Pestos of the Mediterranean…continuing
Salsa Romesco as we know it is considered one of Spain’s most renowned culinary treasures. Regional recipes are still carefully guarded and what is the best Romesco is sure to elicit passionate debates and fierce alliances.
Salsa, or sauce in English, is somewhat misleading as to Romesco’s provenance, a pesto in every sense of the word. Romesco, as the name implies, of Roman origin , was brought to what is now the Catalan province of Tarragona (Carthago Nova) on the Costa Duarada by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. Myth has it that Romesco was the favored food of the gladiators who fought in the amphitheater the Romans built in the port of Tarragona, the ruins of which remain to this day. That said, Romesco’s origins may have been farther afield and gleaned during the Roman conquests in the eastern Mediterranean. Syria’s Muhammara (see here) is remarkably similar in taste and texture.
Obviously, Salsa Romesco has evolved since ancient times, particularly with the arrival of chilies in Spain from the new world in the 14th century. The addition of chilies to Salsa Romesco changed everything and established it as the Spanish dish we are familiar with today served in tapas bars around the world.
There are endless variations of Salsa Romesco, so making any claim of authenticity would be presumptuous, but adhering to traditional ingredients and preparation methods will produce a stellar Romesco worthy of accolades when saucing seafood, poultry, or meats, or simply slathering it onto a toasted slice of hearth baked bread.
Salsa Romesco Serves 6
- 8oz/225g vine ripe tomatoes, flame roasted or grilled
- 1 large sweet red bell pepper, flame roasted or grilled
- 1 large dried chile (ancho or other) or several smaller dried chiles
- 2 small red dried chilies
- hot water for steeping the chilies
- 2 oz/50g blanched almonds, toasted
- 2oz/50g blanched hazelnuts, toasted
- 6 garlic cloves, skin on and toasted
- 3-4 tablespoons Jerez vinegar (Spanish sherry vinegar)
- 1 ½ inch slice of crusty bread, cubed and fried in olive oil
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil + 3 tablespoons
- ¾ teaspoon flaky sea salt
- freshly ground pepper to taste
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon Pimenton (Spanish smoked paprika) optional
Flame roast or grill the tomatoes and red bell pepper until charred on all sides as described in Grilled Roasted Vegetables; Basics (see here). Place in a bowl and seal with plastic film and set aside to sweat. When cool enough to handle, remove the charred skin, remove stems, deseed, and chop. Set aside.
Place a skillet over medium low heat. Open the chilies lengthwise and remove the seeds. Once the skillet is hot press the flayed chilies against the surface of the hot skillet for about 30 seconds. Turn and again press against the surface of the skillet for another 30 seconds. Transfer to a bowl and when cool enough to handle tear the chilies into pieces and place in the hot water to soak which will soften the flesh. Set aside and drain when ready to use.
Using the same skillet set over medium heat, when hot add 3 tablespoons olive oil and add the cubed bread. Fry until evenly colored and well toasted on all sides. Remove from heat and set aside.
Preheat oven to 325F/170C
Place the garlic, almonds, and hazelnuts in a metal or ceramic oven safe dish and place in the oven for about 15 minutes, or until the nuts are just beginning to color and the garlic has softened. Watch the nuts carefully. If they are browned they will have a bitter taste! The garlic may need an additional 5-10 minutes.
Remove nuts promptly and transfer to a plate and set aside to cool.
Remove the garlic from the oven when soft and set aside to cool, then peel off the skin, chop and set aside.
Place the tomatoes, red bell pepper, torn chilies, toasted almonds, toasted hazelnuts, and garlic in the work bowl of a food processor. Sprinkle the Jerez vinegar over all and pulse until the contents resemble a course meal, scraping down the sides as needed. Add the fried bread cubes and pulse until incorporated, then begin adding the olive oil gradually as you pulse. Once the mixture is well combined, season with salt, pepper, and Pimenton (if using) and turn the processor on and blitz just until the Romesco is relatively smooth and creamy. A little texture is fine,
Transfer to a bowl or container, cover and set aside, or refrigerate for longer storage.