Monday, May 28, 2012
Back when I was still trying to figure out what to do with my professional life, I was overwhelmed by the realization that many people chose their paths thanks to seemingly random accidents of history. Someone buys you a chemistry set at just the right birthday, or a beloved family member is stricken with a poorly-understood illness, or you check out a book of folk tales from one tradition or another, and suddenly your life course is set. Tens of thousands of hours will be spent in the lab, or on fieldwork, or wherever, just because of how things happened to shake out one day. Shouldn't the decision come from some deeper, internal place, so that you know it's the Real Right Answer? It all seemed so terrifyingly haphazard and fragile.
But as I got older (and as I let go of some of my anxieties), I realized that when you find things that speak to you, it doesn't seem to matter how they came to be. And if you love a particular professional path—or anything, really—because it reminds you of loving a particular time in your life or a particular person, well... that's really not the worst thing in the world. In fact, it's kind of great.
The other morning, I was downtown swapping out a bum computer charger, and saw the entire soccer (or, if you will, fútbal) team from Valencia inside the Apple store. And I ended up ridiculously, giddily excited, telling the story to everyone I talked to that day. Which was strange. Sure, there was the little bit of celebrity-worship, and the fact that these were some good-looking guys in really, really good shape. But when it comes down to it, I don't care much about sports. At all. My reaction was a bit of a mystery, until I realized—yeah, I could care less about soccer. But I have a friend in Spain.
To be more specific, it's the Basque Country that holds a special place in my heart. But it seems to extend to a fondness for all things Iberian. When I realized this, I was a little bit sheepish at my automatic reaction. But really, why not? Why should I chide myself for gushing over a sports team that I don't really care about? Why not just open myself to these warm fondnesses, no matter how they came to be, and go home and make some romesco?
To be fair, it's easy to have a love connection with romesco, even if you've never been close to Spain. This sauce is so, so good. It is the king of all sauces. Dried chilies, nuts, red wine, toasted bread, garlic, and (of course) olive oil are ground into a rich red paste. It tastes like nothing else, and pairs beautifully with everything from eggs to asparagus. In Spain (Catalonia in particular), it's made every year to eat with calçots, spring onions that are grilled and served, dripping with romesco, in an amazing festival called a calçotada. I haven't had the good fortune to attend a calçotada myself, but was able to create a reasonable approximation by pairing the romesco with some grilled leeks from a friend's garden. Did I enjoy it more because of my personal experiences? Probably. Because yes, your life is shaped by terrifyingly random turns and chance. And it can be delicious.
yields ~2 cups
Romesco can be made many ways, so feel free to play around. I've used fresh tomatoes (and even sun-dried, which worked surprisingly well), roasted the garlic in the oven, and tried a few different kinds of chiles. All were delicious, but this version here represents my sort of rich, perfect ideal of romesco.
5 dried chile, of the rich-yet-not-too-spicy variety, like anchos (I used the last of my Basque choriceros for this batch)
~1/2 cup olive oil, divided
8 cloves garlic, peeled and thickly sliced
1/3 cup mixed almonds and hazelnuts
1 slice crusty bread/baguette
1/2 cup tomato puree (or a slightly larger amount of grated fresh tomatoes)
1 Tbsp sherry vinegar
splash red wine
salt to taste
Place the dried chiles in a small bowl, and cover with boiling water. Let sit to rehydrate while you prepare the rest of the romesco, turning or pressing them down to make sure they are all submerged.
Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil over a medium heat in a skillet. Add the garlic, and saute, lowering the heat as needed so they brown evenly, until they are a dark golden, ~15 minutes. Transfer the garlic from the skillet to a food processor.
Add the nuts to the skillet, and cook for a few minutes, until they darken and become fragrant. Add to the garlic in the food processor.
Place the bread in pan, and toast until golden on each side. Add to the food processor.
Add the tomato puree to the pan (be careful of spitting!), and cook, stirring occasionally, until it thickens considerably and the oil separates out, ~7 minutes. Transfer to the food processor.
Drain the chiles, remove the stems and seeds and add them to the mixture, along with the vinegar, wine, and remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil. Process until it is reduced to nubby-yet-relatively-smooth puree. Add more olive oil if needed (I sometimes will add a bit of water to adjust the consistency, which I'm sure the Europeans would scoff at, but I can't be quite that heavy-handed with the olive oil). Add salt to taste, and add more wine or vinegar if needed to bring out the flavors. Serve with grilled leeks, eggs, asparagus, or whatever else you desire.