Romancing the Romesco

Romancing the Romesco

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Romancing the Romesco

Native to the town of Tarragona in Northeastern Spain, Romesco is a coarse paste of roasted peppers, tomatoes, garlic, nuts, and toasted bread. But as with many traditional dishes, there’s no exact, authentic recipe. It’s something you have to have to play around with and learn to make your own.

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July 10, 2016 | Text: David Rollins Photography: Rob Lee

Romancing the Romesco

Native to the town of Tarragona in Northeastern Spain, Romesco is a coarse paste of roasted peppers, tomatoes, garlic, nuts, and toasted bread. But as with many traditional dishes, there’s no exact, authentic recipe. It’s something you have to have to play around with and learn to make your own.

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July 10, 2016 | Text: David Rollins Photography: Rob Lee

It’s one of those dishes that starts arguments about exact ingredients, proportions, and approved accompaniments. The ‘real’ Romesco uses oil pressed only from Spanish Arbequina olives, apparently, and smoky, slightly chocolatey ñora chiles. And many recipes won’t include roasted tomatoes or smoked paprika, for instance, but both these ingredients to me taste like essential components of the dish. Almonds vs. hazelnuts, lemon juice vs. vinegar… the precise ingredients and proper amounts are difficult to pin down. And I just love it.

My favourite dishes are the ones that have no recipe – the ones conjured from our collective taste memory and jotted in greasy shorthand on a paper tucked between the front cover and first page of a favourite cookbook. A dish that’s a little different every time it’s made, and defined by such immeasurable factors as the ripeness of the ingredients or the mood of the cook. (Clearly I’m not a baker.) How much garlic should you use in Romesco? Quanto basta, as it’s said in Italian. As much as is enough. Put what’s needed.

 

A grill full of sizzling scallions is an absolutely wondrous sight, sound and smell.

What’s needed to make a good Romesco is a good balance of the main flavour elements: there’s sweetness from roasted peppers and tomatoes, the smokiness of paprika, bright acidity from vinegar, mild pungency from roasted garlic, and the warm toastiness of nuts and bread.

There’s even a mild bitterness from the charred bits you get from roasting everything, and from the nut skins, if you’re in the mood to leave them on. And of course the butteriness of olive oil. It’s a wonderfully complex combination that’s easy to pull in whatever direction you like. Be bold, and aim for a sauce the texture of loose oatmeal.

In Catalunya, the harvest of calçots (a variety of green onion) is celebrated with the calçotada – a traditional community feast that opens with mountains of grilled calçots dipped in Romesco sauce, and generally continues with grilled lamb and lots of wine. We do the same at home when the first really great local green onions hit the farmer’s markets.

A grill full of sizzling scallions is an absolutely wondrous sight, sound and smell. We sometimes include asparagus in our Romesco feast, and really love it with really garlicky, lemony grilled fish, especially octopus.

 

Romesco

The concept is roast everything, and then pulverize it to a coarse paste. A food processor, while less authentic than a mortar & pestle, works wonderfully. Experiment with different types chiles and nuts, or try replacing the vinegar with lemon or pomegranate molasses.

makes about 2 cups

  • 2 ancho chiles
  • 2 medium tomatoes
  • 2 large roasted red peppers
  • 2 handfuls of hazelnuts
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 2 hunks of crusty bread
  • 2 glugs of sherry vinegar
  • 2 pinches of smoked paprika
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Toast the anchos in a hot skillet. Rehydrate the anchos in boiling water, then remove the stems and seeds and scrape the flesh from the skin. Char the red peppers on a gas grill, then steam them in a zip-top bag. Remove and discard stems, seeds and burnt skin. Put the flesh of the anchos and the red peppers into a food processor.

Chop the tomatoes coarsely, then toss them along with the unpeeled garlic cloves in olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Roast tomatoes and garlic in a 425° oven for about 15 minutes. Toss the bread in olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and add to roasting pan. Cook for another 10 minutes or so. In the final 6 or 7 minutes of roasting, add the hazelnuts. Watch the skins on the nuts – when they are just barely turning from brown to black, they are done.

Allow everything to cool slightly. Squish the garlic out of its skin, into the food processor. Add the nuts, with or without their skins. Add the tomatoes and bread. Moisten everything with a glug of oil and vinegar and pulse a few times. Add more oil and vinegar, the smoked paprika, a pinch of salt and lots of pepper, and pulse again.

Once it’s all breaking down nicely into a rough paste, have a good taste. Does it need more vinegar or salt? Can you taste the paprika? Does it need a dash of hot sauce or a squirt of lemon? Don’t overblend, add too much oil, or eat half of it before dinner.

 

1 Comment

  1. Julie 10 months ago

    Beautiful! Romesco is one of my favourite sauces… I’ve never tried it with hazelnuts!

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