Meatless Monday: Romesco Sauce -- A Real Oldie But Goodie

For a moment, let your mind’s eye wander and hop aboard our magic carpet. Today, we’re headed to the northeastern portion of Spain, where the land of Catalonia meets the Mediterranean Sea. In a word -- wait, in two words -- the cuisine here is complex and enchanting.

Romesco sauce with steamed broccoli and baguette slices. (Kim O'Donnel)

I’m hardly doing justice to this ancient style of cookery that is as much the result of physical geography as history and development of cultures. Here’s a snippet from the intro to “Catalan Cuisine” by Colman Andrews:

Like Catalonia itself, Catalan cuisine looks outward toward Europe and the Mediterranean rather than back into the Iberian interior. It’s a complex and sophisticated system of recipes and techniques, first codified as early as the fourteenth century. It was born out of the cooking of the Romans, who occupied the area for almost 700 years (until A.D. 476), and was enriched in later centuries by invading Visigoths and, more importantly, Moors, and still later by French and Italian merchants and immigrant restaurateurs.

For Americans, the most well-known dish from Catalonia is paella, but today, our focus is on romesco sauce, an equally classic dish that takes a fraction of the time. In the region, says Colman, the word romesco has three meanings -- 1) a seafood stew; 2) a variety of a medium-mild dried pepper; and 3) the aforementioned sauce.

In the course of my research, I found many variations on the recipe, which may date to the Phoenicians, according to Andrews. But most recipes, at least those since the 19th century, agree that it’s a chunky mélange of pulverized almonds and/or hazelnuts, fried bread, dried sweet-ish peppers and tomatoes (as both the peppers and tomatoes were undoubtedly late additions from the New World). Some recipes call for more vinegar than others, some call for roasting the peppers and tomatoes, some are cooked and some are mostly raw.

Whatever you decide, you can’t go wrong. The result is, like its homeland, a complex mouthful that is also balanced. You get the sweetness of the tomatoes and peppers, acidity from the vinegar, fat (and texture) from the nuts and piquancy from the garlic. The bread acts as a binder, and the oil as an emulsifier. And yes, it improves with age; you’ll notice more complexities a few days after it’s been sitting in the fridge.

Personally, I think this sauce is too complex and nuanced when tossed with hot pasta, and it may separate. Instead, try pairing it up with vegetables, steamed, grilled or roasted. Try broccoli, cauliflower, leeks, eggplant or potatoes, for starters, and witness first hand just how exciting vegetables can be.

Romesco Sauce
Adapted from "Catalan Cuisine" by Colman Andrews, plus inspiration from “Little Foods of the Mediterranean” by Clifford A. Wright
KOD notes in parentheses

1 thick slice Italian or French country bread, crust removed
3 dried ancho chiles, soaked for one hour, drained, seeded and minced
(Necessary? No, but really nice flavor. Plan B: Equal mounts fresh poblano chiles, roasted, peeled and seeded, and a few red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and seeded)
1 small piece fresh serrano or jalapeno pepper (1/2-1 inch long), minced
Equivalent of 2-3 tomatoes, peeled and seeded. (I used canned whole plum tomatoes, drained)
6 cloves garlic, minced
About 1 cup almonds and/or hazelnuts, roasted
2 sprigs parsley (nice, but not critical)
1/3 cup olive oil, possibly more
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
Optional adjustments: ½ teaspoon cayenne; 1 ounce red wine

Vegetable options:
Steamed or roasted broccoli florets, grilled leeks or eggplant, roasted potatoes and cauliflower.

In a skillet, fry bread in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until golden on both sides. Remove from pan and allow to cool. Add more oil if necessary and sauté dried and fresh chiles briefly until aromatic. (If using roasted peppers, there is no need to sauté in oil.) Transfer to the bowl of a food processor, along with garlic, nuts, parsley and bread. Use “pulse” button to insure that mixture does not overpuree; you want some texture.

Add tomatoes to mixture, then oil and vinegar. Mixture will emulsify quickly. Taste for salt and add heat of cayenne, if appropriate. If mixture is too thick, you may add red wine, or equal amounts of water.

Mixture should be thick but also have a slightly liquidy quality.

By Kim ODonnel |  February 2, 2009; 7:50 AM ET Meatless Monday
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Nice call for Monday. I'm a big fan of romesco sauce--first tried it with monkfish. Although it's a bit strong, it pairs perfectly with gnocchi. I'll have to give this recipe a go as I've got some gnocchi in the freezer.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | February 2, 2009 10:28 AM

This sounds delicious, and would be a new flavor combo for my family. Thanks!

Posted by: godairyfree | February 2, 2009 11:21 AM

Kim- Sounds great and I was planning on roasted veg for dinner tonight and trying to figure out how to jazz them up. Question:if I use hazelnuts do I have to remove the skins first? I stupidly bought them w/skins and have found it almost impossible to get them off.
thx, newton mom

Posted by: NewtonMom | February 2, 2009 11:52 AM

NewtonMom, Roasting the hazels will help remove the skins. When they come out of heat, place on a towel and rub them vigorously. Skins should start to ease their way off.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | February 2, 2009 12:08 PM

NewtonMom - If you roast them for a little while, you can rub the skins off. I use the toaster oven when making romesco.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | February 2, 2009 12:38 PM

Since when is Paella a Catalonian dish? Try Valencian! Most American tourists would say that Paella is the most well-known dish of any of the 17 Spanish regions if they stuck to the typical tourist trap restaurants. Same goes for Sangria, which the Spanish themselves look down upon.

Posted by: lastruchas | February 5, 2009 11:11 PM

Paella is NOT from Cataluña (or Catalonia, as you callit) but from VALENCIA!!!!!!! As a matter of fact, its name is PAELLA VALENCIANA!!!!!!
Do not missinform people!

Posted by: normiux15 | February 6, 2009 2:29 PM

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