Saucy seduction: Romesco is rough magic in a bowl

The Miami Herald


September 11, 2008

Amy Scattergood Los Angeles Times Service

Sometimes a sauce is more than just a sauce. Discovered on the menu of a restaurant or in the pages of a cookbook, it may look ordinary enough. But in one bite it can transform a dish, a meal, a diner.

If you think that's hyperbole, you've never tasted a good romesco sauce. Thick as pesto, the color of rust, textured with nuts and a bit of fried bread, this classic Catalonian concoction packs an astonishing amount of flavor. Earthy, complex and addictive, romesco is rough magic in a bowl.

It's also surprising, as nut sauces often are, because at first you can't quite place the earthy undertones and complex textures. High notes of sherry and paprika yield to deep flavors of hazelnuts and almonds. Sweet octaves of tomato and pepper follow. Then there's an aftershock of garlic, maybe another of chile.

In Catalonian cooking, romesco is stirred into seafood stews, spooned over fish and served as a condiment. Make a bowl of it -- a very large bowl. Then scoop it up with a slice of toasted bread or a grilled shrimp. Ladle it into soups or over lamb, fish kebabs or grilled vegetables. Or eat it out of the bowl with a spoon.

Because it's built with healthful nuts, a romesco is more than just an aesthetic addition or flavor booster. Paired with bread, it can be a satisfying course on its own.

Romesco isn't a hot sauce. It's a subtle cohesion of flavors and textures, with a little sweet heat and depth but nothing overpowering.

Nuts form the base and give the sauce a slightly rough texture. The bread smoothes and adds body. A mild bite comes more from the garlic, vinegar and paprika than the peppers. The finely balanced notes of nut and spice underscore delicate flavors without overwhelming them, providing a little punch rather than a knockout.

Traditionally, romesco is made with dried Ñora peppers, a Spanish variety that's a visual dead ringer for the Cascabel, a Mexican pepper named for the drum rattle it resembles. The Ñora has the same color and earthy notes but is sweeter.

Many cooks like making romesco with anchos, but I prefer the verisimilitude of Cascabels. Blend in a pair along with a charred red bell pepper and a little parsley and you'll have a sauce with more depth and bite than a traditional romesco.

A classic version, with more finesse and less heat, showcases the delicate nuts and sweet Spanish paprika. For an additional touch of refinement, use plump Marcona almonds with the hazelnuts. Their buttery flavor comes through in the milder sauce.

Roast a bunch of fat green onions whole, throw thick slices of bread and plump shrimp on the grill, too, and eat them all with a bowlful of romesco -- and your hands. Some sauces are not made for dainty dipping but for palpable, messy, unapologetic pleasure.

Dried Ñora peppers are sold by online retailers including

Dried Cascabel peppers are available at Fernanda's, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale (954-563-2500), and at Fresh Market outlets.

Marcona almonds are carried by gourmet retailers, some supermarkets and Costco warehouse stores.

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