I have never been an early morning person. But I still remember the days when my father used to wake me up early to go fishing with him. I used to relish the time with him. I used to love the anticipation and the preparation that went into the fishing. My father would prepare the fishing bait which either consisted of bread with fermented cheese that had been left in jars in full sunshine and stank really badly or else freshly brought shrimps or gambli as they were more commonly known in Maltese.
My attention span when I was young and fishing would not really last long unless I was actually catching fish and to be honest I did not get the point of it until many years later. My father doesn’t even really like fish until this day.
But, there is something therapeutic about fishing. You are alone, surrounded by nature sitting or standing in silence.The best time to fish is either at sunrise or at sunset and when it gets dark but to get the best spots you needed to go early.
Today, I have come to appreciate the moments of stillness, of silence and of being alone in your thoughts and the point of fishing is not so much about the fish but rather about having those quiet moments where you just wait for the fish to eat the bait, hoping to catch a few in the process which would end up being made into a delicious fish soup by my mum.
My first experience with raw shrimps was during these fishing expeditions. My father and I used to use the shrimps as fishing bait. We would peel them one by one. Anyone who has peeled shrimps or prawns can immediately recognise the smell. It is a mix of sea, of sweetness and saltiness.
I cannot remember the first time I tried this delicacy but once I had tried them, I was hooked. That love of raw shrimps or prawns still remains and actually grows because it is not often that you. It actually grows because living away from an island means that you do not always have access to them.
But every time I am in Malta, I make it a point to buy these gamble rossi as they are called in Maltese. They don’t necessarily come cheap but the delicacies in life, and the childhood memories that they rekindle, are priceless.
The best way to know whether you can eat the prawns or shrimps raw is to ask your trusted fishmonger though you can attest to their freshness from the smell. If you are feeling lazy, you can even ask your fishmonger to peel them for you but do tell him or her to reserve the shells because you can make a splendid prawn stock which is heavenly in a plate of pasta.
When I was a child growing up, I would eat the shrimps as I peeled them without any seasoning, lemon or olive oil. Nowadays, I normally use the best quality extra virgin olive oil I can find and then add just some lemon juice, lime juice or orange zest depending on what I have available. I’ve also tried to combine grapefruit with the prawns which works exceptionally well. Just add a pinch of Maldon sea salt, some freshly ground pepper, maybe spring onions or shallots and serve immediately.
With the shells, I normally fry some chopped onions in extra virgin olive oil and then add the shells to the pan. I let them brown to extract as much flavour as possible and then I add some white wine and a touch of brandy. I flame the brandy to remove the alcohol and then add abundant water to cover the shells. If you are using this for a pasta sauce, you might want to add a spoon of concentrated tomato paste. Boil the water and then leave to simmer to extract as much flavour as you can from the shells. After around an hour, remove from the heat and pass the liquid through a sieve making sure to extract as much juice as you can from the shells.
Then put back on the pan and reduce the liquid even further. The more you reduce the liquid the more intense the flavour becomes. Do not add salt because the end result will be salty.
Pasta with prawn stock, red mullet and pistachio pesto
The red mullet is a very versatile and delicious fish that you can find at your fishmonger. It is not often used in pasta but it works exceptionally well with the prawn stock. Ask your fishmonger to fillet your red mullet and make sure that you have removed all the bones.
In this pasta dish, I cook everything separately. Once the prawn stock is ready, I season the red mullet and pan fry it making sure to keep it nice and juicy without overcooking it. I confit some cherry tomatoes in extra virgin olive oil. To the tomatoes, I add basil which I remove at the very end and some salt. I also have pistachio pesto which I have brought with me from Sicily but which can be made using the best quality pistachios you can find and crush them in a pestle and mortar with some olive oil.
Once the pasta is al dente, I add a few of the red mullet fillets to the prawn stock, throw the pasta in and combine together. I then add the confit tomato, the pistachio pesto and two fillets of red mullet on top and serve. Believe me food memories don’t get much better than this.