king prawns with pernod, tarragon & feta

I have a couple of Ottolenghi books and am a particular fan of the recipes in Jerusalem. More recently I bought the Nopi book, which is linked to his restaurant of the same name and comprises dishes which are “restaurant food” in their style.

I’ve had mixed success with the recipes I’ve tried but this dish was amazing (really amazing) and I have made it several times, both to share with friends and as a relatively simple but indulgent supper for David and I, served with crusty white bread to mop up the juices.

I’m a big fan of prawns combined with fennel and was keen to see how the extra aniseed flavours of the pernod and tarragon would oomph things up. Adding feta into the mix was new to me, although I think it is a classic Greek combination, so I was also intrigued by that.

All these flavours came together to create a dish that was wonderfully savoury and rich, but the other part of its deliciousness was down to having great prawns. These were full of flavour when you sucked the heads - this rich and intensely prawn flavour comes from the hepatopancreas, the digestive organ that in lobsters and crabs would be called tomalley and which, when you bite down and suck gently on the prawn head is released. Having said that, eating the prawn heads in this ways is entirely optional and a matter of taste – some people like to crunch through the whole thing, I prefer not to crunch and David doesn’t bother with the heads at all.

However, I do think it’s worth adding extra flavour with a quick prawn stock made from the middle shells that you remove (I used the third technique in this video to devein the prawns and remove the middle part of the shell, keeping the heads and tails intact).

To make the stock, I fried the discarded shells in a hot dry pan for a minute to toast them and then I added water, fennel trimmings, a small strip of lemon zest, a bay leaf and some peppercorns; once the water came to the boiI, I took it off the heat and then strained the stock just before I needed to use it.  

Nopi King Prawns with Pernod, Tarragon & Feta (Serves four*)

600g king prawns, shell removed and de-veined, heads and tails left on

1 tablespoon thyme leaves

1 large garlic clove, crushed

finely grated zest of 1 large lemon

115ml olive oil

120g feta, broken into 1 1/2 cm chunks

1/2 teaspoon dried chilli flakes

1 teaspoon dried oregano

4 baby fennel (or 1 large fennel, if unavailable), trimmed and cut lengthways into 1/2cm slices (300g)

180ml Pernod

150ml vegetable stock (abby note: or prawn stock)

70g unsalted butter

20g tarragon, roughly chopped                                                  

1/2 teaspoon sumac, to serve

coarse sea salt

Place the prawns in a bowl with the thyme, garlic, lemon zest, and 5 tablespoons/70 ml of oil. Mix to coat, cover, and leave in the fridge to marinate for at least an hour or, preferably, overnight.

Place the feta in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of oil and sprinkle over the chili flakes and oregano. Stir gently, cover, and keep in the fridge until ready to use. This can also be done a day ahead.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large sauté pan over high heat. Add the prawns and sear them for 1 to 2 minutes, turning them once or twice, until they are no longer translucent. Remove them from the pan and set aside while you add the fennel to the pan and fry for 6 to 7 minutes, stirring from time to time, until it starts to soften and gain a good bit of colour. Add the Pernod and cook for 1 minute, to reduce by half, then pour in the stock. Cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, until the liquid is reduced by two-thirds and you have about 1/2 cup/120 ml of liquid left in the pan. Reduce the heat to medium and add the butter, tarragon, and 1/3 teaspoon of salt. Stir to melt the butter, add the prawns, then stir for 2 minutes, until you get a smooth and glossy sauce and the prawns are just cooked through.

Divide the prawns and fennel among four plates, bowls, or individual copper pans that have been warmed up and top with the chunks of marinated feta. Serve at once, with a sprinkle of sumac.

*If you’re eating this as a main meal, for two people I’d recommend used 2/3 of the quantity of prawns but full quantities of the rest of the ingredients so you have lots of juices to mop up.