Perhaps foremost among Spain’s tapas, or appetizers, is this week’s attempt, Gambas al Ajillo. Of course, Garlic Shrimp (a good general translation) is made to be enjoyed with an ice-cold beer, maybe a nice glass of wine, or whatever libation inspires you. The point is, gambas are a classic Spanish tapa, a little something bar owners offer to whet patrons’ appetites for…more.
Tapas move far beyond mere introductions, though. There’s nothing preliminary about Garlic Shrimp, and it certainly is so much more than a dish meant to ride sidecar alongside a beer. For one thing, gambas are a great meal by themselves, whether or not alcohol is at hand. It doesn’t hurt, though.
Consider this dish’s completeness, especially when it’s served as intended, with a loaf of crusty bread and a splash or two of fresh lemon juice. In preparation, the shrimp is simmered in a generous portion of garlic-laden olive oil. In fact, there’s nearly an entire garlic clove allotted for each shrimp. Cooking the garlic softens its bite, but ample quantities ensure the flavor triumphs and is woven throughout.
Salt and a bit of crumbled hot pepper add random bursts of spirit and unify the two main ingredients. Speaking of spirits, a couple quick pours of sherry elevates the dish and provides an unmistakably Spanish flair.
As mentioned though, gambas are made to be served with bread. First, squeeze a newly-cut lemon so that juice enlivens each bite. Then, dip the bread into the buttery, garlicy olive oil and top each slice with a shrimp or two. It’s the best garlic bread you’ve ever had, then quickly the best shrimp. Intoxicating, even without the beer.
When Food and Wine featured the recipe below in its September 2017 issue, it immediately made the rotation. Although this isn’t the first time a Spanish idea has graced these pages, and it certainly won’t be the last, Gambas al Ajillo is a quintessential representative of that county’s culinary excellence.
Maybe they’re tapas, but gambas are so much more than bar food, and are so much more than appetizers.
Gambas al Ajillo
- 1 and 1/2 pounds shrimp, shelled but with tails left intact
- 1/4 cup garlic, sliced thinly (*1)
- 1 and 1/4 cups olive oil
- 1 dried hot chile, seeded and crumbled
- 1/2 cup minced parsley
- 2 tablespoons dry sherry
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest, finely-grated (*2)
In a large bowl, toss the shrimp with a teaspoon of salt and let stand for ten minutes.
Meanwhile, combine the oil and the garlic in a skillet. (*3) Place over medium-low heat and stir occasionally until the garlic begins to brown, about ten minutes. Sir in the chile and cook for 30 seconds more.
Add the shrimp, stirring and flipping it occasionally for about five minutes. Stir in the parsley, sherry, lemon zest and a pinch of salt. Remove from heat and let the shrimp sit for three or four minutes to finish cooking. (*4)
Ladle into individual dishes and serve with crusty bread.
1 – This works out to one head of garlic, as long as you use every clove.
2 – Buy an extra lemon, as fresh lemon juice squeezed to taste over each serving really makes this sing.
3 – Unlike most dishes, wherein the oil is heated before adding any other elements, gambas starts with cool oil and garlic, which are heated together. Doing it this way allows the garlic flavor to blossom.
4 – As always with shrimp, barely cooking the shellfish keeps it perfect. Pulling the shrimp from the heat when it’s barely opaque allows the residual heat to finish the job, leaving succulent shrimp. Any more heat and it becomes rubbery. Succulent is better.