Kitchen Exhibitionist
The Culinary Quests of a Food Enthusiast Stuck in the Sticks
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Quick-Fried Shrimp with Sweet Toasty Garlic
Quick-Fried Shrimp with Sweet Toasty Garlic

The other day someone asked me to name my favorite TV chef. When I replied with my answer I was surprised by her response, “Who?” she asked. “Who is that?” Geez, doesn’t anyone watch PBS anymore? I guess the Food Network has taken over the culinary consciousness of the masses.

I love Rick Bayless of the PBS series on Mexican cookery. Given America’s recent infatuation with television chefs and cooking shows, I’m surprised he isn’t as popular as some of the others. For example, I don’t understand Emeril’s appeal at all. He reminds me of Fred Flintstone, and his lopsided cartoon mouth rarely completes a grammatically proper sentence, which just drives me crazy and distracts me from the great looking food he prepares. And although she is adorable, Rachel Ray’s never-ending exuberance does get a bit wearing.

A true TV food star doesn’t need to resort to screaming out catch-phrases, inane giggling, or showing cleavage to be successful. Rick Bayless’ geeky-cool persona outshines all the Food Network TV stars put together. He is interesting, articulate, and passionate about Mexican cookery and ingredients. I love how he teaches us Mexico’s cuisine in the context of her history, geography, and culture.

He takes us by the hand and shows us real Mexican food, not the Tex-Mex imposters we grew up with. These are not the tacos from the fast food chains we know. These dishes are not the predictable variations of tortillas, meat, cheese, and salsa popularized by the ubiquitous faux-Mexican restaurants in America. These are not your mother’s enchiladas.

The cuisine of Bayless’ Mexico is the child of the ancient indigenous populations of Mayans, Aztecs, and others who, many centuries ago, were raped by the conquering Spanish and bore this wonderful old world/new world cuisine. The cuisine of his Mexico is simple, earthy peasant fare elevated to new levels by the European influence.

Rick Bayless makes the cuisine of his Mexico interesting, appetizing, and accessible. He introduces us to chilies in all their many-splendored glories. He makes us wish those mountains of strange dark pastes in the Mexican mercados were available in our hometown. He shares the regional street foods with us until our mouths water. He makes the cuisine of his Mexico ours.

That is why Rick Bayless is my favorite TV chef. Oh, and of course, his recipes are wonderful.

I’ve made his Camarones al Mojo de Ajo (Quick-fried Shrimp with Sweet Toasty Garlic) several times and can declare it as nirvana for shrimp and garlic lovers. The garlic oil, simply olive oil in which bits of garlic are slowly simmered until sweet and tender, is just amazing. The recipe yields more garlic oil than is used in the dish but you’ll be glad to have this leftover elixir to use in other ways.

The first time I made this as an appetizer, my guests and I loved it. Throughout the rest of the meal I kept little saucers of the extra garlic oil on the table for dipping our bread. One of my friends loved the garlic oil so much she asked if she could take some of the leftover oil home with her. I’ve used the leftover oil to sauté steamed broccoli and to flavor plain pasta. The garlic oil is so good I could almost eat it with a spoon!

The shrimp are quickly pan sautéed in the garlic oil so they remain plump and succulent. After cooking, they are showered with the flecks of toasted garlic and bits of chipotle chiles, and sparked with fresh lime juice.

Camarones al Mojo de Ajo
(Quick-fried Shrimp with Sweet Toasty Garlic)
From Mexico-One Plate at a Time by Rick Bayless

Serves 6 generously

3/4 cup peeled whole fresh garlic cloves (about 2 large heads)
1 cup good-quality oil, preferably extra-virgin olive oil
3 limes
2 canned chipotle chiles en adobo, seeded and cut into thin strips
2 pounds (about 48) medium-large shrimp, peeled (leave the tail segment if you wish)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or parsley (optional)

1. Preparing the mojo de ajo.

Either chop the garlic with a sharp knife into 1/8-inch bits or drop the cloves through the feed tube of a running food processor and process until the pieces are roughly 1/8 inch.

You should have about 1/2 cup chopped garlic. Scoop into a small (1-quart) saucepan, measure in the oil (you need it all for even cooking) and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and set over medium-low heat. Stir occasionally as the mixture comes barely to a simmer (there should be just a hint of movement on the surface of the oil). Adjust the heat to the very lowest possible setting to keep the mixture at that very gentle simmer (bubbles will rise in the pot like mineral water) and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is a soft and pale golden (the color of light brown sugar), about 30 minutes. The slower the cooking, the sweeter the garlic.

Squeeze the juice of 1 of the limes into the pan and simmer until most of the juice has evaporated or been absorbed into the garlic, about 5 minutes. Stir in the chiles, then taste the mojo de ajo and add a little more salt if you think it needs it. Keep the pan over low heat, so the garlic will be warm when the shrimp are ready.

Cut the remaining limes into wedges, scoop into a serving bowl and set on the table.

2. The shrimp.

Devein the shrimp if you wish: one by one lay the shrimp on your work surface, make a shallow incision down the back and scrape out the (usually) dark intestinal track; pull or scrape it out and discard.

Set a large (12-inch) nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and spoon in 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil (but not the garlic) from the mojo. Add half of the shrimp to the skillet, sprinkle generously with salt, then stir gently and continuously until the shrimp are just cooked through, 3 or 4 minutes. Stir in the cilantro or parsley if you’re using it.

Scoop the shrimp onto a deep serving platter. Repeat with the remaining half of the shrimp and another 1 1/2 tablespoons of the garlicky oil.

When all of the shrimp are cooked, use a slotted spoon to scoop out the warm bits of garlic and chiles from the pan, and douse them over the shrimp. You may have as much as 1/3 cup of the oil leftover, for which you'll be grateful its wonderful for sauteeing practically anything.

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