For crying out loud, Spanish romesco sauce is NOT made from red bell peppers. Romesco is a tomato-based sauce from Catalonia that’s delicious served over grilled vegetables and baked potatoes, or as a dipping sauce for roasted artichokes, bread or the famous Catalán spring onion called calçots. We are Catalans and this is our authentic romesco sauce recipe.
I can’t blame you for believing that romesco sauce is a red pepper and almond-based sauce from Spain; this is what literally every other website will tell you when you Google it.
What I don’t know is where the idea came from that romesco sauce is made from red bell peppers (the English Wikipedia page cites The Spruce Eats but this recipe is not for authentic romesco as it calls for red pepper).
Just to be sure, I read through the first 20 Spanish language recipes for romesco sauce in Google (and the Spanish Wikipedia page and the Catalán Wikipedia page) and only 3 had any mention of red bell peppers, and these were always in much lesser proportion to the tomatoes. So…
What is romesco sauce?
Well, it’s a thick sauce made from a base of roasted TOMATOES and garlic. To this base you add toasted almonds and hazelnuts (most recipes use both, not just almonds), ñora pepper (more on that below), sherry vinegar, stale toasted bread and a copious amount of olive oil.
Like any Spanish recipe, every cook will prepare their romesco sauce differently. This usually means varying the proportions of the above mentioned basic ingredients. Furthermore, some recipes call for a very small amount of a mildly spicy chili pepper called guindilla (or bitxo in Catalán) and/or a touch of smoked paprika.
It’s important to note that romesco sauce is not meant to be super spicy. Even though some recipes call for a guindilla, I personally don’t think I’ve ever had a spicy romesco sauce in any restaurant or from the supermarket. If you do want to put chili in it, make sure that it’s just a touch.
What are ñora peppers?
Ñora peppers are an essential ingredient in Spanish romesco sauce. You can see in the photos that they are not at all like bell peppers (although they do have a bell-like shape). They are small, smaller than the tomatoes, and dried.
To use ñora peppers they first need to be rehydrated, then the pulp is scooped out with a spoon. Ñora peppers are a bit sweet and a bit bitter, not too smoky and not at all spicy so don’t try to substitute them with chipotle peppers.
You may be wondering where you can get ñora peppers. If you don’t have a Spanish market near you, try here on Amazon. If not, you can substitute another dried mild sweet chili pepper like a cascabel or an ancho.
As a very last resort if you can’t get any small dried pepper, you can use a small slice of red bell pepper – about a quarter of a pepper – and roast it along with the tomatoes until soft, watching that it doesn’t burn.
How to make Spanish romesco sauce
There’s a reason why you’ll see other recipes titled “quick romesco sauce recipe” in Google. It’s because authentic romesco sauce is not quick.
That’s because the tomatoes and the garlic need to be roasted. If you want to be super authentic, you should do this over a wood fire but who’s got one of those in their kitchen? I use the oven like most people.
Toss the tomatoes and garlic on a baking pan, drizzle over some olive oil and roast them until the skins are starting to turn black.
Meanwhile toast the bread and the nuts. You can put the nuts in a separate pan and roast them for a few minutes in the oven with the tomatoes, or you can do it on the stove.
Peel the roasted tomatoes and garlic and toss them in a blender or food processor (again, if you want to be super authentic you should use a mortar and pestle to make romesco). Slowly drizzle in the olive oil and watch it emulsify into a creamy sauce. Yes, romesco is creamy while still being vegan!
Now add the stale toasted bread, which is softened in vinegar and acts as a thickener, and the ñora pepper pulp. Finally add the nuts and pulse until you reach your desired consistency. We like it to be a bit grainy so we don’t blend the nuts in totally.
Now season with salt and decide if you are happy with the consistency. If you’d like it a bit thicker, add more bread. If you want it thinner, add more oil.
Romesco sauce and calçots
Romesco sauce is closely associated with calçots. If you’ve ever been in Barcelona or Catalonia in the late winter or early spring then you may be familiar with the tender green onion called calçots and the barbecue tradition of the calçotada.
Calçots are a green onion bigger than a scallion but smaller than a leek. They are cooked on a charcoal barbecue until charred, wrapped in newspaper to steam then eaten with your hands. They are very messy. Allow my husband Raúl to demonstrate:
Calçots are always eaten with their specific sauce. This sauce is called salsa de calçots or salbitxada. It is very similar to romesco sauce and most people won’t be able to tell you the difference between the two.
What I can tell you is that if you walk into any supermarket in Catalonia you’ll find one jar of sauce labeled romesco and another jar labeled salsa de calçots, so they certainly are different.
The principal difference being that salsa de calçots is thinner and has only almonds while romesco is thicker and has both almonds and hazelnuts. The proportion of tomato to ñora is another difference between the two sauces.
In any case, salsa de calçots and romesco can be used interchangeably as a sauce for calçots. Same same but different.
But if you don’t have calçots don’t worry, romesco sauce is delicious on just about anything. Today I served it with some steamed artichokes.
Want to see how to make romesco? Watch the video:
- 3 medium tomatoes
- 1 head of garlic (optional: an additional raw clove)
- 2 ñora peppers (can sub cascabel or ancho peppers or, as a last resort, 1/4 of a red bell pepper. See post above for more info)
- 1 slice of stale crusty bread (about 25 grams / 0.89 oz)
- 35 grams (1.25 oz) raw peeled hazelnuts
- 35 grams (1.25 oz) raw peeled almonds
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup olive oil or more to taste, plus a drizzle for the tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
- Preheat the oven to 175 C (350 F)
- Cut a cross in the bottom of each tomato and place them cut side up along with the whole head of garlic on a baking pan (if you are using a slice of red bell pepper in place of the ñora, roast it here as well). Drizzle everything with a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Roast the garlic for about 45 minutes, or until tender, then remove so that it does not burn. Continue roasting the tomatoes until the skin is beginning to blacken in spots – about 60 minutes.
- Meanwhile rehydrate the ñora peppers by placing them in a bowl of hot water. (You can also place them in a bowl of water the night before). Set aside to soften while the tomatoes roast.
- Toast the bread and the nuts. You can do this either by placing them in an oven-safe pan in the oven with the tomatoes for five minutes or so, or in a pan over medium heat on the stove.
- When the tomatoes are roasted, remove the pan and let them cool. Prepare the ñora by cutting them open and discarding the stem and seeds. Use a spoon to scrape the pulp away from the skin and discard the skin. I ended up with about 1 tablespoon of pulp from 2 ñora peppers.
- Put the vinegar in a bowl and wet the bread in the vinegar.
- Once the tomatoes are cool enough to handle, peel off the skin. Also pop all the roasted garlic cloves out of their skins (peel the red bell pepper if you're using it). Transfer the peeled tomatoes and garlic to a blender or food processor and add the salt.
- Begin blending and slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Once it’s emulsified add the toasted bread and vinegar, ñora pulp and the raw clove of garlic if you are using it (it's optional).
- Finally add the nuts and blend a bit more. Romesco sauce should be a bit grainy so do not over blend, a bit of bite is good. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Romesco sauce should be a bit tangy. If would like a thicker sauce, add more bread. For a thinner sauce, add more olive oil.
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