The King of Sauces, Catalan-Style

Roasted Scallions with Salsa Romesco

In Spain, olive oil is like religion. Everyone has it, it’s supposedly good for you, and people don’t give it too much thought. It also permeates nearly every aspect of life in Spain, and can be found anointing everything from vegetables to meat, bread to dessert. It is so pervasive, and so versatile, that it doesn’t seem to occur to most Spaniards that there could be anything else to embellish food with. Well, maybe apart from mayonnaise, but that’s another post.

This entry is not actually about Spanish olive oil, although tomes could easily be written on it. Instead I wanted to give you the necessary context to fully appreciate the difference in saucing habits between Catalonia and the rest of Spain.  While most of Spain is happily glugging on the oil, perhaps frying a few cloves of garlic in it first or tossing in some parsley, in Catalonia cooks have invented and perfected sauces so rich and complex that they would give Escoffier a run for his money. The crown jewel of Catalan – indeed of Spanish – sauces, is (in my humble opinion) salsa romesco. Romesco is the creation of the inhabitants of Tarragona, a city which lies just south of Barcelona on the Mediterranean, and which until recently wasn’t well known throughout the rest of Catalonia. These days, however, it’s pretty much ubiquitous throughout the region, and you have a good chance of finding a delicious version in any restaurant that serves Catalan cuisine. Tell this to a Tarragonese and he will of course insist that nowhere outside of Tarragona is the sauce properly made.  In any case, it really doesn’t matter, because the basic ingredients that go into romesco have the magical ability to taste fantastic no matter how you put them together.

The basis of a romesco is red pepper. In Tarragona, they use a local dried sweet-hot pepper called the ñora which is not widely exported (update: here’s a source!); as a substitute Colman Andrews suggests Ancho chiles, if you live somewhere where you can find those. Penelope Casas in The Foods and Wines of Spain suggests a ‘New Mexico’ type dried chile, which I haven’t tried. What I have tried, and liked very much, are simple roasted red bell peppers, or if you can find them, a bottle of imported piquillo peppers. What goes into the sauce next is a layering of flavors that build upon this pepper base like instruments in an orchestra: nutty toasted almonds, pungent garlic, sweet tomatoes, piquant vinegar, spicy chile, and rich, fruity olive oil. It is sometimes thickened with a bit of fried bread, can contain hazelnuts as well as almonds, is often slightly sweet as well as sour, and in general can go through about a hundred different permutations. It can be thick and coarse like a tapenade, or it can be fluid and smooth like fresh cream. It can be served as an accompaniment to grilled or roasted vegetables, meats or fish, or it can form the basis of a cooking sauce in which seafood is simmered. I’ve served it over pasta, and spread it on sandwiches. I’m sure you could even put it on pizza.

Whichever version you choose to make, however, and in whatever form you choose to eat it, it will be one of the most fantastically tasty things you ever have the pleasure of putting in your mouth. Give me romesco over olive oil any day!

‘Tarragona’ Romesco from Catalan Cuisine
3 dried ancho chiles, soaked in warm water for 1 hour, seeded and minced
1 small fresh hot chile, seeded and minced
extra-virgin olive oil
2 tomatoes
6 cloves garlic, minced
24 blanched almonds, lightly toasted
24 hazelnuts, lightly toasted
2 sprigs parsley, minced
2 slices fried bread
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

Preheat the oven to 350F. Sauté the fresh and dried peppers briefly in a small amount of oil. Bake the tomatoes in a lightly oiled dish for 10 minutes; then remove and cool. With a mortar and pestle or in a food processor, make a thick paste of the garlic and sauteed peppers. Work in the nuts, parsley, and fried bread. Carefully peel and seed the tomatoes, and coarsely chop. Work the tomatoes into the mixture, then add vinegar and 2-3 tablespoons of oil and salt to taste. The mixture should be thickly liquid.

My Romesco
4 T. olive oil
1/3 c. blanched almonds
1/2 c. tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped (can be fresh or canned)
3 red bell peppers, roasted, seeded and skinned (or 1 small jar pimientos del piquillo)
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 t. sweet paprika
1 t. sugar
1/4 t. red pepper flakes or hot chile powder
3 T. red wine vinegar
salt to taste

In 2 T. olive oil, fry the almonds until golden, about 2 minutes.  Put almonds, tomatoes, garlic, paprika and pepper flakes in a food processor; mix together the remaining oil and vinegar and add in a thin, steady stream while running the processor.  Season with sugar, salt and pepper, cover, and let stand 1 hour before serving.

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