This was supposed to be a post about cauliflower.
I love pan-seared cauliflower. Toss it in a pan and let it get lacey and brown and smoky-sweet around the edges, and it’s like an entirely different vegetable. I came back from Spain with one mission, and one mission only: to get me some cauliflower, crispify it like no one’s business, and introduce it to romesco sauce.
Which I did. And it was fantastic, don’t get me wrong.
But then I made a batch of Spanish-spiced potatoes to serve alongside. I dabbed a little sauce on the spuds, just for funsies. And those potatoes promptly went and stole the show.
Patatas bravas–spiced crispy potato chunks–are a tapas bar staple throughout Spain. Of course we ate our share, always served in demure portions, always topped with a heavy dollop of garlicky allioli. The potato part was thrilling, of course–golden and smoky with pimenton, giving way to meltingly tender insides. But the plop of mayonnaise made me wilt a little every time. It was just too fatty and brawny and…white.
See, this is the great thing about cooking. Instead of resigning myself to never knowing patatas bravas without the heavyweight blanket of eggy fat, I could try to make my own. Turns out, salt and pepper and a dusting of pimenton are really all a potato needs. Well, that and a turn in a hot frying pan.
If patatas bravas are classic and unchanging, romesco sauce is a total chameleon. I had versions in Spain that were thin and soft, thick and hearty, a velvety dip for shrimp and a weighty cloak for meat. Some romescos are thickened with bread, others with nuts; some are based on piquillo peppers, others on tomatoes. There is no definitive recipe. None.
So I said what the hell, and took a crack at my own.
So what do I like in a romesco sauce? I like a healthy balance of pepper-sweet and lemon-bite. I like a lot of nuts–almost quadruple the amount in most traditional recipes. I like a little whisper of smokiness, rather than a shout. I like toasty tomatoes and a fair amount of salt.
This is the kind of sauce that needs a resting place to really thrive. Stick a spoon into the food processor, and you’ll get grainy, hard-hitting, acrid-sharp weirdness. But nestling into a pile of potatoes–or even that poor overshadowed cauliflower–the sauce relaxes and morphs, becoming smoky-tangy and pillow-soft. Tomorrow I’ll be spreading the leftovers on toasted sourdough and serving it to dinner guests. I can’t wait.
Or maybe I’ll just make more potatoes.
Patatas Bravas (serves 4-6, depending on how potato-loving your diners are)
1 lb Yukon Gold or other all-purpose potatoes, washed but not peeled
2 tsp smoked paprika, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil for pan-frying
Put the potatoes in a large pot, and cover with about an inch of water. Salt the water generously, then bring to a boil. Simmer the potatoes just until they’re easily pierced with a paring knife, about 30 minutes.
Drain the potatoes and let them cool until they’re able to be handled. Cut the cooled potatoes into one-inch chunks. Season with smoked paprika, salt and pepper.
Pan-fry the potatoes in batches over medium-high heat, using about a tablespoon of olive oil per batch. The goal is little morsels of crispy, brown, utterly irresistible potato. You’ll know when they’re ready.
Romesco Sauce (makes about 2 cups)
Inspired, in part, by The Minimalist
1/4 cup cherry tomatoes
1 cup whole almonds, hazelnuts, or a combination*
6 roasted piquillo peppers or roasted red bell peppers
2 tbsp lemon juice, or to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp smoked paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
*If you have nuts with peels still on, like I did, you can blanch them first in boiling (unsalted) water to remove the skins. Almonds will take about 1 minute in the water, and peel nice and easily. Hazelnuts take about 5 minutes, and are a royal pain to peel. (I learned this the hard way.) In either case, let the nuts cool and dry thoroughly before attempting to peel them.
Heat a frying pan or skillet over medium-high heat–no oil, no nothing, just an empty pan. When the pan is good and hot, add tomatoes and nuts. Toast, stirring occasionally and watching vigilantly, until the tomatoes begin to split open and the nuts are fragrant. Remove from heat.
Combine the toasted nuts and tomatoes with the rest of the ingredients in a food processor or blender. Puree until you get a thick, bright red-orange sauce flecked with tiny bits of nuts. If needed, add more oil to get the right consistency. Serve over warm crispy potatoes, or cauliflower, or just about anything else you fancy.