Zaru soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles) topped with Thai-seasoned Alaska spot prawns makes a perfect summertime meal. See recipe below.
The windshield has a crack running through it, there’s a little rust and a dent or two on the body, and some of the paint is chipping off the hand-lettered sign affixed to the vehicle’s side, but we look for Patrick Johnson’s little black truck every summer when we’re cruising around Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and we hit the brakes when we find it. If we don’t happen across his truck, we go find him at his Shrimp Guys Seafoods shop in Soldotna. Patrick sells sashimi-grade seafood smelling as fresh and briny as the seas it comes from.
Maybe it’s my East Coast upbringing, but experience has taught that fancy shops with glitzy signage are usually not the best places to look for quality seafood. The first time we saw the above sign, which is attached to Patrick’s older model black pickup truck, it took me back to days in the Carolinas where small-time operations were hands down the best places to pick up fresh blue crabs, white shrimp, oysters and maybe a flounder to enjoy with a bottle of something white and dry for the evening meal.
Alaska’s prized spot prawns, ready to be peeled, seasoned and treated every so briefly and gently with heat.
There are two secrets to great seafood: cook it while it’s fresh, and don’t cook it long. If seafood smells bad, it is. That “bad” smell is not seafood; it’s bacteria growing on seafood. A quality seafood shop (or the seafood counter in a well-run grocery store) will smell pleasantly of the ocean – a little briny, vaguely sweet.
As to cooking shrimp or prawns, a former mentor in South Carolina gave me advice that applies to everything from broiled salmon to fried summer fluke. He was showing me how to prepare the white shrimp I’d caught in a cast net and iced earlier that day. (Read in a slow, South Carolina drawl.) Jack, a little butter, a little lemon and a little garlic – that’s all they want. And a minute-and-a-half in the pan. Remember, they’ll keep cooking after you’ve removed them from heat, so a minute-and-a-half really means you’re cooking them for two minutes. But get them off the heat before two minutes, or you’ll ruin them.
Smaller than spot prawns, these Alaska side stripe shrimp have the soft texture and signature sweetness of the ama-ebi served by sushi chefs. They are excellent served raw and dipped in soy sauce with a hint of wasabi. Any leftovers make a superb omelet or open-faced shrimp melt sandwich.
Zaru Soba with Thai Seasoned Spot Prawns (serves two)
Ingredients (This recipe is a snap to make with pre-made seasoning and dipping sauce.)
- soba (Japanese-style buckwheat noodles)
- 6 spot prawns, peeled, vein removed and cut open butterfly style along their length. Give them a squirt of lime or lemon and set aside.
- 2 tbsp coconut oil (or olive oil)
- Spicy Thai-style seasoning mix, or mix your own from powdered chili peppers, powdered garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg and sesame seeds
- green onions, sliced thin
- English cucumber, cut julienne – about 1 1/2 inch of cucumber per serving
- nori (dried seaweed) cut into thin strips
- mentsuyu – chilled dipping sauce – available at Asian grocers or in the Asian section of most regular grocery stores. Or make your own from soy sauce, mirin, sake and bonito flakes.
- Use a bowl to coat prawns in seasoning and let stand.
- Boil soba according to maker’s directions. Rinse thoroughly in cold water and drain.
- Mix mentsuyu with cold water, according to maker’s directions. Mix in wasabi to taste and add a few slices of green onions.
- Heat coconut oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add seasoned prawns. Use tongs to turn so that both sides are cooked – about 90 seconds total. Place on a plate to stop cooking.
- Place cold, drained soba noodles on two plates. Add prawns. Garnish with cucumber, onions and nori. Serve with individual side bowls of cold mentsuyu dipping sauce.
Enjoy this dish with a chilled bottle of Bianchello – a beautiful white wine from Central Italy that seems to have been created for light seafood dishes.
For sashimi grade seafood, contact Patrick Johnson at 907-394-4201 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find his shop at 44526 Sterling Highway, Soldotna, Alaska