Prawn cocktail can be a delicious starter, yet so often it disappoints. Why? Well, poor raw materials, short-cuts in the manufacture, and insufficient attention to detail mostly. We’ve all had the watery and miserable excuse for prawns, soggy lettuce and cocktail sauce straight out of a jar, but it can be so different with a little thought.
Why do we accept such awful food? One reason is nostalgia: the almost mythical status of prawn cocktail as the archetypal 70s starter, to be followed by overcooked steak with frozen chips and frozen peas, then Black Forest gateau, also defrosted. But for some reason people remember this crap fondly. I hope and trust we have become much more demanding these days!
You may ask why my version forsakes the usual Atlantic prawns for a combination of the little and large of tiger prawns and Morecambe Bay shrimps (the tiny ones, real shrimps as opposed to the American word for prawns.) The answer is that they contribute different things. The tiger prawns hanging off the outside of the glass for the diner to peel provide entertainment and a good meaty texture. The shrimps (the principle ingredient of potted shrimps) are easy to eat, packed with flavour and work well with the cocktail sauce. However, there is no reason why you have to follow my suggestion – choose all tiger prawns, or indeed any other sort of prawns if you want, but do remember that quality counts and to dry the prawns thoroughly before use!
- Raw tiger prawns in the shell – head, legs and vein removed – enough to hang from the outside of the dishes or glasses used to serve
- Peeled Morecambe Bay shrimps (small and brown)
- 1 batch of home-made mayonnaise
- Good-quality tomato ketchup (eg. Wilkins & Son)
- Fresh lemon juice
- Chilli sauce
- Smoked paprika or cayenne pepper
- Dash of worcester sauce
- Salt & pepper
- Crisp & tasty lettuce leaves, shredded
- Cucumber, ideally wafer sliced and soaked for a few minutes in sweetened spirit vinegar
Take a heavy cast-iron frying pan, wipe with oil and heat until smoking. Add tiger prawns and sear on both sides til pink. Part-peel the prawns to make it slightly easier to eat, then put them aside to cool.
Put sufficient mayonnaise to make a big dollop for each diner. Add the equivalent of a teaspoon of ketchup per person, salt, pepper, paprika and/or cayenne, a dash of chilli and worcester, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Mix well until the cocktail sauce is smooth, thick and a delicate coral pink in colour.
In each glass, add a small bed of lettuce and a few thin slices of the lightly picked cucumber. Arrange a decent portion of shrimps on top, then squeeze some lemon juice. Spoon some cocktail sauce over the shrimps and top with a light dusting of paprika or cayenne. Finally, hang some tiger prawns over the edge of the glass. Serve with a section of lemon and some brown bread and butter.