We're cooking a paella this week and it's such a happy, festive dish for a crowd that it calls for a Spanish theme to run through dinner. I'm always one for the easy option, particularly when friends come over. I admire but don't quite understand those who try out their most laborious and experimental cooking on guests. Tricksy, weird stuff? That's what my family's for, on sober evenings, when I have my wits about me, not socially stressed and a couple of finos worse for wear.
So if I was thinking a dinner with a paella as the main event, I'd keep the bits beforehand very simple: some slices of jamon, a bowl of warmed olives, maybe a few roasted almonds and always some crudites dipped in romesco, that wonderfully versatile and piquant Spanish sauce.
There are lots of different versions of this tomato and red pepper-based sauce, some using only almonds, others just hazelnuts, most thickened with bread. All are tart with vinegar and hot with garlic and a bit of chilli. I find the nuts do the thickening job on their own so I've skipped the bread, to keep the dish gluten free (and paleo too for those that way inclined). I also use a bit more roasted red pepper than most recipes but this time I've used the pre-roasted ones from a jar. That way, the whole dish, from roasting nuts to finished sauce, takes a lazy ten minutes, at some stage early in the day, well before drinks time.
This sauce will keep brilliantly in the fridge and is endlessly useful, alongside a grilled steak or a meaty piece of fish (nothing too delicate but something like swordfish or tuna), with prawns or any raw or lightly cooked green vegetables.
Romesco Sauce Recipe
50g blanched almonds
2 cloves garlic
100g roasted red pepper, rinsed of any vinegar from the jar
100g grape or other well-flavoured baby tomatoes
0.5-1 red chilli, deseeded
1 tsp smoked paprika (or sweet, unsmoked if you prefer)
30mL red wine vinegar
80mL extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp salt
Preheat the oven to 180C. Roast the almonds and hazelnuts for 5 minutes. Forget them. Burn them. Repeat and this time put a timer on alarm. Well done. Shake the hazelnuts onto a tea towel while they're still hot and rub the skins off as much as you can - a few bits of brown don't matter.
In the bowl of your food processor, place the garlic and whizz into small pieces. Add the nuts and blitz again for as long as it takes them to be broken down into crumbs. Add the red pepper, tomatoes and chilli and blend to a chunky puree,add the paprika, vinegar, olive oil and salt and whizz again. Taste for seasoning - you may wish to adjust the amount of vinegar and salt. Alternatively, if you have a Thermomix or another of the new wave of super-powered kitchen whizzes, chuck everything in and blitz till you have the texture you'd like.
Serve at room temperature with crisp sticks of fennel, lightly blanched asparagus and green beans or warmed through alongside seafood or a grilled skirt steak.