A little while ago, my wife S and I took on our very first catering job. For anyone who missed it, I wrote about the experience here. One of the (many) things we made and served that night was a prawn cocktail. I really like prawn (or shrimp) cocktail. As do, as I’ve discovered, most people. In fact, I don’t think I know anyone who can honestly say they don’t like prawn cocktail. Many, though, are afraid to admit this publicly. Sadly, for the past decade or so and for inexplicable reasons, prawn cocktail has been shunned. Maybe it’s because it was so overdone (i.e. served way too often) in the 1960s and 1970s and maybe it’s because so many people made awful renditions, that the dish took on connotations of kitsch — and not in an “awwww, how cute” kind of way but more of an “eeeeew, what was he thinking?” way. If you were a restaurateur, putting a prawn cocktail on your menu immediately gave your establishment a veneer of cheesiness that was hard to shake. Similarly, serving prawn cocktail at home made people giggle and gossip about your lack of sophistication. Which is, of course, hogwash.
Anyone who’s ever had a really good prawn cocktail, with really succulent fresh prawns, served chilled with a good, fresh homemade sauce knows that prawn cocktail can be divine.
Fortunately, as in fashion, food trends seem to come in cycles. What was out not so long ago can be suddenly très au courant today. And just as high-waisted pencil skirts are suddenly chic again, so too is the prawn cocktail. Which is fantastic. Both for me and for the legions of secret admirers out there who no longer need to wrinkle their noses when what they really want to do is dig in.
To make a great prawn cocktail, S and I like to steam our prawns with some spring onions, ginger and Chinese cooking wine — which is, admittedly, quite Asian. Some chefs will boil theirs in court bouillon (with the shells on), then peel them and chill them. This works well also. What I don’t recommend is boiling them in plain water. Instead of the cooking process enhancing the prawns’ flavors, this does quite the opposite. S and I are also fortunate in that we’ve become proud new owners of a Miele (combi) steam oven, which makes steaming prawns as easy as pushing a button (actually, pushing 4 buttons, but who’s counting?).
The sauce is of utmost importance as well. Traditionally, many people serve their prawn cocktail with a Marie Rose sauce (which is also known as Russian Dressing). The main ingredients of this sauce are mayonnaise, ketchup and (sometimes) brandy. There are a ton of variations for this in dozens of cookbooks and all over the Internet. It’s easy to make, which makes buying it bottled a real culinary crime.
S and I don’t use Marie Rose sauce though. The sauce we like to use, which we’ve discovered recently, comes from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill. I love this book. It’s very well written and has gorgeous pictures. I have yet to eat at Highlands Bar and Grill, but my good friend and famous foodie Johnny Apple tells me it is one of the best restaurants in the United States. In fact, he’s insisted that if I ever make my way back to the USA for a visit and want to experience really good Southern food, I can’t leave without a meal at Stitt’s establishment.
Stitt’s prawn cocktail sauce is delicious. His secret is fresh horseradish, which gives it a lovely kick. It’s a spicy, tangy sauce that’s amazing when cold. And it works with a variety of things. Mix it with some well-chilled, steamed prawns and some crisp iceberg lettuce and you have a perfect prawn cocktail.
Now, if only someone could make lava lamps trendy again…
Frank Stitt’s Prawn Cocktail Sauce
1 cup Heinz ketchup
1/4 cup freshly grated horseradish, or to taste
juice of 1 lemon, or to taste
juice of 1 lime, or to taste
3 shakes Worcestershire sauce
2 shakes hot sauce, such as Tabasco
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Combine all these ingredients in a small bowl. Mix and keep in the fridge.