The king of the species must be our langoustines, native to the west coast of Scotland. They are sweet, tender and succulent - or they should be, if fresh and not overcooked. Also known as Dublin Bay prawns, once they've had their heads chopped off they can be called scampi. So that is already three names for the same thing.
At the other end of the scale of delectability come those bags of small, unnaturally pink prawns, which are only ever to be found frozen. I believe these awful specimens owe nothing to nature but were manufactured, most probably in a factory somewhere. They are just not worth buying, as they have both the taste and texture of cardboard - and that is doing cardboard a disservice.
LANGOUSTINES WITH GARLIC, PARSLEY AND LEMON BUTTER
You can use Benecol instead of butter - it tries hard to taste like it and very nearly succeeds.
SERVES 4, OR 6 AS A FIRST COURSE
For the butter mixture:
8oz/225g butter or Benecol
Finely grated rind of 1 lemon, very well washed and dried before grating
2oz/50g curly parsley, chopped finely
2 fat cloves of garlic, skinned and chopped very finely
1/2 teaspoon salt
a dash of Tabasco
Buy the best, largest langoustines you can find. Break off the heads. Have a very large pan of boiling water and plunge in no more than five langoustines at one time. Count to 35 seconds, then scoop them out and lay them on a plastic tray while you continue to cook the rest.
With a sharp knife, cut up the flat, clear, ridged side of each cooked langoustine and open them out flat, so that they can be eaten with ease using just a fork, removing the need for finger bowls.
To make the butter mixture, put all the ingredients into a saucepan over moderate heat and cook until the butter has just melted. Spoon over the opened langoustines, or serve divided into small pots and place these at the side on each serving plate, for guests to use as a dip.
PERFECT PRAWN SALAD
This makes a good main course or, in smaller servings, it can be a starter. Use any prawns you like, but if you can get langoustines, do; they are so much nicer. Follow the cooking procedure as described in the previous recipe.
36 small langoustines or 11/2 lb/675g other peeled prawns
4 avocados, deskinned, stones removed, and the flesh chopped and mixed with the juice of 2 limes
8oz/225g cherry tomatoes, washed and dried and each cut in half
1 teaspoon very finely diced red onion
3oz/75g watercress, snipped with scissors
6 rashers smoked or unsmoked streaky bacon, grilled till crisp then broken into small bits
For the dressing:
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon strong soya sauce
a grinding of dried chilli - optional
a good grinding of black pepper (no salt is needed because of the soya sauce)
about 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Combine all the ingredients for the dressing, mixing very well. In a bowl, assemble the cooked langoustines and all the other salad ingredients, then mix in the dressing. (I use my hands to do this, because it is more thorough and more gentle than using a large spoon - you don't want to squish the soft avocado chunks and spoil the appearance of your salad.)
Divide between six plates, making a small mound of the dressed salad in the middle of each.
SPICY COCONUT PRAWNS
This makes a wonderful main course. I like to serve it with plain boiled Basmati rice and a mixed leaf salad, or with sugar snap peas.
4 fat garlic cloves, skinned and chopped very finely
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
Combine the garlic, salt and turmeric and mix this thoroughly into the prawns. Cover with clingfilm, and leave in a cool place for two hours.
For the spicy coconut sauce:
10 black peppercorns
a grating of nutmeg
scant 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ground red chillis
6oz/170g shredded coconut - look for this in good supermarkets, delicatessens or Indian supermarkets
4 tablespoons groundnut oil
4 onions, skinned and very thinly sliced
1x 15oz/400g can coconut milk - shake it well before opening
2 limes, quartered, to serve
Put the peppercorns, nutmeg, ground cloves, coriander seeds, half cinnamon stick, cumin seeds and chillis into a wide pan - a sauté pan is ideal - and dry fry, stirring from time to time, over moderate heat, for about ten minutes. Then remove and throw away the cinnamon stick, and pound the toasted spices in a mortar and pestle.
Meanwhile, dry fry the shredded coconut in the same pan for about five to seven minutes, until lightly toasted. Scoop into a bowl.
Heat the oil in the same pan and fry the thinly sliced onions over a moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until they are completely soft - this will take about 15 minutes.
Add in the garlic and turmeric-flavoured prawns, the ground spices and the toasted coconut, and cook, raising the heat a little under the pan. Stir in the coconut milk and let the liquid simmer gently for a few minutes. Serve with Basmati rice on a warmed serving dish, and garnish with pieces of lime, to squeeze over the prawns.