Prawns in a butter and black pepper sauce

I have flirted and failed with diets for so long I cannot look at the word these days without being riddled with guilt and self-doubt. I know all the reasons why a sensible diet should be part of my life. I eat too much, liking food for its delicious flavours and tastes, that I just can’t ignore the things I have loved all my life. That makes me a failure too, not being able to provide a regular sort of cooking which is not only healthy but leaves you feeling good, then, during the night and the next morning. I try it on for a while, then fall to temptation.

I have seen people who have succeeded. During the restaurant days, one of my favourite customers was a devotee of the Pritikin diet, a man who was absolutely content to live without butter, cream, eggs, sugar, salt and grog. I looked at him and saw a man with sparkling eyes, of clean skin, a man oozing satisfaction with his life, his lifestyle and his diet.

I was so drawn by his appearance, I went for it with a gusto: on the first day, fruit for breakfast, fruit for lunch, then a big dinner of steamed potatoes pureed with poached onions, chillies and garlic; more steamed vegetables with mint; bowls of mangoes and raspberries; the weakest tea; and no grog. It worked — I felt great, didn’t fall asleep in the after-dinner chair, and bored the pants off everyone else in the house.

I tried it the next day. Fruit, fruit and more fruit during the day, then at dinner: eggless pasta with tomato sauce and snow peas; steamed fish on a puree of spinach, lots of lemon juice and black pepper; apricots, lightly stewed in lemon juice; more intense conversation about the pros and cons of eating to live. Now my wife had fallen asleep in the chair.

The diet failed because: (i) I became a bore, a sort of live-in Billy Graham; (ii) I needed a drink; and (iii) I wanted to celebrate a special occasion and didn’t fancy doing it with mango, mineral water and mumbo-jumbo. Could you? I went back to my worst ways. Absolute worst. Read on and you will understand what I mean.

Buy your prawns from your favourite and trusted fishmonger. Fresh is best, of course, but they are not always available at retail outlets. If not, don’t buy soaked green prawns, buy them frozen and defrost them yourself. There is an argument that frozen prawns can be better than fresh, unless you can get them while they are still kicking. The crux of the argument is this: if they are frozen quickly, preferably straight out of the water, and maintained at the correct minus temperature, then there is no chance of any deterioration. There’s plenty to that argument — as long as you know your supplier.

bunch of basil (or chives if you can’t get basil), leaves removed from the stem, snipped in half

l00g butter, chopped into blocks, softened

200g bacon, cut into strips, fat removed

2 cobs seasonal corn, corn sliced from the cob

4 prawns per person, shelled and de-veined — Keep the shells for a prawn stock. You can freeze the shells if they are fresh.

1 dessertspoon black peppercorns, crushed under the back of a knife

1 clove garlic, chopped finely juice of 1 lemon


Rub the basil into the softened butter and refrigerate until firm. This, and no more, makes for a terrific sauce on its own. Somehow or other, melted basil butter imparts a brilliant flavour of basil. Try it and see.


Heat the oven to 220°C.


This dish takes no more than a few minutes, but it all happens together. The sauce is made just as the prawns are cooked, the toast is toasting, the corn is cooking, and the bacon is frying. It sounds tough, but any octopus can do it.


Cook bacon first, simply, in the microwave on some absorbent paper. It takes but a minute. Drain any excess fat and keep warm.


Steam the corn kernels in a colander over boiling water. This will take a few minutes. Taste and check, and set aside to be re-heated.


Prawns are the easiest fish in the world to cook, once cleaned of shell and co. Heat some oil in a heavy pan which can go into the oven, and toss the prawns in the hot oil, making sure each has plenty of room to sizzle. After 30 seconds of sizzling on one side, turn for 30 seconds on the other. Remove pan from the heat and cover the prawns in the basil butter, black peppercorns, garlic and lemon juice. Put them in the oven for a couple of minutes, until the basil butter has started to melt. It must not get to the sizzle stage. Remove from the oven and swirl the prawns and butter about, allowing the heat of the pan to melt the butter. It must not become oily.


Serve the prawns and pour the sauce, bacon and corn about. This is wonderful if served over a waffle, or crumpet, or very good toast.

WINE: There was a time when Rhine riesling was the ant’s pants — the flavour of the month, or year. But that’s going back to the late seventies. It’s not now and that means you can buy oceans of good Rhine riesling for under $10 — a lucky country!