Published January 1, 2008.
Shrimp in garlicky olive oil is a tapas bar classic. But make this appetizer at home and suddenly the shrimp are rubbery and the garlic goes missing in a sea of olive oil.
Gambas al ajillo—little shrimp sizzling in a pool of olive and garlic—is an easy dish to make with just a few shrimp. But multiplying the number of shrimp results in severely imbalanced ingredients, with the shrimp drowning in too much oil and garlic.
We wanted to make six good-sized appetizer portions of wonderfully sweet and tender shrimp, well infused with deep garlic flavor and not drenched in oil.
The traditional gambas al ajillo recipe calls for completely submerging the shrimp in oil, which allows the shrimp to heat evenly and gently at a low temperature. But submerging a full pound of shrimp requires 2 cups of oil. We wanted to achieve the same results using a more reasonable 1/2 cup. The first answer was to use a 12-inch skillet. In a large pan, the shrimp can fit in a single layer, with oil reaching halfway up the side of each shrimp. After a brief period, the shrimp are turned to allow the other side to cook in the oil. (It's important to use gentle heat, so all the shrimp can be turned before the first shrimp is overcooked.) But using only a thin layer of oil does have a drawback: The shrimp don’t easily absorb enough garlic flavor. We added garlic in three ways: as minced cloves in a marinade, as smashed whole cloves browned in and removed from the oil before the shrimp are added, and as slices added to the oil before the shrimp are added. Four traditional flavorings finished the seasoning. Bay leaf, red chile, sherry vinegar, and parsley added a jolt of brightness and cut the richness of the olive oil.list of recipes