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.
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.
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
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.
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