Served as a sauce, romesco is certainly striking: It has an intense dark orange color and a dense texture that saturates and blankets whatever you dip in it. Once in the mouth, you get a piquant touch of vinegar, which is soon enveloped by the nutty creaminess of ground almonds (or perhaps hazelnuts) and olive oil. Yet the sauce’s main personality (and taste) derives from the roasted tomatoes and the rehydrated nyora peppers (ñora in Spanish), both of which are also responsible for its distinctive color.
A versatile and tasty picada (pounded paste), romesco works as the base of the famous cold sauce (salsa romesco) but is also used in various dishes like monkfish romesco and mussels romesco. It has come, in its many forms, to represent the culinary culture of Tarragona, a province in southern Catalonia.
According to the official line, romesco is native to El Serrallo, a port neighborhood in the city of Tarragona, where its use was documented in early 20th century – local fishermen would mix the ingredients they had lying around, like almonds, bread, dried pepper, olive oil, salt and wine, to create a picada to flavor and thicken the fish stews they cooked on their boats. Yet there are earlier references to it in various books from the 19th century.
In Catalonia, picadas are cooking bases with Roman roots that were traditionally made of ground nuts (usually almonds), garlic, vinegar, bread and olive oil, all combined with a pestle and mortar. This base, which sometimes includes complimentary herbs and spices, can be used to make a sofrito, to thicken and flavor a stew or broth, to prepare a sauce and to give a final touch to a dish.
With the arrival of ingredients like chiles and tomatoes from the Americas, the original picadas evolved, resulting in more sophisticated and refined creations like romesco. The definitive romesco recipe includes roasted tomatoes and the rehydrated pulp of a couple of dried nyoras (a type of red round pepper whose seeds arrived from Mexico and were successfully cultivated and preserved at the Monastery of Los Jerónimos de San Pedro de la Ñora, in Murcia, Andalucia) or pimientos choriceros (choricero peppers), while some people also add a guindilla (a small spicy chile) to give it a kick.
The sauce is an excellent complement to barbecue, roasted or grilled vegetables, seafood and some types of fish and meat. It also assumes different names: Both salbitxada, the sauce that’s served with calçots (a Catalan spring onion), and xató sauce, which is the star of the xató salad from Vilanova, are more or less the same as romesco.
Here is our basic recipe for salsa romesco that you can build upon to create a sauce best suited to your tastes.
Romesco Sauce (Salsa Romesco)
2 dried red peppers (nyora or choricero are ideal, although cascabel chiles make a good substitute)
½ head of garlic
1 slice of bread (the bread can be fresh or stale)
30g of toasted almonds (or 15g almonds and 15g hazelnuts)
½ cup of vinegar
1 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup of rancio-style wine (aged sweet wine – a Madeira, Port or sherry would work well)
1 small spicy fresh chile (optional)
½ teaspoon of sweet or spicy paprika (optional)
The night before making the sauce, soak the dried peppers in enough water to cover. Remove the seeds.
Prepare items to roast. Cut a cross on the bottom of the tomatoes. Peel the garlic cloves. Place the tomatoes, garlic, slice of bread and bell peppers on a sheet pan and roast at a medium high heat. Check often and turn the ingredients until all are well roasted.
Grind the nuts into very small pieces using a pestle and mortar. In a bowl, put together the ground nuts with the roasted ingredients. Add the vinegar, olive oil, sweet wine, a pinch of salt and pepper, and, if using, the paprika and/or small spicy chile. Blend everything with a hand blender until you get a sauce with a thick consistency. Correct the salt, pepper and spice level according to taste.
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