I’ve been thinking lately about the defining factor that separates a hobby from a passion or calling. A lot of us have hobbies. I read, enjoy exploring new coffee shops, and sometimes run when the weather is nice – those are my hobbies. But sometimes I stray from those activities, and when I do I don’t feel terrible about it. I’ll toss aside my New Yorker to binge watch the new season of Orange Is The New Black, or settle on becoming a regular at my favorite neighborhood coffee spot. From time to time I’ll give up on running altogether, satisfying myself with excuses about the heat until I can’t stand the idea of my own laziness anymore and finally lace up my sneakers once again.
Brian, on the other hand, never gives up on running. He goes out for 5 mile race-pace runs in 95 degree weather, and pushes through group interval training at 7:30 PM on a Tuesday. Brian’s marathon training waits for no snowstorm, and his pair of sore calves merely indicates that he should run slower rather than skip the run. For him, there is no choice but to run, because running is his passion.
For me, I can’t imagine a life without cooking. Cooking is my creative outlet and my meditative respite. Vacations make me anxious because they mean constantly eating out. If I go too long without cooking, I start to feel strangely bottled up, restrained from having expressed myself in my preferred form.
The consequence of my passion is that I sometimes end up cooking even when I don’t feel like it. I think its important for anyone who cooks somewhat regularly to have a “back pocket” meal, something simple that requires next to no effort and still manages to impress when made. At my place, that meal is a seared piece of red meat served alongside some sautéed vegetables from our CSA. The meat itself takes just a few minutes to cook, and now that we’ve perfected our technique (salt heavily, start on the blazing-hot cast-iron griddle, finish with butter on the second side) we can almost make this incredibly satisfying meal on autopilot – perfect for nights when I feel like expending as little effort as possible.
Over the last few months I’ve been experimenting with condiments (things like my Super Salsa Verde) that can help make simple meals like these even more special. Lately I’ve been taken with a particular sauce of Iberian origin known as romesco. I first got on a kick with this fiery red sauce when I came across a recipe from one of my favorite chefs, Seamus Mullen. Mullen’s version was pretty classic, opting not to mess with the already perfect combination of pungent peppers, sweet tomatoes, creamy-crunchy nuts, and toasty North African spices.
Taken though I was with this original recipe, I couldn’t help but tweak it. Something about it wasn’t registering as complete on my palate, and I took up a weeks long challenge to absolutely nail the sauce. My experiments ranged from changing ingredient ratios (fewer nuts? more pepper?) to toying with cooking methods (my attempt to char the onions first only muddied the flavor). Eventually I found what I was looking for in the form of roasted garlic. Roasting garlic in the oven can completely change the vegetable’s character, bringing out a sweetness and deep umami flavor. I knew with my first taste of this roasted-garlic iteration that I had a winner on my hands.
Through these trials over the last few weeks we’ve consistently had some version of this romesco in the fridge, and trust me when I say that it has not gone to waste. Yes, it’s been served alongside a handsome piece of weeknight steak, as I originally intended it, but it has also graced the plates of weekend scrambled eggs and fish cooked en papillote. I even used the sauce as a piquant base for steamed mussels one night. Whip up a batch and see what I mean. If anything, it will be there to rescue your less-than-exciting dinner on nights you just don’t feel like cooking.
Roasted Garlic Romesco
Makes 2 Cups
Adapted from Seamus Mullen’s recipe for Tasting Table
There are a few ways to make this recipe simpler: buy canned whole peeled tomatoes and use skinned almonds and hazelnuts if you can find them (they will be beige, without brown skins). I probably would not recommend buying marinated roasted red peppers in a jar (I find the oil they come in to be pretty gross), but if you want try it and let me know how that works out!
I would recommend making sure each ingredient is prepped before you get busy with the food processor. You can char the peppers under the broiler while roasting the garlic and toasting the nuts below, while cooking down the tomatoes on the stove at the same time.
2-3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
3 tbsp almonds
3 tbsp hazelnuts
1/4 cup extra-vrigin olive oil
3 plum tomatoes, blanched, peeled, and seeded
1 tbsp sherry vinegar (substitute apple cider vinegar)
2 tsp aleppo pepper or red chili flakes
1 tsp pimenton (Spanish smoked paprika) or 1 tsp paprika + pinch chile powder
5 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, and seeded
Salt, to taste
Roast the garlic and toast the nuts: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Wrap the unpeeled garlic cloves in two layers of foil and toss them in the back of the oven to roast for about 40 minutes. The kitchen should start to be fragrant of sweet roasted garlic by the time they are done, but check early to make sure they aren’t burning. While the garlic is roasting, spread the almonds and hazelnuts out on a baking sheet and pop those in to toast for 5-10 minute, stirring occassionally. After removing the nuts from the oven, skin them by rubbing the warm nuts around between two kitchen towels. (You don’t have to be obsessive, but try to get at least 3/4 of the skin off the nuts.)
Cook the tomatoes: In a small or medium saucepan, combine the olive oil and blanched-peeled-seeded tomatoes over medium heat. Stew for about 10 minutes, until the tomatoes are completely tender. Season with salt so that they taste bright and tomato-y.
Puree: In a food processor, combine the roasted garlic (squeeze the flesh out and discard the papery skin) with the toasted nuts, vinegar, aleppo pepper, and pimenton. Pulse until nuts are ground to small pieces. Add the tomatoes and roasted red peppers and puree to your preferred consistency – I like mine a little bit chunky still.
Serve: Eat with everything. Pretend you’re Spanish and use it as a dip for charred leeks, or store in the fridge for a week and serve over steak, fish, or eggs.