As my loyal readers know, people are constantly asking me which Amelia Island restaurants are my favorites. And I, being the ever-sensitive, politically correct, diplomatic citizen I am, hesitate to reveal my extremely biased opinion. The truth is, the best food on the island is made in my cooking classes. DUH! Why? It’s true I’m awesome, but great food can be made only when one has great passion.
The Spanish cuisine class I recently designed is a perfect example. I relish the basic ingredients of Spanish cooking—fruity olive oil, smoked paprika, chorizo, copious amounts of garlic, Serrano ham and (my favorite) saffron. I’m totally obsessed with the flavors’ straightforward intensity. Traditional Spanish cooking is not at all subtle—it’s more like heavy metal. Addictive? ¡Por supuesto! The flavors grab you, wake you up, rattle your bones, force you to pay attention and leave you wanting more. Much of this cuisine is served on small plates or tapas, you never suffer palate fatigue from too much of any dish.
Best of all, most Spanish cuisine is rustic and simple, with a few familiar, easily found ingredients. The results depend on the cook’s skill to strictly follow proper, basic techniques instead of having lots of stuff mise en place and multiple steps. My constant harping on technique, technique, technique may get old, but I’m right. Proper technique creates mouthwatering results. So listen and do what I tell you.
To bang out an exceptional version of Gambas al Ajillo—the classic garlic shrimp tapa—you need exceptionally fresh shrimp. That, my friend, is no problem for us lucky folks in the good ol’ 904. Next, concentrate on thinly slicing about twice as much garlic as you think necessary: Thin is the key! No shoemaker-style big chunks will do—so focus! The third step? Properly control the heat of high quality olive oil; it should be just below medium-high. If the oil’s too cool, the garlic and chili won’t develop the sweetness and the slightly brown hue that give the dish its complex character. Once the garlic begins to brown, it’s time to introduce the shrimp to the others in the pan.
“Excuse me, Señor Ajo, may I say, you have a beautiful tan. And Señorita Chile, you’re really starting to pop! May I join you?” the excited shrimp calls to the pan’s guests.
“Sí, you may join us, but for only about two minutes! Then you must flip!” reply garlic (aka Ajo) and chili.
Don’t overcook or undercook this; your reward is a truly Cheffed-Up tapa. BTW, if you want to learn more, come to my classes.
Chef Bill’s Gambas al Ajillo
• 1 oz. olive oil
• 6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
• 4 small finger chili peppers
• 1 pound never-frozen Mayport shrimp, peeled and deveined
• 2 tbsp. parsley, chopped
• Salt and pepper to taste
1. Heat olive oil to medium-high, add chilis and garlic. Cook until garlic just begins to brown.
2. Add the shrimp and salt and pepper; cook until the shrimp begins to turn pink; flip and cook through. Stir in parsley; adjust the seasoning.
Email Chef Bill Thompson, owner of Fernandina’s Amelia Island Culinary Academy, for inspiration and to get Cheffed-Up!