Gambas al ajillo

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Last weekend, my dear friend Maggie and I got together to cook, eat, drink wine and reminisce about our recent trip to Spain and Portugal. Last September, the two of us rented a Smart car and drove from Madrid to Rioja, San Sebastian and Leon before heading due west to Guimaeres and Porto, Portugal, and then finishing the trip in Salamanca and our beloved Madrid.

Maggie, muy jovial (como siempre), at the Mercado de San Miguel

Maggie, muy jovial (como siempre), at the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, Spain

Looking down on beautiful San Sebastian

Looking down on bella San Sebastian, Spain

The perfect lunch in an overcast Salamanca

The perfect lunch in an overcast Salamanca, Spain

Tasting porto at Ferreira port cellar, Porto, Portugal

Tasting porto at Ferreira port cellar, Porto, Portugal

Pinxos de anchoa, San Sebastian

Pinxos de anchoa, San Sebastian

Dinner outside on the streets of Leon, Spain

Dinner outside on the streets of Leon, Spain

Rainy Porto, Portugal

Rainy Porto, Portugal

Vinas de la Rioja, Spain

Vinas de la Rioja, Spain

Jamon the Smart car ready to leave rainy Guimaeres, Portugal

Jamon the Smart car ready to leave rainy Guimaeres, Portugal

Sunset, Querida Madrid

Sunset, Querida Madrid

As the wine flowed, more and more Spanish snuck into the conversation while we pored over photos, snacked on pan con tomate (crusty bread smeared with tomato), and made tortilla espanola (Spanish omelet) and quick gambas al ajillo (garlicky shrimp in olive oil).

Mira! Cut the potatoes in little, bite-sized cubes asi.”

Asi?

Si.

“Hee-MAHR-es? Guee-mare-es? Dios mio, we visited the damn town and still don’t know how to pronounce it?” (Full disclosure: We never really learned much Portuguese aside from desculpe, which means “sorry.”)

Pues, anchoas are NOT boquerones, right? Isn’t that what Judith (pronounced Hoo-DEET, the name of the friend we made at a corner bar in Madrid) said?” (We think boquerones refers only to vinegar-cured, Spanish white anchovies.)

“Remember how Madre (the nickname we gave the brusque, pushy proprietor of our crappy San Sebastian hotel) eventually warmed to us because we are so jovial y amable?”

Pues, si, we are.”

Later joined by the Mister, who initiated a marvelous game of Scattergories, the three of us sat up eating, drinking y charlando till probably 3 am, but Maggie and I never achieved our original goal of making a photo album.

Oh well. La proxima vez, no?

This beautiful dish of shrimp, sliced garlic, parsley and olive oil cooks in the time it takes you to open a bottle of rose, which is great if you look up and realize it is 10 pm, you’re a couple bottles of wine in, and the Mister is threatening to order a pizza because all you’ve served so far is lots of pan con tomate.

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Gambas al ajillo

Ingredients

    1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
    1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
    3 large cloves garlic, sliced
    1/4 cup torn fresh parsley leaves (plus a handful more for garnish)
    1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined (I left the tails on for easy grabbing)
    Salt, to taste
    Crusty bread, for serving

Method: Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat until it slides easily around the pan. Add the red pepper flakes, garlic and parsley and cook for about 10 seconds.

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Crank the heat to high and add the shrimp and a sprinkling of salt.

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Cook, tossing a few times, until they’re pink and starting to curl, about 3 minutes. Spoon the shrimp and garlicky oil into a big shallow bowl, top with fresh parsley and serve with crusty bread for sopping.

Porridge sweats

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I’ve pretty much hit my limit with this winter. I now eat hot starchy things at almost every meal. Polenta, rice, pasta, cous cous, cracked wheat: whatever grain I can get my hands on gets cooked in liquid with a little cheese, herbs and/or butter and mixed with meat, vegetables, broth and–usually–additional cheese.

I know this isn’t a good solution, but I like the little bout of what I call “porridge sweats” that follows when I eat this type of insides-warming food. The sweats usually last long enough that I can make it a few blocks down the street without shouting “THIS IS BULLSHIT!!” into the bitter wind. (I’ve been yelling at the weather.)

Call me dramatic, but this is what Chicago winter does to a person. Each year, it discovers new ways of inducing despair. It might be through snow almost every day in December that turns the sidewalk into a distant memory; 15 straight days with no sunlight (trust me, that’s a lot); or like this year, a blizzard followed by a whole month of zero-ish temps so the snow turns into dirty styrofoam and everything else becomes permanently coated in either salt or black ice. Chicago winter, you are a sly minx indeed.

In search of new sources for porridge sweats last week, I ventured into savory oatmeal territory. I first had a variation on it with pork belly a few months ago at Owen & Engine and have been dreaming about it ever since. Steel-cut oats cooked risotto-style with a bit of wine for tang (or wine vinegar if you don’t have any wine open) and warm stock added little by little till they’re creamy with a slight bite in the center. My version, laced with sweet cherry tomato jewels and topped with Parm and a very runny egg, made for the perfect solo lunch. But you could also up the ratios, add some smoky bacon lardons and serve it for brunch to some poor, cold bastards in need of a good porridge sweat.

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Steel-cut oat risotto with poached egg
serves one

Ingredients

    Olive oil, as needed
    1 small onion, minced
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    2 garlic cloves, minced
    12 cherry tomatoes, halved
    3/4 cup steel-cut oats
    3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
    3-4 cups chicken broth, warmed over medium-low on the stovetop
    1 egg
    1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
    1 tablespoon butter
    1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
    3 tablespoons minced parsley

Method: In a medium Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, add a tablespoon or 2 of olive oil, the onion, and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Saute for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add the garlic, and stir for a minute until fragrant. Add the cherry tomatoes and the oats, stirring to coat each grain in the oil. Add the red wine vinegar and stir until it’s all but dissolved.

Turn the heat down to medium. Add about 1/2 cup of the warm broth, and stir frequently until most of the liquid is gone.

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Repeat this in similar amounts each time, until the oats are cooked to al dente and have achieved a creamy texture. This should take about 20 minutes.

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Meanwhile, crack the egg into a small bowl or ramekin. Heat a saucepan over medium heat until lightly simmering (not boiling). Add a large pinch of salt and the distilled vinegar. Use a spoon to quickly stir the water in all one direction until it’s smoothly spinning. (This will keep the white from spreading out too much). Ease the egg into the center of the whirlpool, and let it simmer untouched for 2-3 minutes for a runny yolk (4 for a firmer yolk).

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Use a spoon to carefully remove the egg, and set it on paper towels to dry.

When the oats are cooked, turn off the heat and add the butter, along with most of the Parmesan and parsley, saving a bit for garnish. Check the seasoning and adjust as needed with salt and pepper.

Spoon the oats into a bowl, top with the rest of the Parm and parsley and the egg. Season the egg with salt and a few grinds of pepper, and eat!

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