I love a good dip. If you invite me round to your house, sit me down at your table with a glass of wine, and present me with a dip and an assortment of things with which to dip, I am a happy woman. I love creamy herby dips, tomato-ey salsa-y dips, dips so spicy you feel like you can see sounds, and mouth-puckering pickles. From the fanciest restaurant offerings to the most basic supermarket sour cream and chive, I will rarely look askance at a dip.
Romesco is, for me, king of the dips: smokey, sweet, earthy, nutty, and rich with a thrilling zip of acidity somehow all at once. I can smell it just thinking about it.
But I’m aware that calling romesco a dip is probably doing it a disservice: romesco is really a sauce. The sauce originated in Catalonia, and was used by Catalonian fishermen as an accompaniment to the fish they caught; when the sauce was brought into being, it was made with roasted tomatoes rather than peppers, but since then, the sauce has mutated, and now relies far more widely on charred peppers.
My romesco follows this trend, and is made from red bell peppers that have had their blackened skins removed to reveal their tender, sweet smokey flesh. The flesh is bashed up or blitzed with almonds, smoked paprika, sweet-sharp sherry vinegar, and a good glug of olive oil. It is far easier to make than it deserves to be for such complexity and depth of flavour, and once the peppers have been burnt, the dish is the work of moments.
Traditionally, it is served with white fish, or white meats. But truly, it goes with anything: it’s great with virtually all vegetables, but particularly brassicas roasted hot and fast, and grilled spring onions (or, if you can get hold of them in season, calcots, which are somewhere between a spring onion, a leek, and an onion). It can be smeared onto sandwiches or dolloped into soups. It will give punch to the base of fish or chicken stews, and is a surprisingly delightful pairing with cheese in place of chutney.
But – and forgive me for being predictable – I love it most as a dip: glowing orange-red in a little pot, it lights up a table. As for what to dip into it, the world is your oyster (ok, perhaps not oysters, they’re a bit slippery): lightly steamed green veg, long and slim – asparagus, tenderstem broccoli – are particularly elegant. I have served it with every bread under the sun: floppy, chargrilled flatbreads, crisp crackerbreads, chunks of a good granary loaf, breadsticks. Crisps, obviously; any kind will do, but ideally those ones you get in Spain, that are heavily salted and impossibly, compulsively crunchy. And if alone in the privacy of my own home, probably a finger, swiping the final remnants of whatever remains in the bowl.
You can of course skip the burning stage, and buy ready-chargrilled, skinned red peppers, sitting in tall, glass jars. They look like they’ll be skinny little strips, but are, in fact, whole peppers nestled alongside each other, each one making you feel like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, or Mary Poppins removing a coat stand from her carpet bag. But I admit to being quite fond of roasting them myself. As they burn, they never seem to smell of the smokey pepper that will light up the finished sauce. Instead, to me, they smell distinctly of sweet violets. I can’t really justify it, but it is my consistent experience.
How smooth your romesco is something of a matter of taste: some blitz it until it is as smooth as houmous, others prefer it chunky, coarser, the nuts more discernible, closer to a pesto. I, ever the peacemaker, like it somewhere in the middle. My recipe uses a food processor, because I have one, and am lazy – but if you don’t have one, or aren’t as lazy as I am, you can make the sauce in a large mortar and pestle
Makes: 350g romesco sauce
Takes: 10 minutes
Bakes: No time at all
2 red bell peppers
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
100g blanched almonds
1 garlic clove
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
50ml olive oil
- Place the red peppers on the hob, balancing them directly over the flame, supported by the metal trivets. Allow them to blacken and then, using tongs, turn the peppers and blacken another area, until the entire pepper is charred. If you don’t have a gas hob, you can achieve the same thing by putting the peppers under a hot grill and regularly turning them as they blacken. Once the charred peppers are cool enough to handle, peel off the skin which should come away easily. Remove the stalk from the pepper, cut it open and discard the seeds.
- Place the almonds in a dry frying pan and cook over a gentle heat until the nuts are starting to take on a golden colour in spots and smelling toasty. Keep an eye on them, and shuffle the pan regularly, as nuts can catch quickly and burn.
- Place the pepper flesh, toasted almonds, vinegar, garlic and paprika into a food processor and blitz to your desired level of chunkiness (I like it relatively smooth). Once it’s reached your desired consistency, drizzle in the olive oil with the motor still running.
- Season with salt, taste, and adjust salt, vinegar, or paprika levels to taste.