Last week I had never tried calçots, which are a type of spring onion traditionally grown in Valls, an area in the Tarragona province (Cataluña). They are covered ("calçadas" therefore their name) with soil as they develop after sprouting and being replanted, so the stem stays white, very sweet and really tender. Anyway, I had never tried them, even though all my family is from Cataluña and I had heard so much about them. So, this last friday, to receive my parents who had been away for a few months I though they'd enjoy to have them again. So, I made a reservation in one of the best reviewed restaurants in Madrid which prepares them. It was really fun, as since they are supposed to be completely burnt on the outside (like I make peppers and aubergines over the flame ;) ) you are always given a huge bib (i just learnt this word!) so that you don't get dirty, as it's quite messy. I always find, the messier, the more enjoyable to eat! The ones we were served weren't as burnt as I expected, but they were soooo good, so soft on the inside, literally melt in your mouth!!BUT…
There's always a but, I've been raised with my mom's cooking, she's an excellent cook, so I have fond childhood memories of her amazing Romesco. Romesco is the sauce that always accompanies a "Calçotada" (the barbecued calçots) so my standards were really high! And when they brought us a light-coloured sauce to go with them, I could not believe that was their version of Romesco! Even worse after trying it! Not that it was bad, it was just not at all like the real thing! I understand each chef has a way of making it, a personal version, but this was just like a mayonnaise with some romesco added as to make more of it! Sad, really sad...specially for the price they were charging! So, I came out determined to make romesco like the one my mom used to make to make up for it and make Linguini try the real deal!!
The world is just full of coincidences...Never, I mean never have I seen fresh calçots sold anywhere! It's not just that I wasn't looking for them, but they really are almost impossible to find. And then, one day after trying them I go to the recently renewed more gourmet section of Carrefour...and there they are!! Plus at a very reasonable price, 3,50€ the handful of 25 calçots! So, there was not excuse. Plus, 2 days earlier we had inaugurated a bbq we got from my brother (;) ) and tried making a "escalibada" over the flame of red peppers, aubergines, onions for a "coca" (a sort of pizza typical from Mallorca) and we had even tried our own version of calçots with leeks, which although not as tender and sweet worked fairly well, so could make a decent substitution if calçots cannot be found. Though, I must admit, that although good, it's not at all the same thing, so if you haven't tried them and get a chance, do not hesitate...or you can grow them! I found this excellent blog, though in spanish, but with good pics on how to cultivate them. Amazing, they grow in bunches from a single onion! I might even try next year, as it's done over the winter and picked before spring! (Ajonjoli, are you up for it too?).
So, this was our first time making the barbecued calçots...and trying to recreate the romesco from my childhood, after talking to my mother quite a few times. The result: AMAZING!!! Really, I was blown out by the results! The calçots came out delicious and the romescu...so tasty, so creamy, so beautiful bright red, more than the muhammara I already published! I was lucky to use some excellent quality ingredients...some hazelnuts we had bought fresh in Asturias this last summer which still had not tried, I cracked them and toasted them and came out full of flavour, nothing like others I've tried. How can you beat that? No really, any hazelnuts well toasted will do, some people even substitute hazelnuts for almond and some pinenuts. But to me romesco, has to have hazelnuts for a deeper flavour...Up to you to choose! Also, the dry peppers for romesco are suppossedly different to the usual pimiento choricero. I haven't seen them and it's difficult to find anything about them. As far as I know romesco is always done with either dry "pimientos choriceros" or ñoras. Ñoras are stronger in flavour and coarser, not as sweet as the peppers, so I used more peppers than ñoras, though this can be adapted to taste..or availability (if you use only ñoras, I'd add something sweet to compensate. Anyway, try it even if just to accompany some fish, that's what romesco is more commonly used for, because just the sauce is worth it! Bon profit!
Romesco & calçots
For the sauce:
2 choricero peppers
5 large cloves of garlic, for frying
1 small clove of garlic, to use raw
1 slice of bread (about 20g) for frying
optional: 1/2 a dried chilli
about 300g of fresh tomatoes (I used 3 small ripe vine ones)*
20g toasted hazelnuts, or raw and toast them
20g toasted almonds, or raw and toast them**
about 50g of olive oil (I used a mild one to preserve the flavour)***
salt & freshly milled black pepper
white wine vinegar to taste, I used under 10g
Plus: about 10-15 calçots per person*You can use more tomatoes if you prefer a thinner sauce, I made it thick but just creamy enough for the calçots to take the sauce as they were dipped in.
**Like I said some recipes use just almonds and even some pinenuts, they are all good, but the flavour of the hazelnut I find cannot be beaten!
***Usually more oil is used, I find this amount is just right to emulsify the sauce and mellow it without covering the flavour up, but if you like you can add up to 100ml!
I didn't show you in the introduction to not overcrowd it with photos, but here's the bunch of calçots in the supermarket! I was sooo thrilled I had to take a photo, that was before deciding to buy them and try making them ourselves!
And this is what we were aiming at, the ones from the restaurant, served wrapped in paper in a nice long tile...
As you can tell, these have the grill marks but aren't as burnt as they are supposed to, though were excellent! I'd also like to show you the scene of my parents with the bib eating the calçots...but I'm sure they wouldn't appreciate it, so instead I leave you with this excellent video of El Cocinero Fiel (again in spanish) showing how the calçots are grown, prepared for the calçotada and eaten!!
The truth is that we made this dish on the run, meaning we started at 1: 30 pm preparing for lunch and as I was in charge of making the sauce, Linguini started the fire (it should be wood, not charcoal) to cook the calçots. So, there was noooo time for styling at all, I wasn't even sure about whether this post would see the light, but after the results I was eager to share with you the experience of this rustic meal!
So, I began by hydrating the ñora and the peppers. For that, it's best to open them up and deseed them and place them in tepid-warmish water (If I can take my time I prefer not to use too hot water, as I feel it extracts flavour out of the pulp). I did this in the mid-morning before returning home at almost lunch time. So, they hydrated for over 2 hours... Then, I strained them very well as I prefer to lightly fry them to improve the flavour...
See the change in colour? They get their vivid red back! Time to start toasting the almonds and hazelnuts...But since my hazelnuts weren't even peeled I had to crack them first with the pestle and mortar.
Then, I placed them to toast together in the oven. I intended to toast slowly at 150ºC but set up the oven to 180ºC, placed the nuts in as it was heating and when I realised I had to lower the temperature...they were already done! Bufff, just in time...after all the work! To peel the hazelnuts, just rub them and the thin skin comes off super easily...Beautiful!
I did quite a few more than those 25g in the recipe...to make up for turning the oven on...and to snack on a bit as I was preparing...
Now there are various ways to prepare the remaining ingredients: one is to bbq both the tomatoes and the garlic (in that case it's best to use a whole head and add the cooked cloves to taste, the other is to roast in the oven and the third which I used for time and to profit the oil I was going to use to fry the bread is to fry them.
So, first over medium heat fry the garlic...you want them to soften and cook inside so it shouldn't be too high, and too low they'll confit, which is actually ok. Then, briefly fry the peppers, this will give them a nicer flavour. Be careful not to let them darken or you'll spoil the nice flesh you achieved hydrating. And then fry the bread slice until golden brown
Strain the oil if needed (I used a tiny strainer to not bother changing it around) and with a little bit of oil, just to cover the bottom of the frying pan, fry the tomatoes previously cut in half & deseeded and with the hard scar that attaches them to the plan removed for easy peeling once cooked. Cut side down first:
Now just use a knife or a spoon to rub out the pulp of the peppers & ñora away from their skins:
And ready to pound away...The truth is that traditionally this was done with a pestle and morter, now obviously it can be done with a processor or with a blender, but I still prefer to begin pounding. It probably it is just me, but like with Thai food I feel pounding releases the natural oils better and I also make sure the garlic gets completely mashed up so it is there but you don't feel it! So, first, with a pinch of salt the raw garlic and then the cooked garlic cloves with the bread.
Then, add the pulp of the peppers & ñora...
Then, I do pass it to a processor and add the nuts and the tomatoes (just pull the skin away, it comes off like a shirt!) and blend it all
Add the oil (to taste) and continue blending to emulsify. Add vinegar, salt & pepper to taste and that's it! Back to see what Linguini was preparing...
After washing off the soil on the outside and trimming the roots off, we placed the calçots over the flame. This is great because when making calçotada, usually the calçots are cooked over the flame and then over the embers the meat is cooked. We didn't make good use of them this time as we had nothing planned and had enough calçots for a consistent meal! But next time will do for sure!
Once the first side is black, turn over...don't leave it for too long or it will continue burning layers and you'll lose tasty flesh!
And go on to finish all batches...
And...wrap in hard paper or newspaper (this is all I could find...you can tell what Linguini reads! )
Peel off each calçot. There's a saying in Valls that goes " De la teula feta amb terra se l'agafa amb la mà esquerra. I amb dos dits de la mà dreta se li treu la samarreta", meaning " From the clay tile it's picked up with the left hand, and with two fingers from the right you pull its shirt off. So, now you know, to show you the magical transformation from calcinated to soft & sweet...
And straight onto the dip!
And this is what was left...before we finished up the sauce with some bread!
As I said before, if you cannot find calçots, you can try barbecuing leeks. This was our result, that although not like calçots (not as sweet and tender) was quite tasty too:
So, whichever way, try the sauce, you won't regret it!!Hope you enjoy the experience as much as we have!