My Romesco Wasn't Built in a Day

Recipes kindly sponsored by Flahavan’s

I’ve never been in Catalunya at the right time of year to feast on calçots, the local onion delicacy. Actually, maybe “delicacy” isn’t quite the right word; calçots are a form of robust spring onion (or as we Irish and the Americans would say, “scallions”). When they are in season, early in the year, they get grilled over charcoal.

So the kind of calçot you will get, if you’re in the right place at the right time, is a charred scallion of sorts, pretty black on the outside, and soft and pungent beneath the smoky, papery skin.

I’ve had calçots elsewhere, of course. The best were in Rita’s Bar and Restaurant  in Hackney but I can’t remember if they came with the classical accompaniment, romesco sauce. It was a very sociable evening.

Romesco is another Catalunyan pheomenon, a red, thick, spicy and sharp sauce that seems to have grown up as an accompaniment to grilled fish. I first had it, not in Barcelona, oddly enough, but in London once again, this time served with the slowly crisped chicken leg and thigh that makes the estimable Barrafina in Soho, a place of regular pilgrimage for me. (Incidentally, the best torta di Santiago I ever had was here, with one in Santiago itself coming way down the field).

I have experimented over the years with various romesco formulae and – surprising as it may seem – have now settled on a rather inauthentic version. It simply evolved. No doubt there are as many romesco recipes as there are cooks in Barcelona but, even so, I’m not sure any of them would recognise mine. On the other hand, I think it would win approval merely on grounds of colour and flavour.

You see, I eschew almonds and/or pine nuts in favour of walnuts. The reason? I was out of almonds and improvised. And it was better.

I also use sherry vinegar instead of the conventional red wine vinegar. Again, I was out of the prescribed stuff and improvised. Sherry vinegar gives more depth and is less aggressive than your average red wine vinegar.

I love my romesco sauce so much that I’m constantly trying to think of things with which it can be served. A regular partner is young leeks (split, braised briefly with butter in the oven and then charred under a hot grill; my nod to the calçot).

Occasionally I make a kind of tempura bater (3 parts gluten free flour to 1 part cornflour with a little salt and a smidgin of baking powder) and anoint red onion rings with it. These crisp, oniony delights are sometimes augmented by a few similarly encased prawns.

Mixed half and half with mayonnaise, my romesco is a very happy partner for crab, lobster and langoustines.

Anyway, here is how you make the stuff…

TOM’S ROMESCOESQUE SAUCE

1 red pepper, ideally the pointy kind
3 tbsp olive oil
6-8 plump cloves of garlic
1 large or 4 small tomatoes (skinned, if you don’t think life is too short)
75g walnuts, shelled
2tsp sweet smoked Spanish paprika
1tsp hot (piccante) smoked Spanish paprika
sherry vinegar to taste
sea salt to taste (but don’t be shy with it; this is a sauce)
More olive oil

Char the red pepper on a barbecue or using a gas ring. You need to blacken the skin entirely, then put in a bowl and cover until cool enough to handle. Peel, remove the seeds and cut up roughly. Pop into a food processor.

(If you have to use an electric oven you can compensate for the lack of smoke with an extra dash of the sweet smoked Spanish paprika; it won’t be perfect, but it will certainly help).

Pour the oil into a pan and put on a low heat. Peel and slice the garlic very thinly and add to the oil. Cook slowly and gently until the garlic slices are just turning golden. Then chop the tomatoes roughly and add to the pan. Raise the heat and stir until the tomatoes, oil and garlic have formed an agreeable mush. It should not be very liquid.

Take off the heat and allow to cool. Meanwhile, toast the walnuts in a dry pan until they start to colour a little. Allow to cool for a few minutes.

Now add the agreeable mush and the walnuts to pepper in the food processor and whizz until you have something like a paste. Stir in the paprika and whizz again. Add the sherry vinegar (you will need at least 1 dsp) to taste, followed by the salt.

Add more olive oil until your sauce has the consistency of a rather lax chocolate mousse. Cover and store until you are ready to use it. It gets better and better and has been known to keep for a few weeks in the fridge.