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Gambas con Chocolate | Shrimp in Chocolate Sauce

The title already probably has many of you thinking I'm crazy, and you may be right, but this wasn't my idea. It's been a standard Catalan dish for a long while.

Catalonians have a lot of different recipes that use chocolate in savory (as in “not dessert”) sauces. While there are traditional Mexican sauces (like the famous “Mole Poblano”) that do this, I’ve never encountered anything quite like the way Catalans use chocolate in these applications. The seafood recipes involving chocolate have always seemed the exceptionally strange ones to me. I kept seeing a few different squid and shrimp recipes with sauces featuring chocolate, which I have never been able to wrap my brain around. As such, I finally had to try one out at home. As skeptical as I was beforehand, it was a big hit with my diners, and it will remain an occasional part of my repertoire.

Rosa’s family, though familiar with these dishes, never did them at home. So, my usual source (Rosa’s mother) for sanity checking recipes I was teasing through, served as merely a cheerleader for this round. The recipe in this post is based on my interpretation of 4 or 5 different Catalan sources, all which were fairly similar. One of the recipes I liked, included saffron, which I thought added some interesting depth, so I included it. If you don’t want the flavor (or the expense), you can omit it. I think it comes through nicely in the end product.

The chocolate is not just a background flavor. You are going to taste it, so make sure to use a good quality chocolate - I would suggest dark chocolate in the 70-75% range. If you use something 90% or more, it will play more like a coffee flavor, and something much less than 70% will be too sweet. Also, be sure that the chocolate you choose does not have any other spices or flavorings in it, or you will get an especially weird sauce.

The recipe itself is pretty easy, and outside of the chocolate, is pretty typical of Catalan techniques and ingredients. You’ll start with a sofregit (sofrito), add in a liquid and then a picada to flavor and thicken the sauce. To obtain a balanced sauce that doesn’t taste like a seafood candy bar, a few things will help. First, make sure it is seasoned well. This is not a recipe to be salt-shy. Second, you really need to use whole, head-on, shell-on shrimp. So much of the flavor of the sauce will come from the extra flavor provided by the heads and shells while simmering in it. Finally, use a good homemade fish or shrimp stock to make this dish.


2 lbs raw, head-on, shell-on shrimp, long “whiskers” trimmed off with scissors

2 medium (or 1 large) onions, peeled, and cut in small dice

2 or 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

2 bay leaves

3 sprigs oregano, leaves only

3 sprigs thyme, leaves only

1 orange peel (left in large pieces)

2 cups shrimp or fish stock

Oil for cooking

Salt and black pepper TT

For the picada:

7 or 8 hazlenuts

8 or 10 almonds

50g of dark chocolate (70-75%), broken in pieces

Small pinch of saffron threads

1. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. Heat a large cazuela or heavy-bottomed pan on a medium flame. When hot, add a little oil, then sauté the shrimp just until colored nicely. Don’t try to cook it all the way through. Cook in batches, and set aside as it finishes.

2. Make the sofregit: Lower the flame to medium low, add a little more oil, then the onions, garlic, herbs, and orange peel, along with a pinch of salt. Continue cooking, stirring regularly, until the onions are meltingly soft and thoroughly cooked, but not browned. Add the stock, scraping up anything that is sticking to the bottom of the pan. Adjust the heat to bring up to a gentle simmer, and let simmer for about 5 minutes.

3. Make the picada: Get a small pan hot on a medium flame. Add the saffron threads to the dry pan and toast for 5 to 10 seconds. Quickly remove them from the pan and combine with the other picada ingredients. Ladle out enough of the simmering sauce base to generously cover the picada. Use a hand blender to blend until very smooth.

4. Finish the dish: Add the picada mix to the simmering sauce, and let simmer for about 30 seconds, stirring to get it very well incorporated. Add the shrimp back to the pan, along with any juices that may have accumulated. Let the shrimp simmer in the sauce for 3 to 5 minutes. Taste, and add salt if necessary. You can add water to the pan if needed. You don’t want the sauce to get too thick.

Serve hot, immediately, with the shrimp still in the sauce.

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