I feel like welcoming the spring in a big way this year. We had a wet, cool winter here in Los Angeles. I am ready for the resurrection of the season. Maypoles and Easter bonnets are swell, but they are not going to be enough this year. I need to welcome spring with something edible.
In Spain, springtime is welcomed with a calçotada, the annual flame-licked ritual of grilling calçots, a sort of sweet, tender spring onion, over an open fire. It’s a very special food event in Catalonia and whole towns gather in the public square to devour these sweet alliums. They are similar to leeks or spring onions and are served blackened from the ashes of vine fed flames. The revelers pluck the hot charred onions from the ashes and slide off the sooty outside layers before slipping the silken centers, and smoke-tinged leaves down their throats. Watch this video from InfoCatalan to see an authentic calçotada.
If you are ever offered the opportunity to join in on a calçotada, my advice is– jump at the chance. Get on a plane, drive like a lunatic, or walk if you have to. Because a true calçot is as sweet as a Maui onion, with an herbal flavor similar to ramps. But what makes them so special is the slightly bitter earthiness from the smoke and char of a wood burning fire.
And as if these onions and their fire-fumed preparation weren’t enough to make a true calçotada a life-altering experience, then I should mention that these spring onions are served with an equally compelling, slightly pungent, romesco sauce.
Have you had a really good romesco sauce? It’s a true transformation of simple ingredients: garlic, nuts, tomatoes, peppers, olive oil, and vinegar. Sometimes bread is added for texture, but mine version is thickened with hard-boiled eggs.
Although you can’t get true calçots where I live, baby leeks or sweet spring onions are marvelous substitutes. Because why should the Catalans have all the merry mayhem that ensues when food finds flame, and finally ignites the spring?
serves 4 CLICK here for a printable recipe
- 32 clv garlic, peeled and left whole
- 1⁄2 lb plum tomatoes, left whole
- 1 c plus 6 t olive oil, plus more as needed
- 1⁄4 c red wine vinegar
- 2 dried Nora chilis– cores, stems and seeds removed
- 24 blanched almonds
- 24 blanched hazelnuts
- 1 t sea salt
- 1 hard-boiled egg, roughly chopped
- 1 pn cayenne pepper, to taste
- 1 t Spanish pimenton powder
- 12 baby leeks
- kosher salt as needed
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Place the garlic and tomatoes in a roasting pan, then roast in the oven 30 minutes, until the garlic is softened and lightly brown. Transfer the garlic and tomatoes to a saucepan and add the oil, vinegar, and noras. Simmer on very, very low heat, stirring occasionally. The oil should barely bubble and form a clear ring around the vegetables. Simmer this way about 1 1/2 hours.
Raise the heat in the oven to 450 degrees F. Place the almond and hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast them slightly, about 4 minutes. Transfer the warm nuts to a food processor and grind to a sandy consistency. Add the nuts and salt to the garlic and tomatoes and let them cook with the vegetables for the last half hour of their total cooking time.
Let the tomato mixture cool slightly, and then scrape it along with the hard-boiled egg, cayenne, and pimento into the food processor. Process until very smooth. Adjust consistency with more olive oil drizzled in as the machine whirls as needed.
Prepare a moderate charcoal fire for indirect grilling. Slice the leeks in half (quarters if they are very large). Do not trim the root end so that they stay intact during grilling. Carefully rinse the leeks of any grit between the layers. Dry thoroughly.
Pour the remaining 6 tablespoons of olive oil onto a rimmed baking sheet. Roll the leeks in the oil, getting them well coated; season with kosher salt.
Place the leeks over indirect heat; cover the grill and cook, turning occasionally for good coloring until soft and nicely charred. You may need to move them to direct heat in the last few minutes to get the amount of char you like. Serve hot with the romesco sauce on the side, or drizzled on top.
Dried nora chiles may be ordered online at www.latienda.com or you may substitute dried New Mexican chilis.