If Spain is famous for its delicious tapas, the recipe for gambas al ajillo (shrimp in Spanish, and garlic in Spanish) is probably one of the most popular.
What are gambas al ajillo?
These prawns with garlic and chili are a real institution in all the bodegas of the Iberian Peninsula but especially in the south and the center of the country. People usually meet there after work to have a drink and dip their bread in all kinds of dips, sometimes spicy and always tasty.
The taste of prawns perfectly complements that of garlic and chili and this sauce could be great just by itself if the prawns were not so particularly juicy and didn’t offer the pleasure of being tasted with fingers because they are already fully shelled.
This recipe for gambas al ajillo is just as delicious with scampi or prawns. This tapas is so popular that it is not uncommon for it to be offered as an appetizer on your arrival at the restaurant. Sometimes, these grilled garlic shrimps are served as a side dish with a fish soup or offered when you order a glass of white wine.
How to make gambas al ajillo
Cooking prawns is ideally done in a terracotta dish. If these dishes usually take a long time to heat, they allow for slow cooking and do not damage the ingredients. Here, the prawns will remain particularly tender and the taste of olive oil, chili and garlic will slowly penetrate.
In the bodegas, the grilled garlic shrimps are placed directly on the table or the counter in their cooking plate, allowing the crustaceans to remain hot for a long time. Indeed, if these dishes take a long time to heat up, they also stay hot long after cooking. Since tapas are usually shared while drinking and talking, it is best if the leftovers stay hot for part of the evening.
People sometimes add parsley or a dash of lemon juice at the last moment to bring some freshness to the dish. Some customers may even ask the chef to cook some pasta so they can roll them in the garlic shrimp marinade that is still warm after they are done eating the prawns. This way, the pasta impregnate absorbs all the flavors of the dish.
The presentation of the gambas al ajillo may differ slightly depending on the region. Some keep the head of the prawns, others decorate perfectly. Everything is a matter of habit and regional culture. Keeping the heads brings even more fragrance to the oil but makes the tasting slightly less pleasant. You can also dip slices of bread in the ajillo sauce and top them with a few gambas before chewing on the whole toast.
Some bodegas love to bring the dish at the table while the oil is still piping hot, so you have to wait a few minutes if you do not want to burn your fingers and your tongue. However, it is really hard to resist. After tasting a few prawns, it is almost impossible not to order an extra tapas dish, or two … or three. This is a great way to dine by spreading the meal over a good part of the evening before heading to another place and start again after a short digestive walk. If each bodega has its own specialties, it would be unthinkable not to see our gambas al ajillo. With bread and wine, seafood is a kind of Holy Trinity of Hispanic indulgence.
We really enjoyed these tapas on a sunny day with a loaf of hot and crisp bread while listening to a flamenco record. A simple pleasure, fast and exciting that we prepared after we were able to get our hands on the prettiest prawns at the market!
- 2 lb prawns
- 15 cloves garlic , peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 small dried hot peppers
- 20 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Black pepper , freshly ground
Place each prawn, belly facing toward you, and open the shell with your fingers. (You can also use scissors).
Squeeze a little on the tail to get the flesh. If the prawn is whole, then pull on the head holding the body with the free hand. That way, the shell should follow. Remove the black vein by gently incising the back with the tip of a knife.
Wash, drain and dry with paper towel.
Season with salt immediately by mix them thoroughly with your hands. Set aside.
In a Dutch oven (ideally earthenware), pour the extra virgin olive oil.
Heat the oil over medium heat. Add the peppers and garlic. Sauté the garlic without browning them.
Remove the garlic and hot peppers from the oil and set aside.
Add the prawns to the hot oil.
Increase the heat and sauté for 1 minute on medium/high heat, stirring constantly. Lightly season with black pepper.
After one minute, the oil will change color, the prawns will release their broth.
Add reserved hot peppers and garlic. Mix well.
Serve immediately when the prawns are are cooked but still juicy, about 10 minutes.