Cheater’s Romesco Sauce

Back when Deborah Madison’s germinal tome Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone was published, I picked up a copy and read the thing cover-to-cover. It was before I’d had the opportunity to eat at Jose Andres seminal DC tapas restaurant Jaleo, before I knew anything really about Spanish food. There was a recipe in the Madison cookbook for romesco sauce. I kept coming back to the recipe whenever I picked up the book because I couldn’t imagine how it would taste. There were so many different ingredients in it, and I found it difficult to picture them as a cohesive sauce. What would it taste like if you buzzed together fried bread, almonds, tomatoes, red peppers, garlic, olive oil, sherry vinegar, and more? If you haven’t tried this sauce and you can picture the final product, well, you’re blessed with more imagination than I was at the time.

The first time I got around to making the sauce was for a dinner party featuring tapas at my home. A friend and I cooked about 10 different vegetarian and fish tapas and served them with two types of sangria to a gang of friends. I was blown away by the romesco sauce we made, which we served cloaking some chickpeas. This stuff was really good: piquant, tart, sweet, earthy, creamy yet packed with peasant integrity. Wow.

Later I learned enough about classic Spanish tapas to feel comfortable teaching classes on the subject. I always include romesco sauce, usually served over roasted or grilled asparagus, because it is such a wonder that I want to share it with everybody. I’ve never had anybody disappointed in the stuff.

If you make romesco old-school, you should probably fry up a piece of two of country bread in some good olive oil to use as the thickener for the sauce. If you take this step, I highly recommend frying up a couple of extra pieces of bread and nibbling on them as you cook. Most folks are familiar with buttered toast, croutons, and simple breads dipped in olive oil by now–but this transcends all of those fine bread-and-fat amalgamations. When I teach this sauce I always fry up extra bread and pass it around to my students so they can see for themselves. Even better: save some of the fried bread slices to swipe through the romesco sauce as a conveyance vehicle.

I really wanted some romesco sauce to go with some pan-seared salmon and rice I was preparing for dinner tonight, so I whipped up a quick cheater’s version in the snippets of time I had between cooking dinner and picking up my son from daycare:

Roast 1 red bell pepper until thoroughly charred over an open flame (I use my gas range). Stick in a Tupperware container with a lid or a paper bag and seal well. Let rest until room temperature, then rinse off all the blackened skin. Remove the seeds and ribs from the interior of the pepper and plop it in a food processor. I added about 3 heads’ worth of roasted farm market garlic, a couple of tablespoons of sherry vinegar, salt, pepper, smoked Spanish paprika, some slivered almonds I had rattling around the pantry, and some breadcrumbs. I buzzed it until it was relatively uniform in texture, scraping down the sides a couple of times. That’s it. (A more involved version will include tomato, roasted whole almonds, the bread fried in olive oil, and finally more olive oil is added in a slow drizzle as the machine runs to form a thick mayonnaise-like emulsified sauce.)

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