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Food

Somni chef Aitor Zabala shares his secrets to Spain’s best shrimp dish

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Gambas al ajillo tastes best with whole shrimp, including their heads.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

There are countless versions of gambas al ajillo throughout Spain, but all combine shrimp, garlic and olive oil. Chef Aitor Zabala adds sherry to round out the flavors and finishes with lots of parsley and lemon zest and juice. He also employs smart techniques to highlight the ingredients. He starts with raw garlic slices in cold oil, then warms both together so the garlic cooks evenly all the way through and infuses the oil with a deep aroma. Zabala does the same with whole dried guindilla chiles, which deliver a smoky spiciness. You can buy them online or in specialty stores or substitute other small dried red chiles. Finally, Zabala uses a Japanese ceramic donabe pot in place of the traditional Spanish terracotta for the most even heat distribution, but either work, as does a Dutch oven or heavy skillet. You can double the quantities below for a larger serving; just be sure to use a larger pot as well to avoid overcrowding the shrimp.

Gambas al Ajillo: Garlicky Shrimp Saute

15 minutes. Serves 1 to 2.

4 jumbo or extra-large head-on, shell-on shrimp, preferably Santa Barbara spot prawns
1 tablespoon canola oil
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more
4 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced

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Kosher salt
3 dried guindilla or other small red chiles
1 teaspoon dry sherry
1/2 lemon
3 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, very finely chopped

1 Prepare the shrimp by snipping off the legs with kitchen shears. Then, carefully push the shells off the bodies. Separate the shrimp heads from the tails by using a sharp knife to cut off the heads with ⅓-inch of the tails attached to keep the juices inside the heads.

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2 Generously coat the bottom of a medium donabe, terracotta pot or Dutch oven with the canola and olive oils. Add the garlic, sprinkle lightly with salt and set over medium-low heat. Bring to a sizzle, stirring occasionally, until the garlic chips start to dance and turn golden brown around the edges, about 2 minutes. Don’t let them burn. Transfer the garlic to a paper-towel-lined plate and reserve.

3 Add the chiles to the hot oil and cook, turning, just until a shade darker, about 30 seconds. You don’t want them to burn. Transfer to the plate with the garlic.

4 Add the shrimp heads, sprinkle lightly with salt and cook, turning occasionally, for 30 seconds. Add the shrimp tails, sprinkle lightly with salt, and cook, turning, for 15 seconds. Return the garlic and chiles to the pot and shake and swirl the pot so the garlic coats everything. Add the sherry and let the alcohol burn out, about 1 minute. Zest half of the lemon half directly into the pot, then stir in half of the parsley. When the shrimp become opaque and their juices emulsify with the oil into a sauce, remove from the heat. Sprinkle with the remaining parsley, squeeze in a few drops of lemon juice and serve immediately.

Variation
Gambas al Ajillo with Shrimp Tails: Substitute 8 extra-large or jumbo shrimp tails for the whole shrimp and cook, turning, for 30 seconds before returning the garlic and chiles to the pot.

Recipe adapted from Aitor Zabala.


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