Gambas al Ajillo: Building flavors to complement rather than overpower the traditional

One mention of gambas here in the Philippines would usually bring to mind images of shrimps in a deep red-orange sauce (that’s usually more sweet than spicy) with some bellpeppers and onions thrown in for good measure. In some cases, this even comes in a smoking hot sizzling plate. Personally, I’m not a fan of this style of gambas mainly because the shrimps tend to come out overcooked and all the flavors that are added in the dish just overwhelm the subtle taste of the shrimp.

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What you’ll see when you search for “gambas” in Google.

My preference for gambas is to have it as gambas al ajillo, shrimps in garlic to put it simply. Traditional recipes I have seen make use of just four ingredients outside of your basic salt and pepper seasoning: Shrimps, olive oil, garlic, and chili. The dish, as you would expect, lets the shrimps shine with none of the other flavors getting in the way. My take on this though adds a few more ingredients that work to elevate the shrimp flavor even more than just having your basic ingredients.

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All the ingredients save for the chili.

Ingredients

  • 250g medium-sized prawns (Around 6-10 pieces)
  • 1 piece chorizo (Around 3-4 inches)
  • 4 cloves of garlic, smashed
  • 4 cloves of garlic, sliced into thin chips
  • 1 red chili (Or half if you don’t want it too spicy)
  • Fresh parsley
  • White wine (I used a chardonnay)
  • Olive oil
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A key step to this is to pre-flavor the oil. With the time that it takes to cook the shrimps, you’ll be hard pressed to squeeze much flavor from your garlic.

Preparing the Oil

  1. In a medium sized pan, put some olive oil, the chorizo, and the smashed garlic.
  2. Put the pan on medium heat until you see the oil around the garlic start bubbling. When this happens, bring the fire down to low heat.
  3. Render the fat from the chorizo to flavor the oil and to give it some color. You want the oil to be a slightly deep red with the garlic at a nice golden brown.
  4. Throw in the chopped chili and leave that in the oil in low heat for around 5 minutes.
  5. Once done, put this aside for use later on in the process.

Note: Give yourself a pat on the back. You’re done with the time intensive part! The next part, the actual cooking of the shrimps, should be really quick.

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Shrimps can quickly go rubbery if you overcook them. Timing in the pan is key if you want your shrimps to remain plump and juicy after cooking.

Time to Cook the Shrimps!

  1. Take a few spoonsful of your flavored oil and add this to a new medium-sized pan.
  2. Turn on the stove to a medium high heat and wait for the oil to get hot.
  3. Once the oil is ready, take your shrimps, which should be peeled already at this point, and put them in the oil, making sure not to crowd your pan.
  4. Throw in your sliced garlic, making sure they’re all in the oil, and leave the shrimps to cook for around a minute.
  5. From this point forward, keep tossing the shrimps in the oil every few seconds to make sure that all the shrimps are coated with the hot oil.
  6. Do this for one and a half minutes and put the cooked shrimps aside on your serving tray.
  7. Take your white wine and deglaze your pan with it. Make sure that you burn off all the alcohol before you turn the heat off. At this stage, you should get a nice, thick, rich sauce.
  8. Season the sauce to taste with salt and pepper.
  9. Pour the sauce on top of your shrimps, top with fresh parsley, and serve!
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The final dish, plated and ready to serve!

It looks like a long procedure but once you get a hang of it, you should be able to breeze through this. Good luck in the kitchen. Cheers!

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Bonus angle for my lovely readers! I decided to sprinkle a bit of fresh parsley before serving.

A Few Notes

I added an extra step for in the procedure mainly for presentation purposes. I put the shrimp heads in the hot oil before adding the shrimps to add a bit more flavor to the oil.

You can squeeze a bit of lemon before serving too but I find that the white wine in the sauce adds a nice citrus acidity already. Although it would be important to note that the final flavor of your sauce will greatly depend on the white wine that you will use. If you want to be more on the safe side, you can just put a splash of white wine and just use the lemon juice to flavor to taste.

Most Filipinos would pair this with a cup of rice. What I would recommend though would be to pair this with some toasted bread and dip this in the sauce while you’re eating the shrimps. You instantly turn your tapas into a full meal!

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