The Shrimp Of Southeast Ohio

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Growing up in coastal New England, I developed a keen love of fresh seafood, especially shrimp. After living in Southeast Ohio for more than 20 years, though, I’ve learned to reset my taste buds for our landlocked local specialties such as farm-raised pork, ramps and pawpaw.

Now I can add freshwater prawns to that list. Hocking College’s Fish Management and Aquaculture program has been raising them for a decade now, but I had my first chance to try this local shrimp last fall during their annual harvest.

The critters in question are Giant Malaysian River Prawn and are native to that Southeast Asian nation, according to Stacey Priest, who manages the college’s shrimp harvest. It takes about 120 days for the prawns to grow to maturity, when they peak at 3 to 5 inches in length.

In early fall, the students and staff harvest the shrimp and make them available for sale to the public both near Lake Snowden and at the Athens Farmers Market.

Cooler in hand, last September I joined the queue at the market and waited for my chance to snag a couple pounds of the crustaceans for a friend and me. As I placed my order, I eyeballed a small tank with a shrimp inside. It was much bigger than I realized, as the head and tail take up a lot of real estate.

Unlike the shrimp you might buy at a supermarket, these prawns are sold intact. For all of the shrimp I’ve eaten in my life – and I’ve shelled and deveined plenty – I’ve never had to remove the head. The fellow managing the shrimp orders kindly assured me that there’s nothing to fear. The shrimp die when set on ice, so I wouldn’t be dealing with wriggling critters back in my kitchen. He picked up a sample prawn, grasped the shell in one hand and quickly popped off the head with the other.

Back home in the kitchen, the shrimp prepped and ready, I decided to simply boil them in a pot of water and set them out with some cocktail sauce. Perhaps not the most sophisticated choice, but it was a quick and easy way to get them out to a room full of curious dinner guests. My friend, meanwhile, was home turning her prawns into a delightful shrimp scampi with pasta, and texted me the evidence of a feast enjoyed.

(If you’d like to see another option for what to do with local prawn, check out this recipe for Grilled Freshwater Scampi Pizza on John Gutekanst’s Pizza Goon blog http://pizzagoon.com/uncategorized/grilled-freshwater-scampi-pizza/.)

I picked up a prawn that had cooled to room temperature and bit in. I was struck by the freshness of the flavor – clean and sweet, and the flesh was firm. (I immediately regretted that I hadn’t hauled home more.) It had none of the "fishy seafood" taste that can put some folks off shrimp.

According to Priest, freshwater prawns have a naturally milder taste than their ocean brethren because they lack the iodine gland that gives sea shrimp their salty taste. Iodine also is the culprit behind most allergies, and so people who can’t dine on conventional shrimp may find luck with freshwater prawns.

The harvest begins at 9 a.m. Friday, Sept. 28. The public is invited to watch or even participate, Priest says. He advises anyone pitching in to wear old clothes and mud boots, as it’s dirty work. The public sale starts at noon, and the college also will be at the Athens Farmers Market at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 29. Priest expects that the harvest will yield 400 to 500 pounds of prawns this year.

Link to shrimp harvest info, including directions to site: http://www.hocking.edu/events/item/778