Monday, May 23, 2011
Calçots amb Romesco - Grilled Spring Onions with Romesco Sauce
A calçotada is a Catalonian festival that celebrates the harvest of a variety of green onion known as the calçot. The festival is a major event, and with good reason. Not only are the calçots and their accompanying salsa romesco (locally salbitxada) spectacularly evocative of Catalan, and particularly Tarragonian cuisine, but the onions themselves are a year and a half in the making.
When onion seeds are planted, they grow or “set” a bulb, at which point we usually harvest and eat them fairly quickly. But if left in the ground, the onion bulb will enter a period of dormancy until the following season, at which point it sends up several new shoots to flower and seed. The cultivation of calçots interrupts this natural two-season lifecycle. Farmers dig up and then replant the sprouting onion bulbs, pile the earth up around them to elongate the white section of their shoots, and harvest them before they flower, when they are still mild, tender, and sweet.
The onions are grilled over a fire of vine cuttings until the outer layer of green leaves is charred black. Then they’re wrapped in bunches in newspaper to steam the rest of the way to savory sweetness. The long leaves are left on, but only as a handle. It’s the bulb, and the palest green portion of the leaves that are actually eaten.
You don’t take civilized bites here. The method is as follows: Hold your charred calçolt at the tip of its inner green shoot and peel away the blackened outer leaves (“calçot” means “sock” or “cover” in Catalan), immerse the whole in salsa romesco, a smoky, earthy sauce of peppers and nuts, tip your head back, and lower the whole into your mouth in one go. This isn’t date food, or at least not first date food, and the bibs traditionally worn at any calçotada are anything but superfluous. Consider yourselves warned.
And look, let’s just get this out of the way. There is almost no one on this earth who is capable of either peeling the charred outer layer down off of the translucent interior, nor tipping their head back, maw agape, and lowering the long, romesco-coated onion into their mouth without at least one suggestive grin, one roguish eyebrow wiggle. It’s like sausage-making class in culinary school, when the first 10 minutes saw a roomful of grown adults reduced to a helpless, convulsing, weeping heap on the floor. Deep down, when it comes to our baser appetites at least, we are all apparently children to the end.
Here’s an obliging fellow demonstrating the proper technique:
It’s a little late in the spring for a calçotada in Spain, where the harvest peaks in February or March, but here in New York the scallions, spring onions, and baby leeks are all just coming into their own. My favorite substitute for calçots stateside are young spring onions or large in-season scallions. Whichever you choose, serve with plenty of red wine – the local red Priorat is a perfect pairing – and for the full calçotada experience follow the onions with grilled meat, especially lamb or sausage, which is traditionally cooked over the embers while everyone devours the calçots. Dessert is often a crema catalana, eggy and redolent with citrus and cinnamon. Viva Cataluña!
8 dried ñora peppers (Ancho or New Mexican make fine substitutes)
½ cup blanched, slivered almonds or 3 oz (85 grams) hazelnuts (The natural smokiness of hazelnuts is particularly nice here).
2 medium tomatoes
2 red bell peppers
extra virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 large slice country bread, toasted
1 pinch cayenne pepper
3 - 6 tbsp sherry vinegar, to taste
5 - 6 dozen calçots, spring onions, very large scallions, or young leeks
Preheat the oven to 300 F (150 C, gas mark 2). Unless you're making the sauce ahead of time, start to preheat your grill for the onions. If you're cooking indoors, a griddle pan, cast iron skillet, or broiler will suffice. Whichever you use, indoor or out, make it as hot as you can.
Pull the stems from the dried peppers, tear apart so you can shake out the seeds, and cover with boiling water to steep for half an hour.
Meanwhile place the nuts in a baking dish and roast for 15 minutes or until lightly browned and fragrant. If using hazelnuts, rub in a dry dishcloth after roasting to remove their skins and chop roughly. Meanwhile halve and de-seed the tomatoes, tear apart into several pieces, and roast until lightly caramelized, about 20 - 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the bell peppers directly onto gas burners to char black completely on all sides, or else turn the oven up to broil and blacken them under the grill, turning often for about 30 minutes. Immediately place them in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to steam for 10 minutes. Then remove the blackened skin and stems, seed (resisting the urge to rinse them under running water, which washes away much of the flavor), and set aside.
Heat a small saucepan over medium heat, add a very generous glug of olive oil and then the chopped garlic. Sauté until just beginning to turn golden at the edges. Remove from the heat immediately and pour garlic and oil into a food processor (or a mortar and pestle, which is traditional). Add the toasted bread and pulse into breadcrumbs. Add the ñora peppers, nuts, tomatoes, bell peppers, cayenne pepper, 3 tbsp of sherry vinegar, and a generous pinch of salt, and pulse to a coarse consistency. Remove to a bowl so as not to over-purée and check the seasoning to taste with more vinegar and salt if desired. You may stir in more olive oil if the sauce seems too thick for dipping. Set aside.
Cut the roots off of the calçolts and trim the ends, leaving a long green portion to use as a handle. Be sure to have newspaper nearby for wrapping. Line the onions up over the hot coals, blacken on all sides, and immediately wrap in a thick layer of newspaper and set aside in a warm place to steam - about 20 minutes. Serve immediately with bowls of the romesco sauce for dipping.