Spain, Barcelona with Núria: Calçots and Salsa Romesco
One thing I enjoy about blogging is the instant community it opens up for you. You become part of a global community of like-minded people who tend to like the same things you do: eat, cook, write, photograph and travel. Before leaving for Spain my friend Val of More than Burnt Toasts, whom I met through blogging, introduced me to Núria from Barcelona. Núria is a blogger and you can find her cooking, travelling and photographing at Spanish Recipes by Nuria. I contacted her before we left, asking if she had any recommendations for Barcelona. She responded quickly and warmly and offered just the kinds of information a foodie craves: what’s in season, where to eat, what to drink, which cooking classes and foodie tours to take, where to go, what to do, oh, I was so excited. This also came with a personal invitation to meet Núria when we visit Barcelona. I knew right away I’ve found a kindred spirit in Nuria. Meeting her in person was just as I imagined her to be: beautiful, warm and stylish. Núria picked us up in her car and together with her lovely and fun husband Jose-Luis hosted us for a fabulous day in Barcelona including a memorable authentic dinner at a gorgeous farm restaurant on the outskirts of Barcelona and drinks by the sea at sunset. Did I mention WOW. I did not expect any of this but experienced Spanish hospitality first hand and loved every minute of it. I hope they come to Canada soon and give me the opportunity to pay back the warm hospitality. You have a standing invitation Nuria and Jose-Luis.
Being the vegetable lover that I am I wanted to try any vegetables that were local and in season. In her list of things to try Nuria mentioned a few foods that were now high on my culinary “must try” list. Two of these items were calçot from Tarragona and artichokes from el Prat. Add to that the salsa Romesco that you dip the calçot in and we are in business.
We were so lucky to be in Barcelona during the calçot season. Calçot is a type of scallion or green onion, only it is grown in a special way that makes it much thicker, more like the size of a leek. It is a specialty of Catalunya and the Calçot from Valls in Tarrragona (a province of Catalunya) has a a DOC status under EU regulations. Valls, located about an hour away from Barcelona, is credited with “inventing” the calçot . A farmer is said to have left his green onions in the ground longer than usual, then replanted them with piles of soil around to protect them. When he returned to harvest them he found long, tender and sweet tasting green onions they now call calcot. Today they are produced by harvesting fully grown green onion bulbs, allowing them to stay dormant for a few months and then replanting them in the fall. They are covered by mounds of earth (like asparagus) to keep them white. Once harvested, they are fat, tender and extra long.
On the last Sunday of January tens of thousands of visitors make the “pilgrimage” to Valls for one reason and one reason only: to celebrate the festival known as Calçotada (“eating of green onions”) and eat calçots with salbitxada sauce (similar to romesco). “Best calçot” competitions take place and thousands of calçots are grilled over open fire and consumed with wine. By the way, the earth clinging to the calçots is not removed and washed off. They are grilled with the earth still clinging to them, protecting the outer layers as they cook. You eat only the inner part and that stays nice and clean throughout the process. Calçot festival is not limited to Valls. It is harvested across the region and restaurants, farmhouses and back yards fire up the wood burning ovens or charcoal grills to roast the calçots in celebration of Calçotada for eagerly awaiting diners.
In that spirit, Nuria took us to a gorgeous farmhouse restaurant on the outskirts of town and called in advance to make sure that they could prepare for us both authentically prepared calçots as well as artichokes from el Prat. Only a foodie would go to all this trouble for someone whom they have just met. The Restaurant Can Cortada is an 11th century manor farmhouse that was converted into a restaurant in the early 1990s. It offers a unique dining experience of gorgeous ancient surroundings with authentic traditional Catalan cuisine. The restaurant is a heritage building in Barcelona, which makes sense considering its 1000 years history. It is situated on beautiful grounds up on a hill with a large stone patio that opens for dining in the summer as well as eight rooms inside. The main room is gorgeous with arched passages separating the spaces. Oh how I would love to live in there:) Just my style and just the right grand scale. The antique pots, candelabras, old stone walls and worn tile floors make you wonder who used these kitchen tools and who walked on these stones in the past. It connects you with history and reminds you of how temporary the present is. I snapped as many shots as I felt I could without embarrassing my hosts and being a nuisance to other diners, who mostly seemed local, not tourists. I was on a high.
The calçots arrived piled on a large platter, blackened by the fire as they should be. We were given plastic “bibs” to protect our clothing and a plastic glove to wear on our hand, the one that will hold the charred calçot. Kind of like eating lobster. It’s a messy operation, not for the faint of heart. The way you eat a calcot (and you eat at least 10 I would say) is this: you hold the calçot in your gloved hand and with the other hand you pull out the inner part by grabbing hold of the green part and pulling it out from the top of the calcot. Alternatively, you hold the green part and peel away the charred outer layers. either way you should be left with the inner white and tender green part which is what you eat. From there, without much fuss, you dip it in the salsa romesco, then raise your head, open your mouth and lower the beautiful, tender, luxurious calçot into your mouth. Oh, it’s delish, the calçots are packed with flavour that is enhance by grilling it over fire.
But it’s more than just the taste. The whole ritual of anticipating, grilling, peeling, dipping, drinking and sharing come into play here. You eat, you laugh, you get dirty with charcoal on your face, you splash the salsa around, you have fun. It’s a social event and an opportunity to enjoy food and drink with friends and family, something that the Spanish developed into a culinary and social art form. The whole ritual is a unique authentic experience that I hope you get to experience if you visit Barcelona in the winter. You can see Nuria recipe for calçots in tempura here. We ended the evening in a lounge by the sea sipping cava at sunset and watching the sun go down on the water. There was a gorgeous view of both sea and city and Nuria and I braved the fairly strong wind outside and went to take some pictures of the scene. It was was one of those evening that one does not forget.
The salsa romesco is another Spanish cuisine treasures. It is a beautiful salsa (sauce) made by grinding hazelnuts or almonds with garlic, roasted tomatoes, the inside flesh of ñoras peppers and a slice of bread together with garlic, vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Nuria posted a recipe for romesco sauce from Ferran Adria that looks and sounds delicious. Romesco sauce originates in Tarragona where it used to be made with romesco or cuerno de cabra peppers. I have done some research about this sauce and there are different ways of making it. Claudia Roden, an expert on Spanish food, says that you can make a perfectly good romesco sauce with sweet paprika. Some recipes called for using roasted red pepper in the mix. I also noticed two ways of making it: in a blender or by hand. We had different versions of romesco while traveling in Spain and I definitely developed a preference for a romesco that is not too smooth. Out of this research I came up with this simple to prepare recipe using paprika and roasted red pepper that you can get in a jar (of course, roast your own pepper, it’s always better). I use the food processor for processing some of the ingredients but blend the rest by hand, adding the oil at the very end. This yields a nice consistency, the same consistency I liked in Spain. Use this sauce as dip for various foods or a spread for bread. It’s a wonderful appetizer with baguette slices, roasted vegetables or with other foods. It’s so delicious, I wonder why I haven’t made it before.
1/3 cup hazelnuts
1/3 cup almonds
4 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons paprika (sweet)
1 teaspoon chili powder
2 slices French baguette, cut in pieces
A small handful chopped parsley
1/2 cup roasted red pepper (can use good quality from a jar or roast your own pepper)
1 teaspoon coarse salt Freshly ground pepper
A few red pepper flakes optional, if you’d like it spicy
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1/3 cup oil or as needed
Cut tomatoes in half, place on a foil lined baking sheet and roast until they begin to shrivel and shrink.
Place a tablespoon of oil in a skillet and add the nuts. Cook until fragrant and beginning to turn golden.
Remove the nuts to the food processor bowl.
Add another tablespoon oil, the garlic and bread pieces and cook until bread is golden and lightly toasted.
Add the bread and garlic to the nuts in the processor bowl.
Add the parsley, paprika and chili powder to the processor and grind everything together to coarse texture.
Add the roasted red pepper and pulse a few times to blend. Don’t over process as it is important to keep texture in the mixture.
Remove the tomatoes from the oven.
You can peel the tomatoes or leave the skin on.
Add the roasted tomatoes and pulse just a couple of times to blend but not make it smooth.
Remove the mixture to a bowl and mix with a spatula.
Taste and add salt, pepper and the vinegar.
Drizzle a little olive oil over, blending it in with a spatula or a wooden spoon. Don’t add too much oil.
Pack the sauce into a glass jar and refrigerate.
Bring back to room temperature before serving.