Gambas a la plancha is a quintessential tapas dish throughout Spain, served everywhere from tiny street stalls, tapas bars, to fine restaurants. These spot prawns are cooked to perfection with the sweetest tail meat and flavorful heads.
This past weekend we celebrated my birthday and kept it super simple. After a rocky start to 2021, dealing with family members getting COVID-19, finding out family of friends passing from COVID-10, and getting my mom ready for surgery, I wasn’t in a mood to do anything but realized it’s even more important to celebrate these special occasions given the fragility of life.
The best birthday present came in the form of the COVID-19 vaccine. I finished the 2 shot series with the only side effect of sore arm after both times. I feel a bit more at ease mentally, but it doesn’t change my habits of masking, frequent handwashing, and social distancing. I’m looking forward to having a real birthday celebration in a couple years but was really happy with our simple dinner. My husband got the freshest spot prawns caught right off the San Diego coast from Tuna Harbor Dockside Market which we turned into gambas a la plancha or Spanish grilled shrimp tapas, a quintessential tapas dish throughout Spain, served everywhere from tiny street stalls, tapas bars, to fine restaurants.
What are spot prawns
Spot prawns are a cold water, West Coast treasures. They have orange-red shells with snow-white fresh that is delicious, delicate, and sweet like lobster. You’ve probably seen them on the sushi menu of Japanese restaurants as amaebi, or sweet shrimp. The tails are served on nigiri or sashimi and often accompanied by their fried shells and heads. This is the only raw sushi item that my husband is willing to eat. The best place to buy spot prawns in San Diego is Tuna Harbor Dockside Market. Occasionally you might find them at H-mart.
Tips for keeping spot prawns fresh
When you buy live spot prawns you have to work fast or they will spoil. Immediately get them into a cooler or on ice after you purchase them. Avoid putting them in tap water or the chlorine in the water will hasten their death. If you're not cooking them right away, remove their heads and leave the tail on ice. Spot prawns have an enzyme in their brain that starts spreading as soon as they die and turns the flesh soft and mushy. If you see prawns with black spots, that means the enzymes have started spreading. You can fry the heads tempura style or make a prawn stock out of them. Put the tails on ice, cover them with a cloth and keep them in the fridge for up to two days until you're ready to cook. Before cooking, simply give them a quick rinse in water and let them dry on a few sheets of paper towel.
How long to cook the spot prawns
Cooking these prawns "a la plancha" is more of a technique rather than a recipe. A la plancha at its most basic, is a metal surface set over an open fire. If you're not cooking these prawns over an open fire, use a pan that will get extremely hot like a cast iron pan. A little heat will firm up the flesh and release the sweetness, but too much will toughen the meat. These spot prawns need no more than 60 seconds to cook on each side, and 30 seconds for the smaller ones.
After a quick sear on the cast iron pan, the flesh turns pink and sweet, sweeter than any other shrimp or prawn I've tasted. The head is equally delicious which tastes like a better version of lobster tomalley. Even my kids love the flavor from the heads. I enjoy them fresh of the cast iron pan with an extra drizzle of olive oil. I don't put anything on these prawns, not even a squeeze of lemon juice. Serve it with a crisp white wine or a fruity rose to enhance the flavor of the spot prawns. Gambas a la plancha was the perfect dish to satisfy my Spanish and seafood cravings without a trip to Spain.
Gambas a la plancha
- Cast iron pan
- 2 lbs live spot prawns, shell-on
- ½ cup olive oil
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- sea salt to taste
- Rinse the prawns under cold running water then lay them flat on a few sheets of paper towel to dry.
- Add about ½ cup of olive oil and garlic to a bowl and mix well to combine.
- Heat a cast-iron pan over high heat until hot and scatter with a good handful of sea salt.
- When the pan is searing hot, dip the prawns in the garlic-olive oil and place them on the pan.
- Cook the prawns for about 1 minute on each side, until a brown crust from the prawn juice solidifies on the shell and the tail meat is just cooked and translucent in the center. Cook them for 30 seconds longer or shorter depending on the size.
- Transfer the prawns to a serving platter and serve immediately with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.