In the Fifties, the hotel dining room was home to Brown Windsor Soup. This was its birthplace and graveyard, where it simmered happily for years before being usurped by Carrot and Orange and Curried Parsnip - new kids on the chopping block.
There was something about the dining room that could make one feel treated and depressed at the same time. Boiled cabbage must have been kept on a low heat 24 hours a day; there was always a crusted skin on the (half- used) little glass pot of Colman's mustard, and there was the deaf waiter. The only tablecloth was white, unless you were in the country, where the table might have been polished mahogany. It would probably have been laid with well-worn shiny mats, with frayed, green baize bottoms, depicting horses, haywains and hunting scenes. And the treat, incidentally, was simply the fact of going out to lunch.
This was also the home of the cruet set: dumpy salt cellars and ground white pepper (no pepper mills as yet), oil and vinegar flasks (the ones in endless embrace) for pouring over a plate of tired lettuce, curling cucumber slices and quartered tomatoes. The oil was any old stuff, pale and tasteless, not a whiff of olive - that was kept in the first-aid cupboard. And the vinegar was brown. Nobody ever used these condiments, of course, because what they really wanted was salad cream.
Other soups spoiled by Windsor's reputation became even easier to ladle out, thanks to the "convenience" of can and packet: asparagus, tomato, oxtail and minestrone are probably the ones that most of us remember. The only embellishment would have been a tentative swirl of cream, while the minestrone wasn't improved by its dusting of cheesy-socks, ersatz Parmesan. But enough about soup.
Possibly the main problem with the Fifties hotel dining room was ignorance seasoned with lack of interest. The clientele didn't really care too much what they ate, and the management, who knew this, coasted along perpetuating the "Well, nobody has ever complained before" syndrome.
Happily, there is much to resuscitate from those depressing days.
Vichyssoise, serves 6
Vichyssoise is sometimes so excessively enriched with cream that one wonders whether some chefs just pour seasoned chilled cream into a bowl and fling over a few snipped chives. Good Vichyssoise should be a glorious bowlful, soft as velvet with the taste of potato and leek at their most subtle.
By the way, it is often thought that vichyssoise hails from France. Not so. It was invented by one Louis Diat (OK, he was French), chef of the Ritz Carlton, New York City, in the 1920s.
1kg white part of leeks, trimmed, sliced and washed
500ml light chicken stock
500g potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 tsp salt
250ml whipping cream
small bunch of fresh chives, snipped
Simmer the leeks in the stock for 20 minutes. Add the potatoes and salt and cook with the milk for a further 15 minutes until the potatoes are tender. Liquidise, then strain through a fine sieve. Allow to cool, stir in the cream and correct the seasoning. Chill the soup for at least 4 hours. Serve in ice-cold bowls and garnish with chives.
Russian salad, serves 6
In Ma Cuisine, Escoffier says, "Take equal quantities of carrots, potatoes, French beans, peas, truffles, capers, gherkins, sliced and cooked mushrooms, lobster meat, and lean ham - all cut julienne fashion, and add some anchovy fillets. Cohere the whole with mayonnaise sauce: dish, and decorate with some of the ingredients of the salad, together with beetroot and caviar."
In some editions, caviar is not mentioned and tongue is also added as one of the earlier ingredients; chopped egg should surely be included, and perhaps cauliflower, even. Ah well, over time recipes have a habit of undergoing metamorphoses, even instigated by the creators themselves.
The cookery bible, Larousse Gastronomique, adds sausage and includes the tongue, but omits the ham and caviar. Constance Spry's recipe seems legitimate - she also suggests including chicken - although, along with others, she deemed the trio of lobster, truffle and caviar a mite excessive. Who on earth would ever dream of including truffle and caviar in the same dish? Certainly lobster has a place here and, if throwing caution to the wind, a smear of caviar would not go amiss.
For the mayonnaise:
2 egg yolks
salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 tsp Dijon mustard
a squeeze of lemon juice
200ml vegetable oil
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
75ml light olive oil (pure, not virgin)
For the salad:
The first seven ingredients should be cut into thin strips (julienne).
75g carrots, cooked
75g potatoes, cooked
75g French beans, cooked
75g celery or celeriac, peeled and cooked
75g ham, cooked
75g salt tongue, cooked
75g peas, cooked
1 level tbsp small capers, drained and lightly squeezed dry
1 lobster, cooked, weighing approx. 450g, shelled, flesh removed and diced
1 medium-sized beetroot, freshly cooked, cut into thin strips
2 large hard-boiled eggs, shelled and grated
1 level tbsp chopped chives
6 small tsp caviar (optional) or 6 anchovy
fillets split lengthways - don't use both
First make the mayonnaise by whisking together the egg yolks, seasoning and mustard until thick. Squeeze in the lemon juice and start to add a few drops of the vegetable oil, whisking all the time, until the mixture is very thick and sticky. Now add a little of the vinegar to loosen it and carry on adding the oil, a little faster now, in a very thin stream. Once the mixture starts to thicken again, add a little more vinegar and then revert to the oil, and so on, finishing the mayonnaise with the olive oil. Check the seasoning and add any extra drops of vinegar if necessary: this mayonnaise should not be too bland.
In a large bowl, gently stir together the first 10 salad ingredients with enough of the mayonnaise for the mixture to cohere loosely (you may have some mayonnaise left over, but it will always get eaten). Divide it between six shallow bowls or small soup plates, making neat piles. Scatter strips of beetroot around the edges (mixing in the beetroot earlier will cause unsightly pink bleeding) and sprinkle with some of the grated egg and chives. If you are using caviar, spoon it into the centre of each pile; if not, crisscross the top of the salad with the anchovy. Serve with thinly buttered, crisp hot toast.
Scampi with tartare sauce, serves 4
Second to Prawn Cocktail, Scampi with Tartare Sauce is the most famously over-abused restaurant dish ever. Unlike Prawn Cocktail, which has a direct lineage to Escoffier, deep-fried scampi is derivative, perhaps singled out of a Fritto Misto (Italian mixed fried seafood) by some well-travelled chef. Made properly, however, it is a winning combination of sweet and juicy shellfish clad in a crisp, thin batter or breadcrumbs.
Erosions to the original were, as is often the case, economy led. Scampi became - and remains - dangerously over-fished so our appetite for this tasty morsel led to the scampi tail of the original being replaced with reconstituted prawn scraps. Rumour has it that pieces of (once very cheap) monkfish, which has a similar texture, were also used to simulate scampi. Typically, the home-made tartare sauce was also replaced - with unopenable individual sachets of a sticky, sweet gloop.
Note: Finding fresh scampi tails (also called langoustines or Dublin Bay prawns) is no easy thing. However, if you can locate them, the meat needs to be extracted from the shells, as you would peel a prawn. In good fishmongers and some of the better supermarkets, it is possible to find bags of frozen unbreaded scampi tails but they are nowhere near as good as the real thing. The obvious alternative would be to use shell-on king prawns, which are good, but are not the real McCoy.
For the tartare sauce:
1 quantity mayonnaise (see Russian Salad recipe)
1 dsp freshly chopped tarragon
1 tbsp freshly chopped parsley
112 tbsp capers, drained, squeezed and chopped
1 tbsp gherkins, finely chopped
oil for deep frying
generous bunch curly parsley, separated into clumps, washed and thoroughly dried in a tea-towel
salt and pepper
500g fresh shell-on scampi tails, shelled, or 400g frozen tail meat, or shell-on king prawns, shelled
2 tbsp flour
2 small eggs, beaten
5-6 tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs
To make the tartare sauce, simply stir all the ingredients together. Heat the oil to 375F/190C (for those without a deep-fryer or thermometer, this is when a scrap of bread turns golden after a couple of seconds). Drop the parsley into the hot oil but be careful! as fierce spluttering will ensue. Fry for about 30 seconds when it will have turned dark green. Drain well in the frying basket, turn on to a plate lined with kitchen paper and sprinkle with salt. Keep warm in a low oven.
Season the tails, then dip them first in flour, then egg and finally into the breadcrumbs. Drop in the scampi - possibly in two batches - and fry for no longer than two minutes, when they will be golden and crisp. Drain well on kitchen paper and pile on to a plate lined with a paper napkin. Sprinkle on the parsley and tuck in the lemon quarters. Serve the tartare sauce in pots for dipping.
Meringue glace and hot chocolate sauce, serves 4
Do you remember those whiter-than-white meringues that, when pressured with a fork, shot off on to an adjoining table, which, for some unaccountable reason, was often occupied by a lady of a certain age, usually with a blue-rinsed concrete hair-do and no sense of humour? Well, you'll be glad to hear that the results of the following recipe bear no resemblance to those chalky numbers.
These meringues turn out a pale, coffee colour with a slightly crackled surface, and are chewy-soft and sticky within. When they are partnered with really good vanilla ice-cream and a welter of chocolate sauce, the result is so seductive it would probably cause that crabby lady to reach over, whip it out from under your nose and tuck into it herself.
Make the meringues as squiffy as you please, using a tablespoon to form their shape. Or, if you are into nozzles and piping bags, this therapeutic squeezing and oozing may be the direction you might like to pursue. The old-fashioned method of preparing a non-stick baking tray, which we give below, is still the best - whatever people say about baking parchment.
For the vanilla ice-cream:
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
7 egg yolks
250g caster sugar
750ml double cream
For the meringue:
4 egg whites
a pinch of salt
225g caster sugar
a little butter, softened
For the chocolate sauce (which will make plenty):
200ml whipping cream
150g best quality bitter chocolate, broken into small pieces
40g unsalted butter
For the whipped cream:
400ml double cream
2 tbsp caster sugar
First make the ice-cream. Heat together the milk and vanilla pod, and whisk vigorously as it comes to the boil, bashing and scraping the vanilla pod so that its seeds flow into the milk. Cover, remove from the heat and allow to infuse for 30 minutes. Beat together the egg yolks and sugar, pour the flavoured milk on to this mixture (including the vanilla pod) and mix well. Return the custard to a saucepan over a gentle heat, and stir constantly but gently until the sauce has the consistency of thin cream. Whisk vigorously at this point to homogenise and then strain into a cold bowl. Add the cream and leave to cool. When cold, turn into an ice-cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions.
Pre-heat the oven to 275F/140C/Gas mark 1.
Using a scrupulously clean mixing bowl, whip the egg whites with the salt until they are soft but hold a peak. Beat in half the sugar, a tablespoon at a time, until the mixture is glossy and stiff. Now fold in the rest of the sugar, using a large spatula, with authoritative scoops rather than mimsy movements: the air must be contained, but the sugar must be mixed in thoroughly.
Lightly grease a flat baking tray with the butter and sift over a spoonful of flour. Shake around a bit to disperse it in an even coating and then tap off the excess (the kitchen sink is the most contained area and affords the least mess). Spoon out the meringue mixture in whichever form suits your mood and bake it in the oven for about 112 hours. The point at which the meringue reaches a pale coffee hue is about right. Leave it to cool for a few minutes before removing it from the baking tray. Store in an air-tight container until ready for use.
To make the chocolate sauce, warm together the cream and chocolate over a very low heat. Once melted and completely smooth, whisk in the butter until the mixture is smooth and glossy. Keep it warm.
Whip the double cream with the caster sugar until thick.
To assemble the meringues, put a scoop of ice-cream on each well-chilled plate. Take two meringues and sandwich the ice-cream between their flat sides, gently squashing them together. Spoon or pipe the cream over the gap and hand the warm chocolate sauce separately
`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