27 January 2009

simple, delightful and entirely messy

Do you remember that bowl of aioli, standing slighly forlorn next to the ciabatta in last week's post?


Well, no need to, actually. It just happened to stand next to the bread, and now as I am looking at the images for this week's post, I realise that there isn't a single one of the aioli with the food it was originally meant to go with.

I don't even have a single image of the aioli just by itself. Which, in my eyes, is quite a shame - it would have deserved one. It is THAT good. With bread, with prawns, with almost about anything else except itself.

(As a sidenote - just one thing that several guests on one of our annual summer parties have learned in quite a nasty way - never, never place the aioli next to anything that looks like it could go with vanilla custard. Woodruff jelly and aioli are a strict no-go.)

But, as already mentioned, it is close to unbeatable when it accompanies seafood, especially crustaceans. And even though as a kid I first learned to like the french 'crabes araignée' with homemade mayonnaise, today I'm rather a fan of the spanish version - gambas con aioli.

Simple, delightful and entirely messy, they're perfect if the dreary winter weather calls for some summery food to lift up your spirits. Though, admittedly, they're at least as good in the middle of summer, fresh and steaming from the barbecue.

gambas con aioli
(serves four as starters or two as main)
(aioli not pictured)

for the 'gambas'
1kg king prawns, whole and raw
50ml soy sauce
juice of one lemon
1 tablespoon honey
a pinch of pepper and / or chili

for the aioli
2 eggyolks
200ml - 250ml vegtable oil (sunflower, preferrably)
1 clove of garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons lemonjuice, maybe more
1 teaspoon honey
optional: a tiny pinch of ground saffron

Defrost and / or clean the prawns, if necessary.
We usually buy them frozen, size 16-18 (meaning that there are 16 to 18 prawns in a kilogramm) at our local wholesale market. Of course, if you want to go extravagant on a really nice barbecue, you can always buy one huge one per person, which would be rather expensive but always makes one hell of a posh plate.

Cut open the tails of the prawns with a sharp knife or a kitchen hatchet, beginning at the 'chest' between the legs and cutting lengthwise down to their tailfins.
If you just want to ease the later peeling and allow some marinade touch the meat, it is enough to cut the prawn's belly and leave the back intact. Especially on a grill and with bigger specimen, I prefer also cutting the back, because then you'll get two 'curls' of prawn that almost look too pretty to eat.

De-vein if necessary.

Mix the remaining ingredients for the marinade in a big bowl until the honey is dissolved. Toss the prawns with the marinade until they are well-covered, the leave to rest for about half an hour, longer for bigger prawns.

For the aioli, put the yolks in a high, narrow mixing bowl. Mix with the handheld mixer at the highest setting, then add the oil. Only add a few drops(!) at first, then mix until well combined. Then you can add about half a teaspoon, then more and more until you have a very, very stiff, almost glassy rudimentary mayonnaise.
The amount of oil you need varies significantly with the size of the yolks, the temperature and probably a hundred different things I have no clue of. I just add oil until the mix feels really stiff, like fluffy butter.

Add the crushed garlic, lemon juice, honey and salt, and mix until well combined.
Try to balance the taste of lemon, honey and salt. There is a point where you can hardly tell them apart, and that is where the aioli goes from 'garlicky mayonnaise' to 'nom nom nom...' or rather 'gobble gobbble gobble...'. Usually, I just add the lemon juice and add touches of salt and honey until I have the right balance. In this case, I have given the amounts you'll approximately need for a rather mild version, though you can surely double the amount of lemon juice and get a really, really pungent (really tasty, but maybe exhausting) result.

If you want, you can also add a pinch of ground saffron for more colour and a more original, spanish taste.
If you add saffron strings, you'll end up with bright red lines in your aioli, bleeding orange, but then again I can imagine that little bit of added colour being wanted. If you only have saffron strings, grind them with a mortar and pestle with the salt from above and add with the salt. I usually omit the saffron, as the wife doesn't really like it.

Chill the aioli at least twenty minutes, and stir well before serving.
There is very little moisture for the salt to dissolve in. So even if you use very finely ground salt, it'll make weird white specks on the aioli in the first minutes or crunch if you eat it right away.

Drain the gambas from the marinade. Either drop them into a rather hot skillet with just a hint of oil or put them on the grill, whatever season and equipment allows. Fry on both sides until just done, shouldn't take more than 10 - 15 minutes.

If you want some gravy besides the aioli, you can deglaze the pan with some of the marinade and a piece of butter.

Serve immediately, with white wine and something to clean your hands afterwards. Enjoy!

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