly tasty with the blend of tomato paste, sweet carrots and herbs.

Ok, they have literally been poached in oil, you know and I wouldn’t eat them every day….but I will try to make them again.

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A trio of prawn goodness; From L to R: Prawn oil, Prawn stock and Fried Prawn heads

The next time, I’ll season them, drizzle with oil and roast them on very high heat. They’ll be ready in no time….and I’ll be able to enjoy them without a twinge of guilt.

But for now, for then, this did a marvellous job, and I have no regrets.

To eat them, we begin from the ‘neck’, and work our way forward to the mouth. The only thing that gets left are the tentacles.

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All that’s left is a tentacle!

 

Recipe #2: Prawn ‘stock’/base

Ingredients
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small white onion/2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 cup rinsed prawn heads
2 – 3 cups dry white wine (I used leftover Champagne)
Juice and finely grated zest of 1 medium lemon 
Salt, to taste
 
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Directions

Heat up the oil in a pan and when warm add the onions, garlic and the prawn heads and a pinch of salt.

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Hints of the colour transformation – it is a GORGEOUS thing to watch. A science lesson almost.

Stir till the prawns heads turn pink, a couple of minutes.

Add the wine or champagne, and the lemon juice and zest. At first, the sauce will taste a touch bitter but give the heads a bit of time to simmer, about 10 minutes and it will be transformed.

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Take off the heat, and let cool down a bit till warm.

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Prawns. prawns – looking on!

Then in a food processor or blender, blitz till the shells are well chopped up and the liquid changes colour, to faintly resemble carrot juice.

Pass the blitzed up mixture through a sieve twice – discard the gritty shell bits and reserving the smooth puree.

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I’ve never treated prawn heads the way I did, yet have learnt a few good things: they are full of richness.

Oh, and watch out when you’re ‘laughing at people’, hmmm, you may just have to eat your words.

Enjoy your weekend.

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