Sunday 11 January 2015

Romesco Sauce

Olé! Romesco sauce is a sensational condiment that originated in Tarragona, Catalonia, Spain. The fishermen of the area developed it as an accompaniment to their daily catch. Not only is it terrific with fish and seafood, but it goes very well with most poultry, meat, eggs, bread, leeks, asparagus, mushrooms or it can be stirred into soups and stews. There are a few different adaptations of this sauce. Some people use roasted red pepper, some use roasted tomatoes and others (myself included) combine the two. It always includes some kind of nut as well. The most common nuts used in romesco are almonds, hazelnuts and pine nuts. You may see it with flour or stale bread added as a thickener but I personally don't find it necessary. This is also a sauce favoured by garlic lovers. Some variety of vinegar or citrus juice is usually added to brighten up the sauce. My recipe also uses ancho pepper and paprika.

I especially recommend this recipe to anyone who has never tried it before. It's certainly unique. So often in European cuisine fish is served with lemon, dill, capers and/or some kind of hollandaise or rich mayo-type emulsion (like tartar sauce). Romesco goes so well with fish but it has none of the traditional ingredients that make up these sauces. It will stand out in your memory, like every element of a good dish should. Roasting the red peppers, tomatoes and garlic brings out all the natural sugars and awakens that sweet, robust, earthy flavour that they're so well known for. The nuts bring not only a pleasant, nutty flavour to the party but really lend themselves to the texture of romesco. Then you have the smoky, medium-heat of the ancho pepper all lifted with the bright acidity of sherry vinegar (a classic Spanish ingredient). It is a culinary symphony, complex in its flavour profile yet simple in its preparation. Simple as in not difficult, but there are a few techniques involved in order to bring out the right flavours from each ingredient. Let's take a look at how it's done.


2 red bell peppers, seeded and roughly sliced
2 tomatoes
1 head of garlic, sliced horizontally
1/4 cup hazelnuts, blanched
1/4 cup almond slivers
1 ancho chili pepper
2 tbsps sherry vinegar
1/2 tbsp paprika
Olive oil

Let's start with the nuts. In a pinch, you could use them raw. You can also buy them pre-roasted, but I promise you, neither will ever come close to getting them raw and roasting them yourself. I really recommend you do this step. It makes a big difference. 

Get yourself some almond slivers and blanched hazelnuts. Blanched just means that the skins have been removed (slivered almonds should already be blanched). You only need 1/4 cup of each for this recipe but I recommend roasting more than you need because they're great to snack on, add to salads and heaps of other uses. In the photos you're about to see, I'm roasting more than I'm using for the romesco for that reason. You can use a baking tray but cake tins work just as well. Since I had two kinds of nuts and two cake tins it just made sense. Add a very, very modest amount of olive oil to both kinds of nuts. Just enough to barely coat them lightly. Start with a tsp and add more if you think you need to. Too much oil will fry the nuts and that's not what we want. Nuts have a tendency to burn easily. Roasting them dry could lead to uneven cooking and therefore, burning in areas. 


Preheat your oven to 350 F/177 C. Add the nuts to the middle of the rack and roast for 5 minutes. Take them out and give them a shake, ensuring that nuts from the outside of the pan move inward and ones from the middle get moved further to the outsides. This will ensure even roasting. Place the nuts back in the oven and repeat every 2 or 3 minutes. You want the nuts to get 2 or 3 shades darker and emit a nutty aroma. This step will not take any longer than 15 minutes tops. Since the almond slivers were thinner than the hazelnuts, I found they took 2-3 minutes less time. Once roasted, keep the nuts separated but pour them into room temperature bowls. 

The almond slivers are already a good shape, but give the hazelnuts a rough chop. It's best to do this after roasting (to avoid burning). 


Increase the heat of the oven to 375 F/191 C and add the red peppers, tomatoes and garlic on a baking tray. The ingredients should be lightly oiled and seasoned with salt and pepper.

Garlic burns quicker than bell peppers and tomatoes. So I recommend taking it out early. After 35 minutes I removed the garlic when it looked like this. 

Before placing the veggies back in the oven. You may want to use the back of a large spoon to press down on the tomatoes a bit to help break them down. Then place them back in the oven and increase the temperature to 400 F/204 C and cook for an additional 25 minutes or so. While the garlic is still warm, remove the cloves from their papery casings. They will have softened so this step is quite easy and quick. Set the softened, roasted garlic aside.

While the peppers and tomatoes are finishing up, prepare the ancho. Let's familiarize ourselves briefly with ancho first. An ancho chili pepper is simply a poblano chili pepper that has been dried. They have a medium-spicy heat but also a somewhat counteracting, natural sweetness. 


Could you use fresh poblano pepper instead of ancho? Sure. You just won't get the smoky flavour that the ancho version provides. If you can only find fresh poblano, simply remove the seeds, roughly slice and roast with the red pepper and tomatoes from the beginning. If you are lucky enough to get some ancho, open it to remove the seeds and then rip the skin into smallish pieces. 


Warm a tbsp or so of olive oil in a pan over medium heat and add the pieces of ancho. Sautée for about a minute. This step does a few things. It awakens the flavours of the ancho pepper. It brightens up the colour of the ancho. It also rehydrates the chili a little and softens it which makes it more ideal for puréeing. Set aside. 

When the red peppers and tomatoes are finished, the peppers should be good and caramelized and the tomatoes should be broken down and stewy. 


Place the red pepper, tomatoes, garlic, ancho, hazelnuts, almonds, sherry vinegar and paprika in a blender.  The base of this sauce are the peppers and tomatoes so it is imperative that they be hot for this step in order to blend perfectly. Never blend any hot ingredients that take up more than 2/3 of the space in the blender. Otherwise trapped steam will explode and cause a mess in your kitchen and potentially serious injury to yourself. Ensure that the lid is tightly fixed while blending. 

Begin with a few short bursts before blending at a higher speed to purée. The ingredients should be smoothly combined. Give it a taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. You may prefer a little extra vinegar as well. 

This recipe gave me about a cup and a half to two cups of romesco, but this will depend on the size of your tomatoes and red peppers. The sauce is now ready to use at your disposal. Refrigerate any unused portion and consume within a week. It will last for a few months in the freezer. 

I used my romesco from this recipe and served it with a roasted sea bass fillet over wilted mustard greens and topped with some of the roasted almonds and hazelnuts that I used in the sauce. It was so good. 


I hope you give this a try. There are a few steps, as you can see, but they are so worth it and you can prepare this sauce a day or two in advance. Romesco is a smart way to use tomatoes and bell peppers this time of year. These ingredients and typically not in season until mid-to-late summer but by roasting and caramelizing them you really get the most out of the flavour they can provide. Play around with this recipe if it suits you and see what other ways you can enjoy it.

Thanks for checking out the blog. I hope I may have inspired you to try some Catalan flavours in your kitchen soon. Romesco has an incredible depth of flavour but it's also rather healthy so you can enjoy it without the guilt. Who doesn't love that?


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