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Cooking with David 1: Gambas al Ajillo con Polenta

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This is the first in a series of posts about food and cooking, a huge passion of mine. I got into cooking when I first arrived at university at McGill and shared a residence apartment with a guy named Raphaël from the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of interior Québec. It blew my mind to find out that he was coming to school in Montreal to improve his English of all things while I was looking forward to developing my skills in French.

Raphaël was a very interesting guy. A wiry, quiet Jehovah’s Witness who mostly kept to himself. Fanatically clean and extremely private, I never really expected to learn much about him. He kept to himself, and I stayed out of his way. One night, I came back from a late French class downtown to find Raphaël slaving away in the little kitchen we shared over three bubbling pots and an open oven.

“I didn’t know you cooked,” I told him. “What are you making?”

“I don’t cook. This is going to be a rib roast with potatoes. You can have some if you want.”

“You don’t cook, but you’re making a standing roast like that?”

“I’ve watched my mom and dad. I’m sure I can figure it out. I just don’t want to eat any boxed or processed stuff and get unhealthy while I’m here.”

While I greatly respected the fact that a young guy didn’t want to subject his body to low-quality slop, I didn’t know at that time how Raphaël was able to just watch his parents and “figure out” how to cook amazing food like he did. As it turns out, his dad was a local butcher and his mom a pastry chef in Chicoutimi, Québec. I told my parents what kind of food he was making for the other American roommate and me, and they thought I was full of it. French pastries, expertly prepared meats, and traditional Québec dishes. Each treat was more delicious than the last… I knew I wanted to learn how to cook for real.

Fast forward eleven years to 2011, and you’ll get the story of the birth of this particular dish. I was enjoying an incredible meal with my partner Mike at Crook’s Corner Café and Bar in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It was my first time ever having shrimp and grits, a staple of the American South, and I can remember saying out loud as I was enjoying the meal, “The way these shrimp taste reminds me so much of gambas al ajillo.”

Gambas al ajillo is one of the most popular tapas dishes and simply garlic shrimp with parsley and olive oil cooked and served sizzling in a clay dish called a cazuela de barro. Known for leaving behind a delicious garlicky sauce that diners then dip crusty bread into, gambas are quick to prepare, they require relatively few and easily accessible ingredients, and they are freaking delicious and very comforting.

I first tasted gambas al ajillo on a family vacation I was lucky enough to go on back in 1994 to Marbella in the Andalusia region of southern Spain. My parents had met and fallen in love there in the summer of 1977, and they wanted to show the place to their kids. We were out to dinner at a very charming restaurant called Marbella Patio. My mom happened to know the owner of the restaurant because (and my memory is a little foggy on this) he used to work at the hotel her family had stayed at in Marbella when they went there every summer. It turns out the guy was so overjoyed to see us that we got our whole dinner for free… and it was really something because every piece of food we put in our mouths was outstanding.

So both Mike and I had the taste for shrimp one night, and I had the idea to combine gambas al ajillo with shrimp and grits to create a more European take on a southern classic. (Or is that a southern take on a European classic?) We took quick cooking polenta, formed a bed of it in a bowl and piled on lots of succulent Spanish garlic shrimp. Cazuela de barro not needed!

I really hope you’ll give this recipe a try. It means a lot to me and my family, and it’s easy and delicious! Of course I wanted it to be the first dish I share with the blog.

Gambas al Ajillo con Polenta
Prep Time: 20 min | Cook Time: 5 min | Servings: 4 servings | Difficulty: Easy

For the shrimp:
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup unsalted butter (Don’t cook with salted butter!)
1 1/2 lbs shrimp, peeled and deveined (the smaller and sweeter, the better)
6-8 garlic cloves (more if you are a garlic lover)
1 lemon, juiced and zested
1 teaspoon pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika – recommended brand is “Pimentón el Ángel”)
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
4 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

For the polenta:
1 cup raw polenta (recommended brand is “De la Estancia”)
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
3 cups chicken stock (or a bit more if you like your polenta creamier)

3/4 teaspoon salt

Mince the garlic as finely as you can, and place it in a small bowl.

Zest the lemon while it is still whole using a rasp or microplane, and place the zest in another small bowl.  Add the salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper, and pimentón to the lemon zest and stir lightly to combine.

Juice the lemon and put the juice aside.

Chop the parsley leaves and put aside.

Prepare the polenta according to the package directions but with the bumped up amount of cheese listed above. Set aside for a few minutes while the shrimp cook. You may reserve a small amount of additional chicken stock to loosen up the polenta prior to service if desired.

In a wide, shallow sauté pan over high heat, warm the olive oil and the butter.  As soon as the butter is completely melted and any foaming subsides, add the garlic and bay leaf and cook for 30 seconds.

Add the shrimp and spread out to a single layer in the pan.  Cook for 3 minutes, stirring a couple of times to ensure no raw areas remain.

After the time is up, turn off the heat, add the lemon juice and the zest/seasoning mixture.  Stir so that there are no shrimps that have a ton of the seasoning caked on them.  The stirring should lead to a uniform dark golden color for the sauce.

Add the chopped parsley, stir to combine completely, discard the bay leaf, and serve immediately over the polenta.


Where we’ve been all these years

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I sent out an email to an undisclosed number of people advertising that I had started this blog… restarted it, really.  And one message I got in reply said, “How nice. What brought this about?”

Well, mainly a feeling like I needed to make up for lost time. When I was a student, and even for a couple of years afterwards, I had a blog on LiveJournal where I posted a whole lot of different content: song lyrics, cryptic mood icons, political quizzes, and these ridiculous “shout outs” that viewers sent to the cable music provider I worked at briefly.  It was fun; my friends commented; I enjoyed writing and feeling like I had a place to be social, especially with people I had left behind in another city and country.  Then, I started working more and observing less, and I got to a certain point where I felt like I couldn’t keep up with the blog anymore because I (mistakenly) thought I didn’t have anything to say.

At some point along the way, Facebook emerged as a catch-all method of staying in touch with people from the past in the way I had intended my blog would. When Facebook first came out, I remember it feeling very much like a thing that only students were supposed to use. You got in touch with other people at your own institution, and that was the extent of it. After I graduated from McGill, it was obvious that Facebook was becoming not only a way to be friends with other people at other schools but also with people of all ages.  Also with your parents…  I can remember feeling a little dirty-old-mannish using Facebook after graduating, like it was something for kids; I had my chance to use it, and that was it.  When it was obvious that Facebook was no longer a students-only service, I used it as a tool to remind people that I was still here — in the form of a status update that I would post at some random time each morning.

People seem to like the statuses. Some people seem to like them too much. As in, “I start every day with you!” Creepster.  They are observational, topical, and occasionally emotional… but sometimes they’re hard to come up with. And maybe they have seen their time come and go. People just expect them now. People who don’t use Facebook want me to simulcast on Twitter.  (I do.) Maybe my statuses jumped the shark when the former director of admissions at my high school said she wanted to add me as a friend on Facebook because she’d heard about my wit.

So that’s what brought the idea of the blog back to the front burner – I needed a place to be myself (and my wordier self than I would be in just a status) with a closer group than my Facebook friends.  Awkward questions from long-lost Chilean relatives won’t have a place here. But you will.

Written by Dave

June 20, 2012 at 22:35

Posted in Background

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