After a week of culinary classes in Catalonia this past summer, I began to believe the "healthy Mediterranean Diet" was a marketing ruse. A fantasy. A bald-faced lie.
Having devoured quantities of food, wine and olive oil that would have made the Emperor Caligula blanch, my stomach decided to go on a temporary strike. The last morsel of food I recall consuming, between glasses of black Priorat wine, was duck braised in red wine with duck prosciutto, porcinis and prunes. Mediterranean diet indeed!
In hindsight, the most dire consequence of this unanticipated one-day fast was my absence for the lesson on making romesco (the o is pronounced more like a u, so it should be pronounced ru-mes-cu). Fortunately, my chef-instructor and hostess for the week, Alicia Juanpere, had the foresight to save me a taste (and recipe) for the next day, when my stomach lay down its picket signs and I had fully recovered.
The dominant toasted nuttiness of Alicia's recipe for salsa de romesco come from hazelnuts, almonds and bread that are fried in olive oil. She encourages you to pound them in a ceramic mortar with a wooden pestle to form the base of the sauce, but you would get good results in a food processor. Roasted tomatoes and dried nyora (spelled ñora in Castillian Spanish) peppers reconstituted in red wine vinegar contribute acidity, fruitiness and their vermilion color. The combination of roasted and raw garlic adds complexity, while cayenne adds a hint of heat. Extra virgin olive oil (the more, the better) gives the sauce an unctuous consistency. The goal, as in any dish, is to balance the contrasting flavors so that they form a symphony without any one player taking over.
With those alluring flavors firmly planted in my taste memory (the most reliable and active part of my gray matter), I used Alicia's detailed instructions to recreate the meal that I had so unfortunately missed: roast lamb with romesco sauce (pictured above, left).
I substituted one local dried red chile from my friend Lee at Tierra Vegetables for two imported nyora peppers, which are expensive. In appearance and flavor, Tierra's peppers resemble the true romesco peppers used in Tarragona, the birthplace of salsa de romesco, much more than the nyora peppers that Alicia used, which are more available throughout Spain (and online). Easier to find ancho chiles also yield excellent results.
In the goal of achieving the most authentic result, I highly recommend seeking out an olive oil from the region where the sauce originates. The olive oil from this region, a special government protected "denominación de origen" called Siurana, comes from the arbequina olive. The oil from this region, which spans most of southern Catalonia and northern Valencia, is the best I have tasted. Its characteristic after taste of almonds never fails to intoxicate me. An excellent domestic alternative to the Siurana oils are the arbequina olive oils produced by the California Olive Ranch.
My romesco sauce came out so well, that I used it later in the week to sauce a pan-fried ling cod (pictured right) and then as a piquant spread in an untraditional toasted panino (Italian-style grilled cheese sandwich) that featured smoky Basque Idiazabal cheese and Melissa's recipe for membrillo, Spanish quince paste. You could also use leftover sauce as the base for a voluptuous Catalan seafood stew by thinning it with the addition of fish or chicken stock, or, thin it with more olive oil and use it as a vinaigrette for a hearty salad of frisée, escarole and salt cod known in Catalonia as xató (pronounced like château).
For more details and background on salsa de romesco, see my earlier post describing my visit to Tarragona, where I dined at Barquet, the restaurant owned by the chef and author of the most authoritative book (in Catalan) on romesco, David Solé i Torné.
Salsa de Romesco
Yields about 1 cup
1-2 dried red chiles (quantity depends on size of chile; see text above)
2-4 T red wine vinegar
8-10 hazelnuts, peeled
8-10 whole almonds, blanched
1 slice bread, crusts removed, torn into 1-inch pieces
approximately ¾ c extra virgin olive oil
1 small tomato
1½ cloves garlic, one whole and unpeeled, the half clove peeled and minced
sea salt to taste
¼ t cayenne pepper
Preheat the oven to 400˚F.
Tear chile(s) in half and remove stem and any seeds. In a pan, heat the chiles in enough vinegar to cover the chile halves and allow to soak until softened, about 15 minutes. Use a butter knife to scrape the inner pulp free from the papery skin of the pepper and set aside. Discard the skin. Reserve the vinegar.
In another pan, fry the nuts and bread in ¼ cup of the olive oil over medium heat until golden brown (pictured left). Scoop out the toasted nuts and bread and reserve them. Save the olive oil, allowing it to cool to room temperature, to add to the sauce later.
Roast the tomato and whole clove of garlic in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove the peel of both the tomato and the garlic.
In a mortar, pound the raw garlic with a pinch of salt. Then add the nuts, bread and roasted garlic and pound to a paste. Add the tomato, pepper pulp, cayenne, 2 t of the reserved vinegar, salt and continue to pound.
Gradually drizzle in olive oil, first the nut infused oil and then an additional ¼ to ½ cup oil, until the sauce reaches a spoonable consistency. Adjust the flavor by adding more vinegar and salt to your taste.
Alternatively, purée all the ingredients in a food processor.
While you can use it right away, the sauce tastes even better the next day and keeps for about a week.