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 had 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.
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 romesco sauce.
How to make romesco sauce
Romesco has core ingredients of almonds and hazelnuts, tomato, grilled peppers, garlic and, of course, olive oil. You lightly dry-roast the nuts, gently fry the garlic and bread in olive oil then mix everything together. Traditionally, you’d mix by hand but a food processor is much easier. As I said, romesco sauce has a wide range of uses – it is particularly good with grilled young leeks and asparagus or grilled meats, but is also good with roast vegetables and as a spread in sandwiches.
Normally, you’d use whole hazelnuts but I find them harder to find here and so have used ground hazelnuts instead. They have the added benefit that you don’t need to rub their skin off and they’re easier on the food processor. If you need to use up leftover ground hazelnuts try these tasty German hazelnut cookies. Nora peppers are also a bit hard to find apart from online, but an ancho or California chili is a good alternative as they are mild and a little smokey. This sauce comes out at a spread-type consistency and works for dipping too, but if you want it a bit thinner to drizzle over grilled vegetables or meat, then add a little more oil and/or water.
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.
Romesco sauce is such a delicious and highly versatile sauce that I think is a shame it is hardly known. I hope you’ll give it a try and experiment with different uses for it – try this tasty sandwich for starters. It is certainly for more than just calçotada season, great as that is.
Traditionally served with calcots, romesco is a deliciously flavorful sauce great with grilled meats and vegetables.
- 1 dried nora pepper or a dried ancho/California chili
- 1/2 cup almonds 50g, whole or sliced
- 5 tbsp hazelnut flour 30g, 1/4cup plus 1tbsp, ground hazelnuts
- 1 slice bread stale, sourdough good, hard crusts removed, approx 35g, cut into chunks
- 2 cloves garlic 3 if small, peeled
- 5 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tomato peeled and deseeded
- 2 jarred piquillo peppers or 1 fresh, grilled until blackening, then skin and seeds removed
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 2 tbsp lemon juice or white wine
- 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/4 tsp salt approx, to taste
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 while you prepare everything else. Hold 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 until starting to color slightly and you can smell them. Then add the ground hazelnuts/hazelnut flour and warm a minute more before transferring the nuts to a food processor.
In the same pan, heat 1tbsp olive oil and put the whole garlic cloves and chunks of bread in and cook on both sides until gently golden. Remove and add to the food processor.
Add the remaining ingredients to the food processor and blend until smooth.
Add a little more oil and/or water if too thick.
Try these other Spanish dishes:
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