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50 Women Game-Changers (in Food): #47 Zarela Martinez - Camarones al Ajillo {Garlicky Stir-Fried Shrimp}

the "Gourmet" prompt...
47. Zarela Martinez- The Manhattan restaurateur has done much to popularize, and demystify, regional Mexican cooking.

Though both of Zarela's parents were born in the US (Texas and Arizona), Zarela was born in Agua Prieta in the state of Sonora in Mexico.  The family lived in the US, but owned a cattle ranch "of considerable acreage" in Mexico and her father wanted it to be kept in the family, therefore one of their  daughters was to be born there.  Zarela's was the lucky one.  They spent a fair amount of time on that ranch when she was growing up.  Food was a huge part of their life and culture - four course meals every evening with candles and flowers on the table and wine for the adults.  She learned to cook from her mother not because she was expected to, but because she wanted to!  Martinez expects to be publishing a Mexican cookbook written by her mother soon, as well.

Zarela began cooking professionally during the late 70's in El Paso, but with the support and encouragement of Craig Claiborn and Paul Prodhomme, she moved to New York in '83.  She was lauded as "the city's first serious"  attempt to recreate Mexican cuisine using local resources for her work as menu-designer and executive chef at Cafe Marimba.  In '87 she opened her own "self-titled" restaurant, Zarela.  After 23 years, she closed it in 2011 (much to the chagrin of many loyal customers).

She continues in her commitment to bring regional Mexican food to New York in her launch of a program for the Mexican Cultural Institute (of which she's recently been named to the board) entitled Food in Arte.  This promotes Mexican culture through its food and traditions from the different states throughout Mexico.  She's made it her mission to make her culture known and understood.

Aside from cooking and writing, Zarela also has a catering business and gives cooking lessons, lectures, and demonstrations.  She's also worked as a marketing consultant for brands such as Unilever Best Foods, Nestlè©, Marriott and Taco Bell.   She's been a guest on Julia Child's Cooking with Master Chefs, Martha Stewart, and NPR's Lenny Lopate Show.  She is also active in organizations such as the Hispanic Children's Fund, CityMeals on Wheels, Latino Nutrition Coalition, the MexEd Foundation, and Mano a Mano.

Zarela says "from my childhood on, cooking meant sharing and security and a way of speaking to the people".
further info on Zarela: website | facebook | twitter | youtubeflickr

Since my library didn't carry any of her books, I turned to Amazon.  I knew I'd enjoy anything she wrote (since Mexican is my favorite cuisine), so I figured that investing in at least one to start with was a good idea.  And boy was it.  I ordered Zarela's Veracruz.  The hardest part?  Choosing just one recipe to feature today.  I was torn between Tostadas de Jaiba (Tostadas w/ Hashed Crab), Camarones con Chile Chipotle (Shrimp with Chipotle Chiles), Camarones a la Pimienta ( Peppered Shrimp), and the recipe I actually chose.  It was a crap-shoot, really.  Apparently I was craving seafood.  But the garlic-lovin' gene in me won out this time.  And how happy am I that it did!?  This is such a simple preparation.  You may not be able to tell how special it is with just a glance.  But it's gloriously garlicky with this pleasant heat that makes your nose start to run.  Piling it all on some crusty bread (and using the bread to sop up the juices) is a memorable experience. So. Stinkin'. Tasty.

Camarones al Ajillo (Garlicky Stir-Fried Shrimp) + Ajo Preparado (Garlic Butter Enrichment)

by Heather Schmitt-González
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Keywords: stir-fry appetizer entree chiles garlic shrimp Mexican

Ingredients (serves 2-4)
    Camarones al Ajillo
    • 1 large head garlic, cloves separated & peeled
    • juice of 2 limes
    • ~1 tsp. coarse salt
    • freshly ground black pepper
    • 1 lb. shrimp (any size), peeled & deveined
    • 3 Tbs. olive oil, separated
    • 3 Tbs. vegetable oil, separated
    • 20 dried chiles de arbol
    • 1 Tbs. Ajo Preparado (recipe follows)
    • lime wedges, to garnish
    Ajo Preparado
    • ½ c. garlic cloves
    • ½ c. cold water
    • 2 Tbs. butter
    Camarones al Ajillo
    Crush 2 of the garlic cloves to a paste with the salt in a medium bowl using a heavy pestle (or something similar). Stir in the lime juice and a good grinding of black pepper. Add the shrimp and toss well to combine. Let stand for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.

    Bruise the remaining cloves of garlic by laying the flat of a kjnife against them and giving it a swift hit. The garlic cloves should stay mainly intact. Add 1 tablespoon of each of the oils to a medium skillet over medium. Add the bruised garlic and cook for ~2 minutes, or until it just turns golden. Add the chiles and cook, stirring constantly for another minute, taking care not to burn the chiles. Quickly scoop the garlic and chiles into a small bowl and set aside.

    Heat remaining oil in the same skillet over medium-high. Stir in the ajo preparado. Add the reserved shrimp and cook, stirring constantly for 2 minutes, or until they just turn pink. Add the reserved garlic-chile mixture and let cook for just 1 minute longer, until everything is heated through.

    Serve with lime wedges for squeezing and a good loaf of crusty bread.

    Ajo Preparado (yield: ~¾ c.)
    Puree the garlic with the water in a blender.

    Gently melt the butter over medium heat in a small saucepan without letting it bubble. Pour in the garlic puree and cook without stirring for ~5 minutes, or until the water has evaporated and the mixture is "bubbling up in ploppy craters".

    Let mixture cool to room temperature. Transfer to a small, airtight container. Will keep, refrigerated, for up to 1 month.

    Use this as a sauce enrichment in seafood dishes and stews or anything else you'd like to add an extra burst of garlicky flavor to. Try starting with ~1 Tbs. for a dish that serves 4.

    slightly adapted from Zarela's Veracruz
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    p.s... one of Zarela's sons has followed in her footsteps. Can you name this famous chef? Think tattoos, Chopped, Heat Seekers. Oh yeah, that's him. None other than Aarón Sanchez!  To read a bit about Aarón's food memories with his mom and see a little video of the two in the kitchen together, check out this interview on Marcus Samuelsson's blog.
    sources and further reading: Zarela, Memorable Dishes from a Master Mexican Chef by Craig Claiborne (from The New York Times), My Mom's Sopa Seca: Aarón Sanchez's Food Memories with his Mom (also the source for the photo of Zarela & Aarón)

    In May '11, Gourmet posted a list of 50 Women Game-Changers (in Food) that runs the gamut from food writers to cookbook authors to television personalities to restauranteurs to chefs to food bloggers.  Some are a given.  Some are controversial.  Speaking the names of some brings fond childhood memories.  Speaking the names of others will make some readers cringe.  And of course, some of our favorites were not even included.  We food-lovers are a passionate bunch of people and whether we agree or disagree, every woman on this list has earned her place for a reason.  Being a woman who is passionate about food (cooking, eating, talking about, writing about, photographing), when I caught wind of Mary from One Perfect Bite's idea of cooking/blogging her way through each of these 50 per week...I knew I wanted to join her.  Many of these women paved the way for us in culinary school, in the kitchen, in cookbooks, in food writing, and on television and I think it is a fabulous way to pay tribute to their efforts.  Some of the women on the list have been tops with me for years.  Some I have heard of (perhaps even seen, read, or cooked from) before.  And there are even a handful that I am not familiar with at all.  I excited to educate myself on each of these women game-changers and hope you look forward to reading along.  We are going in order from 1 to 50.
    Who is cooking along with these 50 Women Game-Changers?

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