A Seafood Christmas

By Shannon Latimer
Photography & Styling C&D Heierli

Put away your recipes for turkey, stuffing and hot Christmas pudding. This year, try entertaining with a difference. Go for a seafood spectacular. It’s always so hot on Christmas day, anyway, so why spend it slaving away in an even hotter kitchen? Here are ideas for stress-free entertaining, plus recipes to give a new twist to your celebrations. Nothing is challenging. You can use the braai outdoors or, if you’re cooking inside, it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. The change will be as good as a holiday.

PRAWNS: Getting in the Pink

Prawns are as varied in size as they are in flavour. The general rule is the smaller the prawn, the sweeter it is. In South Africa we have many to choose from, the Shrimp (named because of its small stature), Queen, King, Tiger mediums and Tiger Giants. 
When choosing them fresh, make sure they’re moist and not slimy or dry, and the shell isn’t cracked. If you are buying them frozen, make sure to defrost them as naturally as possible. Either leave them overnight in the fridge, sprinkled with salt, or if you need a quick fix, put them in a bowl of barely tepid water. Never use hot water, as the flesh will become floury. 
Cook prawns in their shells for a juicier result. Once they’ve turned pink they’re done, so don’t overcook.

Pull or cut the head at the joint/segment.

Pull the head and tail together. With a sharp-nosed knife follow the curve of the prawn’s back, from the first segment all the way to the tail. Open up with your fingers. If there is a dark thread pull it out—it’s easier to use a fork or the tip of a knife to lift and pull the vein out. Then rinse.

MUSSELS: You’re Not the Only One Who Doesn’t Like Tap Water

When choosing mussels, make sure the shells aren’t damaged or broken and try to buy them fresh—they are much tastier than the frozen ones. Discard any shells that are open, they’re bad. A good way to check is to cover the mussels with cold water. They snap shut when confronted with tap water—the ones that remain open are dead.
Mussels are very quick to cook. Just steam or boil them for only two to three minutes to ensure the flesh is tender. Once they open, they are cooked. Throw away any that remain closed after cooking—they are doubly dead. Mussels are delicious when cooked properly.

Once you have submerged your mussels to check for the dead ones, give them a good scrub with a nailbrush.

Hold the mussel firmly in one hand. With the other, use a knife that won’t cut through the beard, but rather pull the beard with the edge of the knife. You want to pull it from the inside, so don’t cut it off.

SALMON: Pink is Best

Usually people who don’t even like fish enjoy salmon. It’s firm enough to grill, can be cooked in many different ways, and doesn’t dry out as easily as many other fish. It comes fresh, frozen, smoked, and canned. Two very popular preparation methods are hot or cold smoked salmon and sashimi. 
Wild salmon is a rich and natural source of omega-3, essential for brain development and function. It also assists in the prevention of heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis and depression. Salmon has protein and vitamins A, B and D, as well as a range of minerals vital to a balanced and healthy diet. And it tastes good.

Try to buy a whole salmon side or fillet that is from the thickest part of the fish. Skin the salmon and remove the bones before cooking. This is easily done. When removing the bones, pull them out one at a time going with the grain of the fish.

To skin a salmon, place the fish skin side down on a plastic board, and use a sharp knife. Hold the fish down with one hand, angle the knife slightly downward and keep as close as possible to the skin. With a gentle cutting action, move the knife across the fillet. This will separate the skin from the fish. If this is more intimate than you wish to get with the salmon, simply ask your fishmonger to remove the skin.

SCALLOPS: Delicate and Colourful

Shucked scallops can be refrigerated for up to two days. They can be cooked any way you like. Try poaching, baking or flash-frying them. The most important thing is that you cook them quickly in order to maintain their delicate texture. Don’t drown them in too much butter or oil. Let their natural sweet flavour do all the talking. You’ll know a scallop is cooked when it becomes opaque. Take them out of the pan when the middle is still slightly translucent. Press them with your thumb and if they don’t spring back, they’re overcooked. Serve scallops immediately. They start to become rubbery if you let them sit for too long.

Always go for fresh scallops. If you have to get them frozen look out for ‘IQF’ (individually quick frozen) printed on the packaging. This means they were flash frozen on the boat as soon as caught. Thaw frozen scallops overnight in the fridge or let them defrost at room temperature, never microwave them.

Avoid wet-packed scallops as these have been soaked in a phosphate solution that makes them absorb water. When you cook them the excess water drains out and makes a mess in the pan. The phosphate also has a soapy flavour. Look out for dry-packed scallops, but if you can find only the wet-packed variety, you’ll need to rinse them thoroughly and let them drain properly. Once that’s done, pat them dry with a paper towel and season with salt.