The very best cocktail isn’t a drink

Posted on July 28, 2006 by Aun

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.

About Aun Koh

Aun has always loved food and travel, passions passed down to him from his parents. This foundation, plus a background in media, pushed him to start Chubby Hubby in 2005. He loves that this site allows him to write about the things he adores--food, style, travel, his wife and his bouncing baby boy!

What Others Are Saying

  1. Anonymous July 28, 2006 at 3:43 pm

    The prawns look real good – succulent and juicy, and that’s just looks alone haha! I bet they taste that way too.

    And, lava lamps are cool! In my humble opinion, at least :)

    - Esther.

  2. Anonymous July 28, 2006 at 9:25 pm

    mm..looks very tasty. Do you shell the prawns before steaming, or steam with them on?

  3. May July 29, 2006 at 11:23 am

    I’ve long avoided prawn cocktail, scarred by childhood memories of semi-defrosted frozen shrimp bathed in Kraft mayo. But your post may well get me past my aversion. Really like the idea of putting fresh horseradish in the sauce.

  4. Wulfe July 29, 2006 at 12:06 pm

    incidentally, could I ask whether you have found the knack to making the prawns really succulent? I can’t really describe it, but its a kind of crunchiness that almost makes you wonder whether its prawn you’re eating. you get it only in really good Chinese restaurants… I don’t think its just a matter of freshness right? please do share the secret if you have! thanks! :)

  5. nico July 29, 2006 at 1:04 pm

    My grandmother wouldn’t let me feel ashamed of having prawn cocktails.

    We once went to a buffet dinner, and without thinking twice, she picked up the whole tray with well over 100 prawns in it and brought it to our table. Then, she called the waiter and asked him to bring extra sauce.

  6. risingsunofnihon July 30, 2006 at 12:11 am

    I agree that I think prawn cocktail became so common that it lost a little of its prestige. Rather than being something that we all admit to loving, it became an item that popped up on every menu. Good for you for bringing about a prawn cocktail revival!

  7. Anonymous July 31, 2006 at 10:16 am

    Boy 2,000 + US , More than I can afford for a stove . But I would love to have one . Great Blog !!!

  8. kishko July 31, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    what you said is so true! people are shy to say it, but they love a good prawn cocktail. it’s on the menu of my summer restaurant gig and it sells like hotcakes. i am serving it up with a cross between Frank Stitts recipe and the Marie Rose sauce. only thing is, i can’t even get bottled horseradish here, let alone fresh product!

  9. Jeanne July 31, 2006 at 5:59 pm

    Mmmm, I love prawn cocktail – and my other secret favourite is its cousin avocado Ritz! It is a pity that these dishes have fallen so far out of fashion, but as with bubble skirts and batwing sleeves, the further the fall from grace, the bigger the comeback…

    Thanks for spearheading the revolution! ;-)

  10. The Guilty Carnivore August 1, 2006 at 4:42 am

    I love my shrimp cocktail baja mexican style -marinated in almost a gazpacho style liquid (with plenty of lime), topped with avocado and served with salty fried tortilla chips.

    But it’s also hard to deny the classic – except when it’s done with bay shrimp and swimming in way too much cloying cocktail sauce.

  11. anni August 2, 2006 at 8:33 pm

    Love your accoutrements! Do you look for these specifically for your dishes?

    Most times I’m inspired by the vessel that will hold my creations!

    Love your posts and photography! I’ve learned that the best results of a job is the quality of your tools!

    Tootles,
    Anni :-)

  12. Anonymous August 6, 2006 at 9:51 pm

    I enjoy reading our blog! Great pictures and recipes. I am keen to get a steam oven… how’s your experience been with this technology? Ever considered Sharp Healsio which is cheaper than Miele’s? Thanks.

  13. Chubby Hubby August 7, 2006 at 9:16 am

    Anonymous: We just got the Miele oven. It’s quite amazing. We like most that it is highly programmable and that food never gets soggy. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it looks amazing.

  14. Brad Turner December 21, 2011 at 9:00 am

    It looks nice and I’ll try it, but I’m dumb so I need to know how many prawns and how many the advised ingredients will serve.

    You see, I’m a hopeless cook and need supremely detailed guidance!

    Can someone please advise!

    Brad

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