Anyone old enough to have been eating out from the 1970s or ’80s seeing a prawn cocktail recipe today may well scoff a little, at first. Flashbacks of limp, defrosted prawns draped over the rim of a martini glass (a “clever” reference to an actual cocktail) recall the days when the dish was so everywhere that bad versions were inevitable.
The prawn cocktail is the most over-abused restaurant dish, says Simon Hopkinson, co-author of The Prawn Cocktail Years (Penguin, 1997). What was an exciting dish, with “a direct lineage to Escoffier,” quickly became a classic, and then a cliche. But, “Everybody, but everybody loves prawn cocktail,” says Hopkinson, and, done well, it’s a special dish. Its beauty is partly in its simplicity: soft prawns, a tangy slosh of sauce and a crisp leaf.
Lesley Russell’s canape prawn cocktail recipe is one of the good ones. The secret to a good prawn cocktail, she says, is “the contrast between crisp and soft: freshness is key”. Choose Australian prawns, and to crisp up your lettuce, wash it, if need be, then keep it in an airtight container in the fridge for several hours. The sauce can also be made ahead of time and kept in the fridge, which leaves you pretty much hands-free when it’s time to serve.