Gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp) is perhaps the most popular Spanish tapa served in Spain, found principally in the south and center of the country. The primary ingredients In this simple but incredibly delicious recipe are shrimp, garlic and olive oil, but there are many variations.
According to legend, the tapas tradition began when king Alfonso X of Castile recovered from an illness by drinking wine with small dishes between meals. After regaining his health, the king ordered that taverns would not be allowed to serve wine to customers unless it was accompanied by a small snack or “tapa.”
The Joy of Cooking notes an alternate origin: the original tapas were the slices of bread or meat which sherry drinkers in Andalusian taverns used to cover their glasses between sips. This was a practical measure meant to prevent fruit flies from hovering over the sweet sherry. The meat used to cover the sherry was normally ham or chorizo, which are both very salty and activate thirst. As a result of this, bartenders and restaurant owners began creating a variety of snacks to serve with sherry, thus increasing their alcohol sales. The tapas eventually became as important as the sherry.
My version of this classic recipe includes a Chinese technique used to keep the shrimp firm and crunchy, as well as the addition of both a highly-reduced Sherry and thyme (as well as liberal amounts of Aleppo pepper flakes in remembrance of the strong Moorish influence on Spain), plus a touch of Spanish smoked paprika.
I also adopt the classic Spanish method of mashing some garlic with the hot pepper and paprika to truly release and express all of the flavors.
Huge kudos to the magnificent food blog “Serious Eats” that came up with the base recipe I used to create my version of this classic tapa!
Battle on – The Generalissimo
12 cloves garlic
1 pound large shrimp, peeled, shells reserved
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil (Spanish preferred)
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper flakes (preferred) or more to taste; red pepper flakes can be substituted
Pinch smoked Spanish paprika
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
¼ cup Pedro Ximenez-style cream sherry
1 ½ tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
½ tablespoon fresh flowering thyme (preferred) or regular thyme leaves, minced
Finely mince 4 garlic cloves and place in large bowl. Smash 4 cloves in a mortar and pestle to a paste with the red pepper flakes and smoked paprika and place in a large skillet. Thinly slice remaining four garlic cloves and set aside.
Add shrimp to bowl with minced garlic. Add 3 tablespoons olive oil, ¾ teaspoon kosher salt, and baking soda. Toss to combine thoroughly and set aside at room temperature.
Add shrimp shells to skillet with garlic/pepper/paprika paste and add remaining olive oil plus the Bay leaf. Set over medium-low to low heat and cook, stirring and tossing occasionally, until shells are deep ruby red, garlic is pale golden brown, and oil is intensely aromatic, about 10 minutes. Oil should be gently bubbling the whole time.
When ready, strain through a fine mesh strainer into a small bowl, tossing and pressing the shrimp shells to extract as much oil as possible. Discard shells, bay leaf and garlic.
Reduce sherry in pan to about a tablespoon or two. Return flavored oil to skillet and heat over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add sliced garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until pale golden brown, about 1 minute.
Add shrimp and cook, tossing and stirring constantly until shrimp are barely cooked through, about 2 minutes. Add sherry vinegar, thyme and parsley and toss to combine. Season to taste with salt. Garnish with flowering thyme sprigs, if available. Serve immediately with bread to sop up the delicious sauce.