I grew up in southern Spain eating aubergines, romesco and walnuts – maybe not in the same dish but they were certainly a staple in our diet. I also grew up surrounded by the smell of fried garlic, roasted peppers, tomatoes and paprika. To me, it doesn’t get more Spanish than that. Everytime I cook and smell any of those foods I’m automatically teletransported there, that’s one of the reasons why I love cooking so much – a smell can trigger a thousand memories.
My parents still have a drawer in their living room full of the most amazing pistachios, walnuts, pecans, almonds, dry figs, dates and probably a few more things I’ve forgotten. There’s dry lentils in the kitchen, chickpeas, haricot beans, canellini beans… and it’s not just them, most Spanish and Mediterranean households are exactly the same. I love the respect vegetables, nuts, grains, spices and pulses get on that side of the world.
It still surprises me after 20 years of living abroad in different countries, that so many people are incredibly disgracious towards these wonderful ingredients and others are so reluctant to even try them as if they were some sort of unknown alien delicatessen. I get it, education, exposure and culture play a big role in this fear of the ‘exotic’ (as exotic as chickpeas or beans can be). Exotic or not, these foods are to be eaten and celebrated. They are incredibly nutritious – full of vitamins, minerals, lean protein, omega-3, omega 6 and fiber. They are versatile, easy to cook, cheap and they taste so great!
If you are yet to be convinced about whether or not you should eat these exotic delicatessens, maybe this recipe will change your mind. And I hope it does.
AUBERGINE, ROMESCO AND WALNUTS
3 medium aubergines 100g walnuts Turkish pepper flakes (or normal chilli flakes if you can’t find the Aleppo ones) Extra virgin olive oil Salt and pepper to taste
For the romesco sauce
4 ripe vine tomatoes 2 red peppers A whole garlic bulb 1/2 cup almonds or hazelnuts A big slice of good quality bread (stale works best, lightly toast it otherwise) 1 1/2 tsp smoked paprika 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper 120ml extra virgin olive oil 3 tablespoons of Sherry or red wine vinegar Good pinch of salt
1 – First, the romesco sauce. I like to make mine a few hours in advance so that all the flavors intensify but it’s totally cool to make it just before you eat it. Preheat the oven at 200 degrees. On a tray, place the peppers and tomatoes and season with olive oil, salt and pepper. Slice the top of the garlic bulb off – just a tiny bit, though! About 2mm is good, it’s only to expose the flesh. Place the garlic in some foil and drizzle with olive oil and salt then close and seal the little package really well. Place on the tray with the peppers and tomatoes and put everything in the oven for about 40 mins. Make sure you turn the peppers around once or twice until they are nicely charred all over. The garlic will be ready in about 20-25 mins. Make sure you take it out of the oven after that time, otherwise it will be too dry and bitter – we just want it sweet and caramelized.
2 – Next, the aubergines. Get another oven tray and lay some baking paper on it. Simply cut the aubergines in half, then quarters, then half those quarters. You should end up with 8 wedges per aubergine, so a total of 22. Place the wedges on the tray and season generously with salt, pepper and olive oil. then put it in the oven – it will take around 40-45 mins for the aubergines to be nice and caramelized. Check them and turn them every now and then to make sure they brown on both sides.
3 – Back to the romesco. When the peppers, tomatoes and garlic are ready, take them out of the oven and wait a few minutes until they cool down a bit so you don’t burn your hands. Peel the tomatoes and peppers and place them in a food processor. The garlic should be nice and soft, just squeeze all the flesh out of the skin and also place that in the food processor together with the rest of the ingredients and blitz until you get the consistency of pesto – not too pureed but not chunky either. Taste and season accordingly.
4 – Get the aubergines out of the oven and it’s time for plating! You can do this however you like, I like to put the romesco at the bottom and place the aubergines on top but there’s no right or wrong here. Get a handful of walnuts, crush them with your hands and sprinkle over the plate together with some extra virgin olive oil and good pinch of Turkish pepper flakes.
Notes: I strongly recommend you use Turkish pepper flakes (it’s also called Aleppo pepper) for this recipe. They’ve got the most amazing aromatic salty taste and just the right amount of heat. I actually even eat it out of the jar sometimes!