Prawn Cocktail – 20th Century Enigma

Prawn Cocktail Canapes
Prawn Cocktail Canapés

Back in the 1970s, the dawn of dining out, the prawn cocktail ruled supreme as the starter of choice and remained so well into the 1980s.  In terms of getting a meal off the ground (perhaps not a great analogy!) a well-presented prawn cocktail absolutely looked the part, and set the taste buds tingling in a way that few other starters did in readiness for the next course.

It was in the early 80s that I stated making my own cocktail  (or 1,000 Island?) sauce, and indeed made it so often that my little daughter referred to it (and still does, although not so little these days) simply as ‘Daddy’s Sauce’.  I recall one occasion discussing for ages with a colleague exactly how much lemon juice there should or should not be in it, such was its hold.  The prawn cocktail was a significant part of almost any dining experience, and indeed of life itself.

And then suddenly it wasn’t!  As dining out became something people did more regularly for leisure rather than to celebrate a special occasion, and many more restaurants opened offering what seemed like an infinity of clever dining ideas, so the prawn cocktail (along with the Black Forest Gateau, Steak Diane, etc.) started to feel very passée and old-fashioned.

Asking for one began to make one feel a bit oikish.  It may be that the people who used to enjoy them now hankered after more exotic foods like Thai, Cajun or Indian. I’m sure the PC remained on the menus of older establishments, but new, trendy restaurants wouldn’t be seen dead offering one.

But then in 1997 I came across this book

Prawn Cocktail Years

filled with recipes for all the old favourites, and I realised that I hadn’t had a prawn cocktail in nearly a decade and it was like rediscovering an old friend.  I updated my recipe  and started making them again (although seldom order one in a restaurant – mine are just so much better) and now, nearly 20 years later, they’re still a firm favourite . . . . .

. . .and so versatile.  Yes, you can still serve them individually as a starter, but the components served on a little gem lettuce leaf (as above) makes a terrific cocktail party canapé, or stick the whole lot in a big bowl for a wonderful summer salad.

The sauce recipe I use now is based on Delia Smith’s but the quantities vary from batch to batch making each one a new experience.  It’s also because of Delia that I include avocado and once you start doing that, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it.

It was my birthday yesterday and I could think of nothing I fancied more as a starter (home-made of course) than a mouth-wateringly marvellous prawn cocktail – the King of starters.

What is not cooked, but not raw either?

Tuesday 13 January 2016


just before Christmas we were going to a Gaucho restaurant for a family celebration and on looking at the menu online, a dish called Tuna Ceviche was spotted bringing the inevitable question, “What’s Ceviche?” (pronounced ceh-vee-chay – a bit like a sneeze!)

Now, having been to Panama on business on a number of occasions, I knew the answer to that question, which is that it’s a highly delicious way of preparing fish in South and Latin America.  but it’s slightly enigmatic in that the fish is neither cooked in any kind of real sense, nor raw like sushi/sashimi.

Instead, the fish is marinated in lime juice with some garlic, onion and chilli added and it ‘cooks’ in the acidity of the lime juice.  It’s a kind of South American smoked salmon but instead of smoking the raw fish,  it’s marinated.

But this ‘cooking’ process is where the similarity ends because while smoking also preserves the fish and gives it a longer life, albeit in the fridge, marinating in lime juice does not and so ceviche must be made fresh every time you want to use it and consumed within 24 hours of making.

Which means that if I make it tonight and leave it to marinate in the fridge overnight it’s OK to eat any time tomorrow, but not thereafter.  Leave it in the fridge for another day and you’ll be hard put to open your fridge door for the smell!

So, because I had had and liked ceviche, it had been on my cooking ‘hit-list’ for some time but I’d never quite got round to it, so it seemed to be a good time to try.

It is traditionally and classically made (in Panama, at any rate) with sea bass (‘corvina’ in Spanish) but can of course be made with any good quality fresh, raw fish as in the Tuna Ceviche at the Gaucho restaurant which started this whole thing off.

It proved remarkably simple using a very sharp knife to slice some fresh sea bass very thinly and we all liked it so much that we elevated it to our starter for Christmas Day.

On that occasion it was served with a really lovely salad/salsa made with finely diced avocado and cucumber, which, as it happens, makes a very good vegetarian alternative to the ceviche.  As it is also dressed with lime juice, it goes remarkably well with the ceviche.

Avocado cucumber salsa
Avocado and cucumber salsa

Nothing is ever more ‘over’ than Christmas

Friday 1 January 2016

Christmas Dinner 2015

Happy New Year to one and all!

Someone once said to me early one January many years ago, “There’s nothing ever more ‘over’ than Christmas,” and I know exactly what he meant.  We spend ages working up to it – partying, shopping, wrapping, decorating, writing cards and labels, preparing, cooking, partying again, and then suddenly on or about the second day of January, as we finish clearing up after New Year’s Eve and dismantle the tree, it’s all over with nothing left to remind us of it all but the next credit card statement, which is usually pretty painful.

Much as I love Christmas and everything associated with it,  my favourite part is the actual ‘Christmas Dinner’ – not necessarily the main meal on Christmas Day, but on whichever day, the meal we share with loved ones seated at a table groaning under the weight of food, and it has to be traditional, i.e. turkey or goose, served with ham, stuffing, roast potatoes, and a selection of vegetables, and followed with Christmas Pudding and lashings of gloriously unctuous double cream.

And the food has to be on the table and not plated up in the kitchen with the heavily laden plates delivered to the table for consumption feebly excused by ‘The table’s not big enough’ or ‘Dad’s not very good at carving’.  That’s not good enough – the table is always big enough (use smaller dinner plates if you have to as there’s always ‘seconds’) and if Dad can’t carve properly then he should learn, as that’s as much part of being a parent as changing nappies or reading bedtime stories.

Anyway, enough of my soapbox for now!

Croque Forestier
Croque Forestier

Just before Christmas we met up with some friends in a Paul Coffee Shop and had a gloriously luxurious snack with a coffee.  We are all familiar (aren’t we?) with the classic French toasted cheese and ham sandwich, the Croque Monsieur, which if topped with a fried egg becomes a Croque Madame.  Well this is a Vegetarian variant on that, but don’t be put off by the ‘V’ word.

With a bit of research it turns out to be not properly French at all but something created/invented/dreamed up in a French restaurant in, of all places, New York.  Well, to hell with authenticity, this sandwich is lovely – all rich and creamy. With the recipe in place, I can enjoy this any time I choose, and now so can you!

Once again, Happy New Year