There are times in every cooks life when something constructive is born out of adversity.Such is the story of the Catalonian scallion or green onion, called the Calçot.Popular myth suggests that a peasant farmer, Banigues Xat, in the area of Valls (Tarragona Province) is said to have been the first to have planted the sprouts of garden onions, covering them with earth so a longer portion of the stems remained white and edible. That action is known in Catalan as calçar, a Catalan agricultural term which means to cover the trunk of a plant or vegetable with soil.Inadvertently, when the onions were grilled they frazzled, overheated and became charred and burnt on the outside.Instead of throwing them away,the outer layers were peeled and it was discovered that the interior was very tender and tasty.This culinary faux-pas has left Spain with one of its most typical dishes.Widely consumed in late winter and early spring with its very own sauce -Salbitxada,it is completed with a main course typically consisting of meats and sausages.
This most traditional way of eating calçots is still manifested today in the form of a calçotada (plural: calçotades), a popular gastronomical event held between the end of winter and March or April, where calçots are consumed in vast quantities. Once grilled the outer layers are black, half split open and have taken on a sort of froth, they are then wrapped in groups of 25 or so on several sheets of paper and left for at least half an hour to cook in their own heat.
They are eaten moorishly by peeling away the outer layers and smearing the calçot with its accompanying salvitxada sauce.
So, I decided to experiment with a more domesticated version of the proceedings.The Catalan festival celebrates the harvest of calçots, half way between leeks and onions. In homage to the Calçotada, I recreated this idea but using leeks. Their subtle and delicate flavour definitely calls for calls for a tasty sauce, so in this case its a sort of romesco made of flaked almonds, vinegar, olive oil, salt, and red peppers.Don't forget to use a bib to avoid the stains caused by the sauce and keep your fingers away from your clothes. Why so? Well, when you learn about the ritual you'll understand. First you spread the newspaper bundles on the table and everybody gathers around, usually standing with a bowl of sauce nearby. Now it's time to peel one of them. You take the plant by the leaves and pressing upon the tip of the white bulb with the other hand you try to pull away carefully the burnt out external layer. This you learn with practice. It must come out neatly without smashing the content. Then you leave the peel aside (now the hand used for peeling is a mess) and soak the bulb in the sauce, haul it towards your mouth and take a good bite only on the white part of the plant. The rest you throw away. After this repeat the process at will. Of course, wine is mandatory in this case. Bon appetite!
Salbitxada is a sharp and lightly sweet Catalan sauce that's traditionally served with the calçots. That said, it's a great finishing touch for other dishes, too. This will probably give you more sauce than you need – keep it in the fridge for up to a week, or freeze.
1 red pepper
2 red chillies
5 garlic cloves, skin on
40g flaked almonds, toasted
4 ripe tomatoes (400g), blanched, peeled and deseeded
2 tsp sherry vinegar
100ml olive oil
Heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Put the pepper, chillies and garlic on an oven tray and roast for 10 minutes. Remove the chillies and garlic, turn the pepper and roast for 20 minutes more. Once the skin is blistered, put the pepper in a bowl and cover with clingfilm. When cool, peel and deseed both the pepper and chillies, and peel the garlic.
Grind the almonds to a coarse powder in a food processor. Add the pepper, chilli, garlic and tomatoes, and whizz to a paste. Add the vinegar and a quarter-teaspoon of salt, then slowly add oil to make a thick sauce.
And when all is said and done,it's fantastic, its fun and everyone has black fingers from the char!!!