I visited Spain a lot with my parents when I was a teenager. I wasn't a finicky eater, I just didn't have a fully developed and appreciative palette. I think this is true of most teenagers. I remember going with my parents and their friends to a tiny family owned restaurant, in Madrid, and looking at the menu, not understanding anything that was on it, my Spanish was pretty dicey back in those days.
I remember picking Pollo al Ajillo (pronounced poe-yo al ah-he-yo) because I knew pollo was chicken, I liked chicken, and chicken is safe. I knew ajillo meant garlic, I liked garlic, so how bad can it be? Chicken and garlic. Right? As luck would have it I made the right choice and ended up not only eating all the chicken, but mopping up the tangy, garlicky sauce with the bread.
Fast forward 20 years, and I am back in Madrid, at the same restaurant, with my mom, aunt and then 4-year old daughter, and with the same friends. This time, my Spanish was flawless and my palette had finally grown-up! We ordered a little bit of everything, including Pollo al Ajillo, which my 4-year old daughter, Eryka, devoured, just like her mom had 20 years before. It was as good, if not better, than I remembered, the sauce was still infused with the sweet pungent garlic, and tempered by the lemon and sherry. I asked Nena, my mom and aunts friend, how the dish was made and Nena called over the owner, who was also the head chef. He gave me a very detailed description of the ingredients, and how to make the dish. I wrote it all on the back of a museum brochure , I think it was for the Prado Museum, I wish I had kept it! Once I got home I started the process of recreating that dish and it took a bit of finagling but I finally got it right. I dedicate this dish to my mom, Aida, and aunt, Nereyda, who have since passed on, and the bittersweet memories of that crazy trip to Europe with two old ladies and a well-behaved 4 year old!
2 pounds of bone-in chicken breast and thigh, skin in tact. Break down the breasts and thighs into chunks, bone and all, use your kitchen shears, it is much easier.
1/2 cup olive oil
1 head of garlic, minced
1 hot pepper, I use thai chili, cut in half. (Optional)
1 lemon zested and juiced
1 cup of extra dry sherry*
Salt and pepper
A handful of flat leaf parsley roughly chopped
Salt and pepper chicken on all sides.
In a small sauce pan, like a butter warmer, add the oil, garlic and pepper. Heat oil over very low heat, so that it is barely simmering. This step is to infuse the garlic flavor into the oil.Let the garlic steep for 5-10 minutes.
Take 1 tablespoon of the infused oil and add it to a large skillet, over moderate heat. Increase heat and brown chicken on all sides. Work in batches to avoid braising the chicken.
Add all the oil to the skillet the chicken cooked in and raise the heat, add all the chicken back in, all the ingredients, except parsley, and cook covered over low heat for 30-40 minutes or until all pieces are cooked.
Sprinkle with parsley before serving.
Traditionally served with fried potato rounds. I prefer to serve it with boiled root vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes,and parsnips. I don't think you can go wrong pairing with most starches and certainly with a simple salad and bread. ENJOY!
*This dish is classically made with sherry, but if you can use dry white wine if you do not like it or do not have it on hand.