A simple baked potato, a heap of green beans, cooked artichoke, chicken breast or succulent grilled shrimp—a good sauce will improve any one of those easy-to-prepare foods.
And, from the repertoire of Spanish sauces, there is none more hallowed than romesco, a Catalan sauce of toasted nuts, dried red peppers, garlic and olive oil.
Although originally a sauce from Tarragona (Catalonia’s second city after Barcelona, having nothing to do with the herb tarragon), romesco is popular everywhere in Catalonia. It accompanies calçotada, grilled spring onions with butifarra sausage. It also makes a cook-in sauce for fish and shellfish stew or chicken.
Ñora peppers are used to make pimentón (paprika). So, if you have not got peppers to confect this sauce, substitute pimentón/paprika (but, not smoked pimentón). You can use almonds and/or hazelnuts—I like both. Fry them until crisp so that they grind up better. Often a not-too-sweet cookie, called galleta María, is used along with the nuts to thicken the sauce. If not available, use fried bread.
Every Catalan claims to have some secret touch to making a perfect romesco—a few drops of anisette or brandy, dried mint, roasted tomato. The essential ingredient is extra virgin olive oil, preferably a fine Catalan arbequina oil.
Catalan Red Pepper Sauce
Makes 1 ¼ cups.
2 tablespoons pimentón (paprika)
4 tablespoons red wine
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
12 skinned almonds
12 skinned hazelnuts
1 slice bread, crusts removed, or 3 María cookies
3 cloves garlic
Pinch of dried mint
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
Pinch crushed red chile flakes
Water or fish stock (about ¼ cup)
Stir the pimentón and red wine together to make a paste.
In a small skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil and fry the almonds, hazelnuts, bread and garlic until bread is toasted. Remove and transfer them to a blender or food processor with the pimentón paste, mint, vinegar, chile and salt. Blend to a smooth paste. Gradually blend in the remaining oil. Add enough water to thin the sauce to the consistency of thick cream.