Everybody loves prawn cocktail. We even tolerate a bad one - and there are plenty of those. But the universal appeal of the prawn cocktail can be compared with another (more modern) ubiquitous favourite. The McDonald's hamburger is also addictive. The bun is ersatz and sweet, the meat is hardly specialist steak, the cheese is as far away from Farmhouse Cheddar as you can get, and the pickle and ketchup are, well... just pickle and ketchup. However, the combination of all these components results in something so tasty we are hooked.
Prawn cocktail is exactly the same: the shredded lettuce which sits at the bottom of the dish, together with the pappy pink prawn in its sweet pink sauce, somehow combine to deliver a dish which contradicts all the rules that constitute fine cooking.
So it comes as no surprise that prawn cocktail remains the number one favourite "starter" everywhere, from the plastic-clad menu of the cafe in the high street to the vellum carte in the dining room of the five- star hotel - although there it may well still be referred to as Cocktail de Crevettes. In fact, prawn cocktail kicks off the triumphant trilogy that remains, according to opinion polls, the enduring dining-out choice of a huge slice of the Great British public. Prawn Cocktail, Steak Garni and Black Forest Gateau is still It.
It's easy to laugh this off as yet another example of our lack of adventure and wimpishness where food is concerned. But is there more to it than that? Is there a reason these dishes have become so firmly embedded in the public consciousness?
One could hypothesise endlessly, but it must surely be true that these are classic dishes which have stood the test of time. And if one bothers to prepare these and other dishes that predate the whim of fashion in food, then it is a revelation how good they can be. Dishes such as Spaghetti Bolognese, Chicken Kiev, Quiche Lorraine and Coq au Vin; dishes that were once exciting but have been slung out like old lovers while we carelessly flirt with the flavour of the month. Our mission is to rehabilitate these old lags which have become scapegoats in a country now obsessed with culinary novelty.
The dishes we have in mind have no particular heritage. Some have their roots in Escoffier's classic cuisine, others are British nursery fare or greasy spoon stalwarts. More often than not, however, the recipes in question are what used to be called "Continental" food that was served in the plethora of bistros and restaurants that sprung up in post-war, post-rationing Britain.
What all these dishes have in common is the potential for being truly excellent. Forget your prejudices for a moment and imagine freshly shelled prawns in a carefully made cocktail sauce, served on crisp, shredded lettuce with a little cucumber and spring onion. The steak that follows should be cooked to a crisp on the outside, pink and tender on the inside and eaten with properly made chips and the best Dijon mustard. The gateau is a moist cake made with dark, bitter chocolate filled with kirsch-drenched cherries and whipped cream.
A gin and tonic says a lot about you as a person. It is more than just a drink, it is an attitude of mind. It goes with a prawn cocktail, a grilled Dover sole, Melba toast and Black Forest Gateau - Nico Ladenis, `My Gastronomy'
Prawn cocktail, steak garni and Black Forest Gateau has been the favourite British meal out for as long as one can remember. It's not surprising. It's delicious. The only trouble is, as with any popular food, familiarity breeds contempt.
Take that other ubiquitous Saturday-nighter, the Indian meal. Think of the countless times you've been served up greasy bhajis, dried-out tandoori and watery dhal, whereas you can probably count on one hand the occasions when the bhajis have been beautiful, the tandoori terrific and the dhal delectable. It's simply a question of good and bad cooking.
So it seems a shame that the Great British Meal Out has been singled out for such enduring ridicule. And, talking of ridicule, what on earth is wrong with grilled Dover sole?
Prawn cocktail, serves 2
You shouldn't muck about too much with a prawn cocktail. Starting at the bottom of the dish, you need the heart of a good lettuce, not the outside leaves. Any fresh lettuce will do but the heart of something like a Little Gem or similar would be most suitable. Shredding the leaves (chefs say chiffonade) is traditional and there's good reason for it: who wants whole lettuce leaves getting in the way of the prawns and their pink sauce?
Freshly boiled prawns from the British seaside are rare today, which is a pity, so the next best thing is whole cooked prawns. They will often have been frozen but their quality, once shelled and decapitated, is surprisingly good. Frankly, if you wish to use those tasteless, bulk-frozen little pink commas, then you have only yourself to blame.
Home-made mayonnaise is clearly ideal here but home-made tomato sauce is definitely not: the taste of fresh tomato does not a prawn cocktail make. However hard one tries, it is not possible to replicate the taste of Heinz tomato ketchup. No other will do. And as for the gin and tonic you're going to drink with it, try Tanqueray - it's stronger than Gordon's.
200g cooked, whole, shell-on prawns, peeled (reserve two, unpeeled, for garnish)
the heart of 1 large Little Gem lettuce, finely shredded
1 spring onion, white part only, very finely chopped
1 heaped tbsp cucumber, peeled, de-seeded and finely diced
4-5 tbsp of home-made mayonnaise
1 tbsp tomato ketchup
2-3 shakes of Tabasco
1 tsp Cognac
tiny squeeze of lemon juice
Divide the lettuce between two dishes, sprinkle over the spring onion and cucumber and pile the prawns loosely on top. Mix the mayonnaise, ketchup, Tabasco, Cognac and lemon juice together to make the regulation pink. Spoon the sauce over the prawns and allow it to trickle between them. Dust sparingly with paprika. Hang one prawn over the side of each dish and attach a small wedge of lemon.
Perhaps the reason that "a nice piece of steak" has always been the number one choice for dinner out is that restaurant kitchens cook steaks better than we can at home. For one thing, they have better equipment - well-seasoned grills, which get very hot, deep deep- fryers and sharp knives - as well as sauces and garnishes, all at the ready. And they have waiters, too.
Have you ever tried to cook steak at home for six people? Two medium- rare, one rare, two well-done, and one cremated? And six portions of chips? Steak at home is a meal for two. If you want to feed six people with a nice piece of beef, then roast it.
There are two successful ways to cook a steak at home: grilling and frying in butter. When grilling, you need to use one of those cast-iron, stove-top, ribbed grill pans - using an overhead grill simply results in hot meat. These increasingly familiar pans must be extremely hot (this will take several minutes) before the meat gets anywhere near them. When stove-top grilling, it's the meat rather than the pan that is oiled. Conversely - and this may sound obvious - a fried steak should be gently cooked in constantly sizzling butter.
Preferred steaks for grilling are the more robust sirloin and rump, while tender fillet seems better for gentle frying, its texture turning meltingly soft and luscious.
Whether to season before or after? Advance seasoning extracts moisture and prevents the meat from developing that fantastically good charred and crusted surface. Interestingly, however, when cooking buttery little fillets, they don't taste anywhere near as good if they haven't been seasoned first; perhaps it's something to do with the less aggressive mode of cooking.
And so to timing. It is difficult to give exact measurements here. Finger prodding is best. With a thick, rare steak, a slight indentation is left in the surface; medium-rare gives but finally resists; medium is definitely getting bouncier and with medium-well the texture of the meat is becoming noticeably tight. Shoe leather comes to mind when describing well-done.
As far as size is concerned, this is entirely a matter for you. However, thick is best, as here one can control the degree of cooking far better than with a thinner piece of meat. 175g-225g is a nice weight for a good steak.
Note. It is always a good idea to allow steaks - or any meat for that matter - to rest for a few minutes before serving. And, anyway, this will neatly co-ordinate with the final crisping of the chips.
Rather than use that inefficient overhead grill, you will get a far better result if you cook the "garni" in a hot oven. It is quite extraordinary how many times one encounters barely warm, supposedly "grilled" tomatoes, with mushrooms that manage somehow to be both shrivelled and almost raw. These are a feature of the cheap hotel breakfast buffet - you know, the type of buffet that is supposed to be for your convenience but is, in fact, for theirs.
2 tomatoes, halved horizontally
2 flat black mushrooms
a little melted butter
salt and pepper
Brush the tomatoes and mushrooms with a little butter and season. Place in a small baking dish and cook in a hot oven (400F/200C/Gas mark 6) for 20 minutes or until the tomatoes are blistered and the mushrooms sizzling. Garnish with cress.
Have your potatoes peeled, chipped, washed, dried and part-cooked before you even think about preparing the steaks. Here is the best way to go about it:
2 large floury potatoes, peeled
groundnut oil for deep-frying
Cut the potatoes lengthways into your preferred thickness. Then wash them under cold running water, until the water is clear of starch, drain in a colander and wrap them in a tea-towel to dry.
Half-fill a chip pan or electric deep-fat fryer with oil and heat to 300F/185C. Cook the chips in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan, and fry for 6-7 minutes. They should be cooked through but only lightly coloured. Lift them out with the basket and allow them to drain. If you're improvising and don't have a chip pan, use a slotted spoon. They can be held in this state for a few hours.
For the final crisping, increase the temperature of the oil to 360F/185C and continue cooking for between 30 seconds and 3 minutes. The time variance depends on the type of potato available at different times of the year. If, and it happens occasionally, the chips refuse to crisp, remove the basket from the oil, raise the temperature and cook for a third time. Drain on absorbent kitchen paper, sprinkle with salt and serve immediately.
Black Forest Gateau, serves 8-10
Along with rather sad oranges in caramel, wilting profiteroles, gaudy sherry trifle and too-much-apple-in-it fruit salad, Black Forest Gateau remains the school bully of the sweet trolley.
It's always there, isn't it, in the most prominent position, shoved in your face? "And will Madam be having cream with that?" Yes, of course she will, and poured from a silver-plated jug and drowning the already creamy black wedge into submission.
It's wolfed down day after day, from Hastings to Hartlepool: dry sponge, cheap tinned cherries of a weird hue, ersatz cream and worryingly glossy icing. Neither waiter nor customer really cares whether it tastes good or where it came from. Did it originate in the Black Forest? No, silly, it came from the local Happy Cake Company. That is, until now.
Of all the dishes in this book, this one seems to have plumbed the deepest depths. Who knows, perhaps, once upon a time, an old wood cutter's wife knocked up a bit of chocolate cake, chopped it in half, threw in a few cherries, upended the kirsch bottle and filled the cake with cream. It was so good that word soon spread. So, of course, she bought a trolley, opened a restaurant, and the rest is history.
However loopy our mythical origin might be, the essence of a good Black Forest Gateau lies in carefully chosen ingredients, lavishly assembled.
For the chocolate cake:
75g best-quality, bitter-sweet chocolate, broken into pieces
100g semi-salted butter
75g soft dark brown sugar
1 tbsp golden syrup
175g self-raising flour
2 large eggs, beaten
For the filling:
700g (approximately) good quality bottled or canned pitted cherries in syrup
2 tbsp kirsch
For the icing:
200 ml double cream
200g best-quality bitter-sweet chocolate, broken into pieces
400ml double cream
Pre-heat the oven to 325F/170C/gas mark 3. Butter a 20cm wide x 5cm deep loose-bottomed cake tin and fit a circle of greaseproof paper into the base.
Put the chocolate, butter, sugar and syrup into a heavy-bottomed pan over a low heat and stir until everything is melted and amalgamated. Allow the mixture to cool until it is tepid but still molten.
Sift the flour and cocoa into the bowl of an electric mixer or use an electric hand-whisk. Add the chocolate mixture, using a spatula, and start to beat slowly together. Combine the eggs and milk and slowly pour this in, too. Whisk together gently, increasing the speed until the mixture is light and thick yet fluffy. Spoon the mixture into the cake tin, smooth the surface and bake in the pre-heated oven for 35-40 minutes until firm and springy and when a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for around 30 minutes before turning out on a wire rack.
Drain the cherries in a sieve suspended over a bowl. Tip them into another bowl and measure off 200ml of the cherry syrup. Add to this the two tablespoons of kirsch. With a serrated knife, slice the cake horizontally into three discs. Place each disc on an individual plate and spoon the cherry syrup/kirsch mixture evenly over the three and leave to soak in. Meanwhile, heat the double cream until it is about to simmer, and add the chocolate. Remove from the heat and stir gently until melted and very smooth. Pour into a bowl and allow to cool in the fridge while you assemble the cake.
Whip the 400ml of double cream until thick. Spread one of the discs with half, cover with half the cherries, pressing them in lightly, cover with the second disc and repeat the process. Finally, put on the third disc and gently, with the palms of both hands, press all together.
Have a look at the chocolate cream mixture in the fridge. It should be stiffening. Give it a stir: it needs to be thick enough to spread, like icing. With a palette knife, cover the top and side of the cake, spreading thickly until all the cream is used up. Leave to set in a cool place - preferably not the fridge as this can cause the "icing" to weep slightly
`The Prawn Cocktail Years' by Simon Hopkinson & Lindsey Bareham is published on 24 October. To reserve a September pre-publication copy at the special price of pounds 15 p&p free, call BVCD on 0181-324 5700