Romesco sauce is a delicious, versatile Spanish sauce made with tomatoes, almonds, hazelnuts and peppers. Made the traditional way takes a little more time, but it's still easy and worth it for the wonderful depth of flavor. Great with grilled vegetables, fish, meat and more.
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More years ago than I would like to think of now I lived in Northern Spain for a school year, teaching English as a foreign language. I was in a small town in the Tarragona district of Catalunya which is the home of the great, but sadly hardly known outside the area, romesco sauce.
Romesco sauce has a number of uses - it is kind of like that area's equivalent of pesto - but it must be made in bucket-loads in the region for calçotada season.
What is a calçotada?
To me, it's one of the best meals I have ever eaten that is a tradition in the Tarragona region between the start of the year and Easter, when a vegetable called calçots are in season.
Calçots are a member of the alium family, somewhere in size and taste between leeks and spring onions. They are grilled over the barbecue until black on the outside, wrapped in newspaper to allow them to soften then they are served with romesco sauce.
You peel off the black outside, dip the calçot in the sauce and take a bite. Yes, it can be very messy, but they are so addictive you quickly get through the stack at your table. In some places, you can get a refill, but you need to bear in mind this is only the appetizer/starter.
There's still a mixed grill served with a kind of bean stew on the side for main, and crema Catalana - Catalunya's answer to creme bruleé with a slight hint of orange - for dessert to come. All washed down with some delicious cava and/or red wine.
I had the meal a few times and nearly always needed to go home to collapse after. But in that that-was-so-good way.
At the time I was there, it was a very local thing - you couldn't even get a calçotada in the town I was in a few miles away although people made them at home. These days it has reached Barcelona and has become more popular, and, more expensive.
But it is still worth trying the authentic experience if you are in the region at the right time, ideally somewhere in the hills in the middle of nowhere. And in the meantime, you can recreate to a point at home with this recipe for traditional romesco sauce.
Traditional romesco ingredients
Romesco has core ingredients of almonds and hazelnuts, tomato, peppers, garlic and, of course, olive oil. All of these are classic ingredients from the region. In fact, one of the clients where I taught English was a nut processing factory.
As this sauce has gained popularity, many stray from the typical ingredients. Some of this is probably due to the fact that ñora peppers, that are traditionally used, are not so widely available. And some I think is purely for speed.
Many use jarred roasted bell peppers and if they use tomato, its raw. Also many skip roasting the garlic and toasting the nuts.
I get it, these steps take time, but they also all add to the flavor. And personally, I think it's worth taking the little extra time here for a more authentic, complex and delicious flavor.
See how it all comes together in the short video!
What if you can't find ñora peppers?
Nora (ñora) peppers can be a bit hard to find apart from online, unfortunately, outside of Spain, although they have become more widely available in the UK at least. However, since they are dried, they do keep to use over a period of time for this and other Spanish recipes.
As an alternative, you can substitute ancho or California chili peppers that have that similar relatively mild, smokey flavor (in the photo above I use an ancho pepper).
Recreating a calçotada at home
If you'd like to try to recreate a calçotada, then the best substitute is small/young leeks. Trim down the top and clean but don't peel them or chop off the bottom. Then either grill on the barbecue or on a griddle pan until slightly blackened and they appear soft.
Set aside a couple minutes to rest and soften, cover if they might go cold, then gently peel off the outer skin - this is often easiest by pinching just above the base and pulling off the outer skin with it - and serve with the romesco sauce.
Uses for romesco sauce
While the calçotada is the most traditional use, this sauce can be used in a number of ways:
- Drizzled over grilled or roasted meats and fish
- For dipping vegetables (grilled, roasted or raw)
- As a spread on bread, alone or with your favorite other toppings (try my romesco bacon grilled cheese sandwich)
- Stirred into stews (it's essentially what goes into a Catalan fish stew, romesco de peix, so you could use some in there instead of many of the other ingredients)
- Stirred through pasta.
Romesco sauce is such a delicious and highly versatile sauce that really is worth putting in a little effort to make it the traditional way. The end result has a wonderful depth and complexity, but it also works with so many things. So do give it a try and enjoy.
Try these other delicious Spanish recipes from the Catalan region:
- Catalan coca (Spanish pizza)
- Llescas (bread pizza)
- Calatan style sauteed swiss chard with pine nuts
- Plus get more Spanish recipes in the archives.
- 2 tomatoes large, 3 if smaller
- 6 cloves garlic ½ head, left joined together (see notes)
- ⅛ red pepper a little more if small (optional)
- 1 dried nora pepper large, or a dried ancho/California chili
- ¼ cup blanched almonds
- ¼ cup hazelnuts
- 1 slice bread eg sourdough stale, hard crusts removed and cut into chunks (1 slice is approx 1oz/30g)
- 5 ½ tablespoon olive oil divided
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
- ¼ teaspoon salt approx, to taste
- Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Remove the outer skin from the garlic but leave the garlic on the bulb stem in their individual skins. Trim the very top off the cloves of garlic and add the bulb to a small roasting dish, along with the chunk of red pepper. Cut the tomatoes in half through the middle and add to the roasting dish. Drizzle oil (around ½ tbsp) over all of them, along with a little salt, then roast in the preheated oven.
- Remove the garlic and pepper after around 40-45 minutes when the pepper is softened and the tops of the garlic are browning. The cloves inside should feel soft. Return the dish with the tomatoes to the oven and cook for around another 15 minutes (around 1 hour total). Remove and allow to cool.
- As the tomatoes are cooking and/or cooling, prepare everything else. Pull the top off the dried pepper/chili, tip out the seeds and place in a small bowl. Cover with boiling water and allow to soak around 10 minutes. Press the pepper down with a spoon if it floats out of the water.
- In a dry skillet/frying pan over a medium heat, gently toast the almonds and hazelnuts until starting to color slightly on both sides. Remove the nuts from the pan and set aside.
- In the same pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Break the stale bread into chunks and add to the pan. Cook on both sides until gently golden then remove from the heat.
- Once the tomatoes have cooled, slide the skins off the outside and place the flesh in a food processor. Remove the skin from the pepper and add to the food processor. Squeeze the roasted garlic from the skins and add this as well.
- Add the vinegar, lemon juice, toasted bread, almonds and remaining 4tbsp (¼ cup, 60ml) olive oil. If the hazelnuts had skins on them, rub them in a dish towel to remove the skins then add these too.
- Remove the nora pepper from the water, open it up and scrape out the inside, leaving the skin behind. Add this paste to the food processor. Blend everything together to form a relatively smooth sauce.
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This post was first shared in March 2015 and has been updated, including new photos, video and additional information.