gambas al ajillo, a tapas bar classic
Among the many tourist sites we visited on our trip to Andalusia, the Alcazar in Seville (above) was one of my favorites. Just steps from the twisting passageways of the Barrio Santa Cruz (left), where we were staying, the Alcazar has some of the same amazing Moorish architectural detail (right) of the Alhambra in Granada, along with some incredible gardens that we didn’t have nearly enough time to explore. (For full set of photos, see my facebook page.) I suppose we could have lingered longer, but after getting up early and spending a few solid hours there, we were ready for some lunch. We headed toward the Calle Mateos Gago, where we had heard there were some good tapas bars. This was pretty much the rhythm of many of our days: get up early, put in a few hours of sightseeing, reward ourselves with tapas and beer or wine, take naps, repeat the cycle after the naps.
As we wandered down the street, we spotted a microscopic bar with a bespectacled stuffed boar’s head on the wall and a brash, gesticulating bartender, and decided right away that it was our kind of place. This was Bar Àlvaro, which I wrote about in my last post. After our lively experience there, we decided to go next door to Bar Tomate to chill out and order more food to soak up the alcohol. Although we had eaten a few tapas at Àlvaro’s, walking around the Alcazar the whole morning and then walking to lunch had worked up our appetites. According to Lonely Planet, Bar Tomate is known for their plump and delicious gambas al ajillo, shrimp poached in olive oil with a few red chiles and copious quantities of chopped garlic. Sold. If there’s anything better than that oil for dipping bread in, I don’t know what it is. Along with a couple glasses of crisp Verdejo, we were in heaven. The atmosphere at Tomate was much more subdued than that of its neighbor, but cool in its own way, with Art Nouveau posters and weird marionettes with currency from dozens of countries pinned to their clothing. And of course, the obligatory hams hanging from the ceiling!
When my friend Amanda came over for a recent dinner, I attempted to recreate the flavorful gambas as part of a meal that also included the Andalusian classic espinacas con garbanzos (spinach with chickpeas). I didn’t bother consulting a recipe, since the ingredients were obvious and I knew that poaching the shrimp at a low temperature in the oil would yield the results I was after. However, in case you want some guidelines:
Gambas al Ajillo (Shrimp with Garlic)
Cook time: 10 minutes
Serves: 4 as part of a multi-course meal
1 lb uncooked peeled shrimp, not jumbo, preferably with tails on
1 cup olive oil (or as needed)
about 3-4 Tbs chopped garlic (5-6 large cloves)
a few dried red chiles such as chile pequin or chile de arbol
finely chopped parsley to garnish
bread for dunking, or white rice
This is barely a recipe, and you can adjust quantities up or down as needed- I usually plan for about 1/4 lb shrimp per person if there are a bunch of other dishes. Typically this dish is made with smallish, fully peeled shrimp, but tail-on shrimp will give you a bit more flavor while still being easy to eat. Just about any small dried red chiles will be fine (crack them for a bit more more heat); you can substitute a pinch of red pepper flakes if you don’t have whole chiles.
Pour olive oil into a 10″ cast iron skillet (or earthenware cazuela, if you happen to have one). Warm the olive oil, garlic and chiles over medium low heat. Cook for about 5 minutes, making sure it doesn’t get too hot. You don’t want to fry or brown the garlic, just soften it and infuse the flavors- if you can hear the garlic sizzle more than just faintly, reduce the heat. While the garlic is cooking, rinse the shrimp and pat dry. Lightly salt the shrimp on both sides.
Raise the heat slightly. Add the shrimp to the oil and gently poach until opaque, basting with the oil and turning as needed (times will vary based on the size of your shrimp, but shouldn’t be more than 5 minutes and as little as 3). Garnish with the parsley and serve straight from the pan or in individual cazuelas (see photos).