Before I knew much about food or dining out, I knew that if they brought shrimp cocktails to the table as an appetizer, we were eating at a "fancy" restaurant. I'm sure I enjoyed the shrimp, but what I really loved was dipping the crackers in the spicy, horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce.
As I got older, I started to notice that while all shrimp cocktails pretty much looked the same, they sure didn't all taste the same. It's really easy to make a bad shrimp cocktail.
Simply use already peeled shrimp, boil them in plain water, and serve them with sauce from a jar. Any "shoemaker" can do that. By the way, this is not an insult to shoemakers, but an old kitchen term for something that tastes like a non-cook made it.
Making a great shrimp cocktail requires the shrimp be cooked with the shells on, and in a very flavorful poaching liquid, called a court bouillon.
It may seem like a lot of extra work, for just a little bit of extra flavor, but it really is the difference. There are a million formulas, but as long as there is salt, some acid, and some aromatics, you can pretty much do whatever you like.
Another tip; get the biggest shrimp you can find. This is a recipe where you want to have something substantial to bite into and chew for a while, so the cocktail sauce has time to mingle and work its magic.
Regarding the cocktail sauce; this is based on what my mother Pauline used to mix up, but I'm sure I put in a lot more horseradish than she did. You may want to add the horseradish last, and do it to taste, if you are not experienced using it. Enjoy!
Ingredients for 4 servings:
2 pounds colossal shrimp (12-15 per/lb)
3 quarts cold water
1/4 onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and bruised
2 springs tarragon
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon Old Bay
1 tsp black peppercorns
1/4 cup horseradish, or to taste
1/4 cup chili sauce
1/2 cup ketchup
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
few drops of hot sauce, optional
pinch of salt