My Signature Dish: Gambas Al Ajillo

IMG_9583“Make your signature dish.” We’ve heard the instructions a thousand times on countless food-based reality competitions. A signature dish is supposed to embody who you are as a chef (or home cook in my case!) and highlight your culinary point of view. When I think about my signature dish, only one comes to mind: gambas al ajillo. The classic Spanish tapa that combines shrimp with a sizzling and slightly spicy garlic oil is one of my all time favorite meals.

This dish ties into my culinary past as it was while I was living in Spain that I really developed a true love of food and an extreme passion for cooking and entertaining. It’s not a complex dish, gambas are something a Spanish grandmother would make, and that also reflects my cooking style. Rarely are my dishes complicated and I prefer to make food that is simply delicious.

I’m most happy when I’m hosting some sort of party and these shrimp are perfect for any fete, be it an intimate gathering or a large bash. The recipe can easily be doubled and I recommend marinating the shrimp one day in advance. If you only try one of my recipes, please make these gambas. You won’t be disappointed!

Gambas Al Ajilo

10 large cloves of garlic, peeled
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (also known as Pimenton)
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails removed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Crusty bread, for serving

  1. Place the garlic cloves in a food processor. Using the pulse button, chop the garlic until finely minced.
  2. Transfer the garlic to a large sealable plastic baggie. Add the olive oil, red pepper flakes, and paprika. Stir to combine.
  3. Season the shrimp generously with salt and black pepper. Add to the bag with the oil mixture and seal. Toss the shrimp with the oil, making sure to coat each shrimp with garlic, paprika, and oil. Place in the refrigerator overnight.
  4. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  5. Transfer the shrimp and the oil mixture to an oven-safe dish (preferably a cazuela). Cook the shrimp in the oven for 8-10 minutes until the shrimp is plump, pink, and just cooked through. Serve immediately with crusty bread for mopping up the tasty oil.  Enjoy!

Serves 6-8.

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Grilled Shrimp with Old Bay

Shrimp has always been a Sweeney family favorite. We love shrimp grilled, roasted, poached, sautéed, and even in ceviche. We love shrimp so much that sometimes my sister is called ‘lil shrint.’ During the summer, there’s no better way to cook shrimp than on the grill. My dad recently introduced me to Maryland-style shrimp — it’s basically shrimp that’s been coated in Old Bay seasoning. It’s finger licking good, but I decided to take it one step further by adding in a couple other ingredients. This recipe is quick, easy, and oh-so-scrumptious. It’s got everything necessary to become a new family favorite!

Grilled Shrimp With Old Bay

1 lb large shrimp, peeled and deviened
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons Old Bay
4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Place the shrimp in a large bowl or big plastic ziploc baggie.
  2. Add the olive oil, garlic, chili powder, Old Bay, Worcestershire sauce, and lemon juice. Season generously with salt and pepper. Toss everything to combine, making sure that all of the shrimp is coated in the oil and spices.
  3. Set aside to marinade for 15 minutes. If you want to marinade it longer, place covered and closed, in the refrigerator for up to 2 hours.
  4. Prepare a gas or charcoal grill. You’ll want it to be medium high heat. If you can hold your hand 5 inches above the rack for only a couple of seconds, it’s hot enough.
  5. Remove the shrimp from the marinade and place directly on the grill. They cook very quickly so pay attention. When they curl and start to turn pink, flip and cook for 1 minute longer, about 3-4 minutes total. Serve immediately with lots of napkins and grilled bread, if desired.

Serves 4-6.

Veggie Quesadillas With Shrimp

2 poblano peppers
2 small zucchini, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1 jalapeño
2 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
1/4 of an onion, sliced into chunks
Olive oil, for drizzling
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons cilantro, minced
8 flour tortillas
1 heaping cup grated pepper Jack cheese
1 cup cooked protein like bay shrimp, grilled chicken, or steak, optional
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
Butter, at room temperature for brushing

  1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Place the poblanos, zucchini, jalapeño, garlic, and onion in a single layer on a large cookie sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 18-20 minutes until the veggies are cooked and just starting to char. Set aside to cool.
  2. When the vegetables are cool enough to handle, remove and discard the charred skin of the poblanos and jalapeño. Seed the peppers and roughly chop.
  3. Dice the onion and add them to a large bowl with the peppers and zucchini.
  4. Press the garlic out of its skin and finely mince. Add to the bowl with the other veggies.
  5. Add the minced cilantro to the chopped roasted veggies and stir lightly to combine.
  6. To assemble the quesadilla, place four flour tortillas on a work surface. Top each one with 1/4 cup of the pepper Jack cheese, spreading it evenly over the tortilla.
  7. Evenly divide the roasted vegetable mixture between the cheese-topped tortillas.
  8. If using the shrimp or protein, sprinkle 1/4 cup of shrimp onto each veggie-and-cheese-topped tortilla.
  9. Sprinkle 1-2 tablespoons of the feta over the top. Season with salt and pepper and cover with the remaining four tortillas.
  10. Heat a griddle to medium-low. Brush one side of the outside of the quesadilla with butter. Place butter side down on the warm grill. Cook, slowly to ensure that the cheese melts completely, about 7 minutes. Brush the top tortilla with butter and flip. Cook for another 5-7 minutes until the bottom is brown, the inside is heated through, and the cheese is melted. Remove from the grill and let sit for 1 minute. Slice into wedges and enjoy. Repeat with the remaining quesadillas.

Serves 4-6.

Gambas al Ajillo

10 cloves of garlic, peeled
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (also known as Pimenton)
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails left on
Crusty bread or crostini, optional for serving

  1. Place the garlic cloves in a food processor. Using the pulse button, chop the garlic until finely minced.
  2. Transfer the garlic to an oven-safe dish (preferably a cazuela). Add the olive oil, red pepper flakes, and paprika. Stir to combine. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
  3. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Place the dish with the olive oil and garlic mixture in the oven. Heat for 4-5 minutes until the oil is hot and the garlic is starting to be fragrant.
  4. Add the shrimp and cook for 3-4 minutes.
  5. Flip the shrimp and baste with the oil. Continue cooking until the shrimp is plump and pink, 3-4 minutes more.
  6. Serve immediately with crusty bread or crostini for mopping. Enjoy!

Serves 6-8.