One of the best Gamas Al Ajillo I’ve ever eaten was in Barcelona, not only were the ingredients fresh, there were a couple of things about the preparation that set it apart from those I’ve had in the US. The first thing I noticed as it was placed on my table was an insane amount of huge chunky garlic studded all around the shrimp. But while present, the aroma of garlic wasn’t overpowering. That’s because the garlic wasn’t grated, the bits were more like pungent punctuation marks rather than a blanket of overwhelming stink. This allowed room for the sweet, briny flavor of the shrimp to come through, which was complimented by the earthy sweetness of the peppers.
The second thing I noticed was a lack of paprika. In the US, Gambas Al Ajillo often shows up looking more like Shrimp Scampi sprinkled with paprika. Instead, there were flakes of dried chili, which imbued the oil with a vermillion hue. As the name implies, that was it; no butter, no parsley, and certainly no breadcrumbs.
For my version, I decided to up the garlic ante a bit more by adding in some chopped garlic scapes (the part of the garlic that grows above ground). Scapes are in season in spring as garlic begins to sprout, and have a wonderful crunchy texture, with a sweet, mild garlic flavor. In this dish, they also add some great color to contrast the chili red oil and shrimp.
One of the best parts of this dish is to be able to sop up all the flavorful oil at the bottom of the pan with some crusty bread. Sadly I was so excited about the prospect of making this with scapes, I completely forgot that I didn’t have any bread in the house. Desperate to find some kind of starch to soak up the flavors, I uncovered a tupperware of pasta in the back of the fridge. While this pasta was already sauced, I would totally boil some fresh pasta and toss the finished gambas and garlic with it, should I be lacking bread the next time around.
- Add the oil, garlic and chile pepper to a saute pan and heat over medium high heat until the garlic is fragrant and the oil has turned slightly red.
- Turn up the heat to high, then add the shrimp in a single layer. Fry until cooked on one side, then flip and fry on the other. Add the cognac and garlic scapes and stir fry until the garlic scapes are bright green and tender. Salt and pepper to taste, then transfer to a bowl and serve immediately with bread.