Although the dish is often laughed off or even served ironically, thanks to such a deluge of horrendous versions, the classic prawn cocktail remains one of the most popular Christmas starters in the UK.
A must have dinner party dish from the 1960s through to the ‘80s, prawn cocktail once oozed mid-century sophistication. And while prawn cocktail has remained popular, it’s rarely admired with the same fervour as yesteryear. A shame, considering the base ingredients provide so much opportunity to produce something far greater than the sum of its parts. Sure, shrivelled pre-cooked prawns with ketchup and mayonnaise is dated, unappetising, profoundly unexciting; but when each element is elevated, a perfect prawn cocktail can be a standout dish worthy of your dinner table, not just at Christmas, but all year round.
Although often believed to have originated in the UK, synonymous with TV chef Fanny Craddock and Berni Inns, the British version is in fact a watered down version of the dish more likely to have originated in the United States of America. Some sources suggest the dish comes from Mexico, while others believe a miner in California invented the premise for the dish in a bar, using oysters instead of prawns. The famous serving suggestion of a long stemmed glass is also said to have originated during the 1920s, when prohibition rendered the glassware practically useless.
But regardless of origin, American prawn cocktail recipes typically use seafood sauce, which often contains ketchup or chilli sauce enlivened with a nip of horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, and Tabasco. Tabasco is occasionally used to liven up Marie Rose sauce, popular here, but it’s often a mere mixture of mayonnaise and tomato ketchup. Unpleasingly sweeter and significantly less flavoursome.
This prawn cocktail recipe borrows elements from cocktail sauce, but also uses the blended pulp of fresh tomatoes roasted until blistered, a good-quality aioli (you can make your own aioli or mayonnaise, but it’ll cause unnecessary stress unless prepared in advance), Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, and a drizzle of pan juices leftover from frying the prawns. While pre-cooked prawns are popular, they’re fairly bland. Instead, it’s worth using shell-on prawns (frozen are fine, providing they’re thawed safely) and quickly pan frying them in a splash of oil with either Cajun or Old Bay seasoning, fresh parsley, and a squeeze of lemon that’s burnt while the pan is heating up. The key is to extract as much flavour from each ingredient as is possible without resorting to extremities.
One classic element, however, is the inclusion of severely underrated iceberg lettuce, which brings a nice level of crunch to this perfect prawn cocktail recipe. Optionally top with a small spoonful of caviar or other fish roe (I like herring roe, which is both affordable and delicious).
- 20 raw, shell-on tiger prawns deveined
- 500 g good quality tomatoes
- 1 lemon
- 2 tsp Old Bay or Cajun seasoning
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tbsp fresh parsley chopped
- 4-6 dashes Worcestershire sauce
- 2-4 dashes Tabasco
- Aioli to taste (approx. 250g)
- ½ iceberg lettuce shredded
- Olive oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Herring roe or caviar optional to garnish
- Preheat the oven to 220C/Gas 7.
- Begin by making the tomato element of the sauce. Cut the tomatoes into quarters and place on a baking sheet, skin side down. Drizzle with olive oil and generously season with both salt and pepper. Place in the oven and cook for 30-45 minutes until the tomatoes have dried out slightly and the skin is blistered. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
- While the tomatoes are cooling, cut a lemon in half and place in a large non-stick pan, flesh side down, while the pan heats. Continue to cook over high heat until the lemon flesh touching the pan begins to burn. Remove from the pan and set aside, then decrease the heat to medium. Pour in a splash of oil, followed by the Old Bay or Cajun seasoning. Heat for 30 seconds or so, stirring constantly, then add the prawns to the pan, followed by the chopped parsley. Cook for two minutes on medium heat, then turn over and cook for another minute or two until cooked through. Remove from the heat and squeeze the juice form the burnt lemon over the prawns. Transfer the cooked prawns to a plate for cooling and save the residual contents of the pan.
- Once the prawns have cooled, remove the shells and cut half into small chunks, while keeping half of the prawns whole. Return to a medium mixing bowl.
- Once the tomatoes have cooled, add to a blender (or chop finely) and pass through a sieve. Mix this with the aioli, adding a tablespoon at a time and tasting often to find the right amount. The colour should be a light, pastel pink. Then add the Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, a tablespoon or two of the leftover juices from the prawn pan, and salt and pepper if necessary.
- Spoon the sauce over the prawns, adding just enough to prevent the prawn cocktail from becoming overly watery. Mix as you go and add more as necessary.
- To serve, half fill four glasses or bowls with shredded iceberg lettuce, followed by a generous scoop of the prawn cocktail, topped with a small smattering of smoked paprika and an optional spoonful of herring roe or caviar. Serve with buttered brown bread and ideally an ice cold white wine or a glass of champagne.