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A forgotten recipe becomes new again: Romesco sauce

Romesco sauce has as many variations as there are families in Catalonia, but it’s base is usually puréed roasted tomatoes and charred or dried and rehydrated red peppers which are thickened with almonds and/or hazelnuts and toasted bread then emulsified with olive oil.

I’ve begun working a few hours a week with Ben and Mary Daire at their wonderful boutique wine and gourmet food shop, Dare Bottleshop and Provisions in downtown Lenox. I’ve known Ben and Mary for many years beginning when Ben was the executive chef at Alta in Lenox and Mary was a sales representative for a regional wine, beer, and liquor distributor while I was working in a wine and cheese shop. I used to tease the 30-years-younger-than-I Ben that he’d be doing what I was doing when he hit the age I was when I stepped away from the restaurant business at age 38. I was only half kidding at the time, as I had lived the grueling life of a restaurant executive chef with its high burnout rate. I had to smile when I heard he and Mary opened this shop last November and Ben left the restaurant business at a similar age as I did. I, of course, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to remind Ben of my prediction on multiple occasions.

Beyond offering a wide range of interesting, carefully curated wines concentrating on independent winemakers who use organic and sustainable methods, they offer regionally sourced beers and ciders and environmentally conscious provisions for your food pantry. These provisions come from near and far, and as sometimes happens when glass items are shipped, they’re damaged in transit. Recently, a case from Matiz España, a company importing gourmet food products from Spain, was damaged en route. A couple of jars were broken causing them to spill onto other jars in the case. Mary and Ben graciously gave me a few of those damaged unbroken jars, one of which was a small jar of romesco sauce. This jogged my memory of that delightful savory sauce I hadn’t made for about 15 years. It’s a recipe which had slipped out of my consciousness as things do as I grow older even as I attempt to reassure myself that I’m wiser while routinely forgetting names of people and things.

The origin of romesco sauce dates to at least the 18th century when fishermen began using the condiment to liven up meals prepared from their catch while fishing off the coast of Catalonia in northeast Spain. Specifically, its origins have been traced back to the Catalonian port city of Tarragona south of Barcelona. The etymology of romesco originated with the Mozarabs, the Spanish Christians who lived under Muslim rule and adopted much of the Arabic language and culture. They concentrated in the Iberian Peninsula where, after much political wrangling, they declared themselves a nationality and the autonomous community of Catalonia was recently born within Spain.

Romesco sauce has as many variations as there are families in Catalonia, but its base is usually puréed roasted tomatoes and charred or dried and rehydrated red peppers which are thickened with almonds and/or hazelnuts and toasted bread then emulsified with olive oil. It’s a rich, jammy, slightly smoky, and subtly spicy condiment which works beautifully with almost any savory food beyond seafood including but not limited to roasted or grilled vegetables. It’s enjoyed so much in Catalonia, it’s been said that preparing roasted or grilled vegetables is only an excuse to eat romesco.

Especially now that we have excellent tomatoes and red bell peppers in season locally, it’s a wonderful condiment to prepare for use in many ways. It’s so versatile, I recently dressed a corn, tomato, basil, and ciliegine mozzarella salad with it which I shared with friends to rave reviews. Lois and I dipped grissini breadsticks into the jettisoned jar of romesco from Ben and Mary’s shop as an appetizer while picnicking at Tanglewood.

Romesco Sauce
Makes about 2 cups

The day I decided to prepare the sauce, I picked up a beautiful swordfish steak to grill from Mazzeo’s at Guido’s Fresh Marketplace. A super quick version of the sauce can be prepared using canned roasted peppers and fire roasted tomatoes, but when the ingredients are at their peak, as they are now, that would miss the point as far as I’m concerned. The recipe calls for whole blanched almonds, which, because I had some whole unblanched almonds in my refrigerator, I blanched by placing them in boiling water for one minute, after which I drained them and ran cold water over them until they were able to be handled. The skins slipped right off by squeezing from the thicker end of the almond and popping the now blanched almond into the fingers of my opposite hand.

Any meaty tomato will do. I used an heirloom Brandywine I had on hand, but plum tomatoes would be equally good. As I feasted on my meal, the sauce was so delicious I, like the Catalonians, questioned whether the swordfish or the Romesco was the accompaniment!

Ingredients:

  • About ¼ lb of meaty tomato, such as Brandywine or plum, the skin slit in an X
  • 3 large cloves of garlic coated with olive oil
  • ½ cup whole blanched almonds
  • 1 large red bell pepper, cut in quarters with the seeds, stem and membrane removed
  • 1 tsp chili flakes
  • 2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tbl sherry or mild red wine vinegar
  • 1 thick slice of toasted country bread torn in pieces
  • ¾ cup of extra virgin olive oil

Method:

  • Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  • On separate foil lined pans, place the tomato on one pan and the garlic and almonds on another in a single layer and roast for about 15 minutes, tossing the almonds and garlic about halfway. Keep an eye on the almonds and garlic because the time it takes to roast to a light brown is dependent on their freshness.
  • Turn the oven to broil on high and place the prepared red pepper skin side up on a pan on the top shelf of the oven. Broil until the pepper is blackened. To facilitate removing the skin close the pepper in a paper bag for about 10 minutes where the skin will steam off.
  • After removing the skins from the tomato and red pepper, place all of the ingredients except for the olive oil into a food processor fitted with the cutting blade. Puree the ingredients while adding the olive oil in a steady stream, scrapping down the sides until a thick smooth puree is formed.
  • Romesco sauce is used in many ways and is sometimes referred to as Spanish ketchup. It can be used to flavor and thicken stews, especially seafood stews. If served as a condiment, it’s served at room temperature.
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