Monday, April 19, 2010

Taking A Swipe At Summer

While it would kill me slowly to ever buy a tomato out of season or from anywhere but a local farm, I must admit that there are some things I just have to buy however I can get them. Citrus is obviously one of them, which is in season during the winter, but requires warm weather conditions to really thrive. I've tried to buy local, indoor rooftop lemons and the truth is I'd rather have Florida's best flown in any day. The indoor variety tastes like it was grown in the dark, quite literally lacking the sunshine of a proper lemon, while managing to cost me twice as much. Bell peppers are another example of something I rarely purchase at the farmers market. Peppers of all sorts originated in South and Central America with the discovery of the New World and spread throughout the globe, quickly becoming dietary staples the world over. The problem is they're finicky to grow and are essentially tropical in nature. Sure, they can be manipulated to grow in certain areas, but their local sustainability in an area like the Northeast is brief, which means they're hard to find and heavy on the wallet (and much like the lemons, you can taste that they're out of their element).

And so when it comes to peppers I'm a terribly bad locavore, buying them out of season, but always from the United States whenever possible (thanks California!). While I do my best to buy jarred roasted tomatoes as penance for my seasonal sins, there are some things that just taste better with the fresh stuff. Romesco sauce, a wonderfully delicious emulsion traditional in Spanish cooking (especially the area called Catalonia, where Barcelona is located) is one of my all time favorite things on the planet. It's quick to make considering the power packed flavor punch it provides, delivering a quick jab of flavor that spreads slowly over your taste buds, tickling them with sweet and smoky flavor. It can be made very easily from jarred roasted red peppers if you're in a hurry or cleaning out your pantry, but there's just something about what happens when you use a freshly roasted red pepper that takes it to a whole other level. The distinct advantage of using a fresh red pepper is that you're preserving the sweetness of the bell pepper, much of which is lost to pickling and preservative juice or even the oil in which jarred peppers may be packed. And the beauty of Romesco is, after all, the interplay of sweet, salty and smoky flavors, all in one sauce.

Aside from using a freshly roasted red pepper, part of achieving that flavor balance is using almonds for added milky sweetness, along with good olive oil, a hint of smoky paprika (Spanish pimentón is best if you can find it) and of course, the ever present garlic clove for some raw-garlic heat. No individual flavor is overly pronounced, making romesco a perfect pairing for almost any meat or protein. It's classic under a snowy white piece of cod, great with a simply roasted chicken or breaded cutlets, and a great sauce for vegetables. If, like me, you can't help but eat it with a spoon, it's tremendous when spread on crusty bread or surrounded by a platter of cru d'ete. I generally avoid pairing it with heavy meats like beef, lamb or pork, but do like to bust it out come grilling season. Grilled leeks and scallions make wonderful romesco cohorts, and hark back to a traditional Catalonian treat called calçot. Calçot is a milder, less bulbous relative of the onion (it actually resembles a skinny leek) that is grilled and served alongside romesco for copious dipping. Replace the calçot with leeks or scallions and you have a great grilled vegetarian treat that would pair well with other grilled veggies like eggplant, zucchini and radicchio. You could even grill the romesco's peppers instead of roasting them--after all, the important thing is that they soften slightly and bring a little bit of that outer char to the party. There are a million variations on the sauce, and every family has their own take. Some like equal parts peppers and tomato (I could personally take it or leave it or use it mostly for texture) while others insist on using hazelnuts or pine nuts. Others still like theirs spicy, adding ancho chilies or red pepper flake to the mix. I like to think of myself as a romesco classicist, but it's really up to the cook. Take my recipe and expand upon it, play with possible ingredients and tune it to your tastes, remembering that sometimes the flavor is worth the sin, and what really matters is that we cook at all.

Romesco Sauce

1 large or 2 small red bell peppers
1/4 cup tomato puree (or half a ripe tomato if they're in season)
1/2 cup blanched almonds (use sliced or slivered to help your blender along)
1 large garlic clove
1/4 tsp smoked paprika (Spanish pimentón is best)
extra virgin olive oil (about 1/4 cup)
freshly cracked black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle or brush bell pepper lightly with olive oil and roast in the oven until softened and charred, about 30-40 minutes (you can also do this on the grill if you're so lucky as to have one!).

2. Combine tomato, almonds, garlic and paprika in a blender. Add the roasted red pepper (removing any thick bits of skin that have not charred) and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil to get the blending started. Blend on high, slowly streaming in the remaining olive oil until a nice emulsion forms. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with vegetables, fish and pretty much anything off the grill. Enjoy!


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