Bugs or scallops in a tarragon butter

You must learn from your mistakes. It was during one special dinner that a disastrous series of events, interspersed by one or two sacre bleus, led me to one of the most delectable treats I have tasted. Certainly the meal was the best part of an hour behind schedule, but the result was remarkable.

By great good fortune, I had came across a windfall of Moreton Bay bugs just before the big day. The bugs — often called the bulldozers of the deep so exquisitely designed are they — were delectably fresh, not alive, unfortunately, but next best. Bugs have a durability beyond most creatures of the deep. They last much longer than most crustaceans and so are an ideal Friday purchase for use on any day of the weekend. Even Monday. Don’t try the same with prawns. Buy prawns and eat them quickly.

My idea with the bugs was simple. Hit them hard in the pan, toss them into a red-hot oven, cover them with butter mixed with tarragon, and roast them very, very quickly. It didn’t quite turn out that way.

The oven went off without anybody knowing it, and when the time of service was expected, the bugs were sitting cold and wan all over the bottom of the oven.

I turned on the oven flat to the boards, and waited and hoped. This was not one of those modern numbers which goes from zero to red-hot in a flash. This was marginally ahead of a wood-burner, marginally. After several inspections, I noted something quite extraordinary. As the oven slowly warmed up, the butter melted gently and the bugs seemed to cook lazily, blending into the butter.

It was too puzzling for me. I took one of the bugs from the dish, and was knocked over by the (i) buttery texture of the seafood; (ii) superb blend of flavour of the tarragon and the bugs; and (iii) the ripping, pungent flavour of the sauce which had not, surprise, surprise, separated into ghastly oil, flecked with powdery particles of ‘milk’.

Quite simply, these were the best flavoured Moreton Bay bugs I have ever tasted. And the dish can be reproduced without the tension, by starting with a low oven and cooking the bugs very slowly.

about 3 medium bugs per person — Bugs vary in size so much. You can use prawns, yabbies, scallops or even mussels for this dish; just give them less time in the oven. Prawns are less dense than bugs and take less time to cook, whether in this way or on top of the stove. If you use scallops, switch herbs to chives; for mussels, use basil.

at least a bunch of tarragon, the leaves plucked from the stalk — Tarragon is a summer herb, but it is still readily available in winter these days. There are smart herb growers in the Northern Territory and Queensland. Tarragon is unquestionably the best match for this dish. You should grow some. It is easy to grow, and sprouts every year. Make sure you buy French tarragon, never Russian.

1 heads broccoli, each stem cut from the main stalk

150g butter at room temperature

handful of beans per person

handful of sugar peas per person


The bugs are very difficult to remove from their shells. Their armour and sharp-edged defence system has been around for zillions of years. Grin and bear the cuts as you slit with a knife down the guts and rip the armour away, leaving the translucent flesh. Eliminate the waste system.


Prepare the tarragon. Be patient. It takes time to tear the stems away from the main stalk. When this monster has been done, chop the leaves roughly.


Work the butter in your hands in a bowl, until the butter softens. Its ideal texture should be like face cream. Once there, work in the tarragon. Return to the fridge until firm.


Heat the oven to 180°C. Put the bugs on a baking tray and cover with about three-quarters of the butter, separated into nuts. Set aside.


Ditto the broccoli, with the other quarter of butter, in a separate baking tray.


Boil some salted water and quickly cook the beans and the sugar peas. Once cooked, refresh them under cold water and set them aside for re-heating. Keep some salted water boiling on the stove.


Put the bugs in the oven on the top shelf, and place the broccoli underneath. Cook both for about 20 minutes. The bugs will be pure-white and swimming in tarragon butter; the broccoli, also swimming freely, should just give to the knife. Taste each to be sure. In fact, taste on the way through. Your oven temperature might be lying. Twenty minutes could be 15 or 30. By the way, this is a wonderful way to cook broccoli for any sort of accompaniment.


Moments before the bugs are ready, re-heat the peas/beans, toss them into a bowl, and cover them with the broccoli and butter sauce.


Serve the peas/beans/broccoli in your best bowl in the middle of the table.


Serve the bugs as they are, or over freshly made pasta, or with steamed rice, or, for a taste of heaven, on crunchy toast.

WINE: Bugs and good chardonnay. If possible, look for something with some age on it. A Tyrell’s Vat 47, 1984 would be stunning here.