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Catalan Spring Onion Feast

Catalan Spring Onion Feast

The calçotada is a late winter and early spring ritual in Catalonia, and especially around the town of Valls, about 10 miles north of the old Roman Iberian capital of Tarragona. A calçotada is a feast built around calçots, which in turn are green onions that are as long and fat as leeks.

To grow this unique form of Allium, large garden onions are harvested when they begin to push out green shoots, then stored in a dark, dry place for about two months. They are then trimmed of their original shoots and small slices are removed from their top half in several places. Then the onions are replanted to sprout anew. This time, earth is packed around them as they begin to protrude — this is the same process used with Belgian endive and white asparagus to keep them from turning chlorophyll-green — so that when they are full-grown, thick, and sweet, at least half of their flesh is white. (The term "calçot" probably derives from "calça," meaning "stocking," a reference to the way the earth covers the onion shoots.)

Nobody knows for sure who first developed this rather complicated process for growing calçots, though local tradition in Valls assigns it to a turn-of-the-century farmer named Xat de Benaiges.

Calçotadas are big communal events, frequently organized by organizations like companies, labor unions, social clubs, and the like, and held at restaurants, social halls, and other public venues. The format is always more or less the same: Calçots are grilled over embers — traditionally, old iron bedsprings were used as grills, and some restaurants still trot these out for the purpose — and then wrapped tightly in newspapers to steam. They're brought to the table in the hollows of terra-cotta roofing tiles (this helps keep them warm) and eaten thus: A calçot is grasped in one hand by its blackened base and in the other by its green top, then the black part is slipped off and discarded. The white end of the calçot is then dipped into a bowl of romesco sauce (sometimes just called salsa per calçots). The diner tips his or her head back and bites off the sauce-cloaked portion. This is messy work, obviously, and participants in a real calçotada usually wear napkins tucked into their collars — and there is usually a sink or wash basin nearby. Calçot lovers typically consume at least 20 or 25 of the things at one of these events, and competitive calçot eaters (only in Catalonia!) sometimes manage 200 or so in a half-hour's time.

The calçots are just the beginning of a calçotada, though. After the onions come an assortment of meats grilled on the same embers, usually including botifarra (mild pork sausage) and lamb chops with white beans and allioli. Sometimes roast chicken is added to the meal. All this is washed down by plenty of wine, theoretically poured straight into the mouth from a porró, the glass pitcher with a needle-nose spout that Catalans use instead of the leather bota bag utilized for communal wine-drinking elsewhere in Spain.

If a trip to Catalonia isn't on your schedule, the good news is that the Spanish specialty food retailer La Tienda is now selling authentic calçots grown in Oregon, through the end of May. Char them on your grill, then slip off the charred part, and dip them in this classic Tarragona-region romesco sauce.

Click here to see the Tarragona-Region Romesco Sauce Recipe


Catalonia’s Famous Onion Festival Arrives: The Calçotada

Know your onions at this famous Catalan winter festival celebrating the harvest of Calçotada (giant spring onions) with a number of unusual food traditions.

Catalonia is heating up, quite literally, for the Gran Fiesta de la Calçotada', an annual winter festival and barbecue feast devoted to the Calçot (a type of green onion from Catalonia, somewhere between a spring onion and a leek, see image below).

Whilst the regional onion harvest takes place over several months, between November and April, the one day festival will be held on 31st January in the capital of Calçot, Valls. The streets and squares will fill with festivities and onion lovers will take part in a traditional feast in honour of the pungent vegetable.

Participants can get involved in any number of popular calcot related competitions including: parades, demonstrations of copper grilled onions, growers contests, sauce making, onion eating, tastings and even a national dog show, but the real draw is for onion lovers to get their fill of the freshly barbecued vegetable.

Photo: Sonia Valles clots (Valls - Festival Calçotada)


Know your onions

Looking like a cross between bushy spring onions and young leeks, these mild-flavoured allium are 15-25 cm long. A speciality vegetable given the coveted Protected Geographical Indication status, calçots (pronounced ‘kalsots’) are grown in Valls, a town in the Tarragona province in the south of Catalonia in north-east Spain.

Like asparagus and truffles, the annual harvest of calçots — January to April — is celebrated with hugely popular events known as calçotada (pronounced ‘kalsutada’ or ‘kalsotada’). These involve families and friends getting together to eat barbecued calçots, traditionally flame-roasted on vine shoots.

In Spain, calçotades take place at rural restaurants, in countryside farms, or in the gardens and rooftops of people’s homes. The onions are grilled until the outer layers are charred, wrapped in newspapers to keep them warm and steam-cook them further, then served on curved terracotta roof tiles.

Romesco, or its close cousin salvitxada, are an important accompaniment to calçots. These are sauces made from nuts (usually hazelnuts, almonds, pine nuts or walnuts), local nyora peppers or bitxo chillies (regular red peppers can be substituted), and olive oil. Depending on the recipe, tomatoes, onions, garlic and red wine vinegar are added, too plus a little stale bread or toast to thicken.


Catalan Cooking’s Calçotada

I had never heard of a calçot let alone a calçotada until Rachel from Catalan Cooking decided it was high time Londoners learned more.

She teamed up with Nick at The Drapers Arms and hosted a fabulous Calçotada one sunny evening at the end of March.

So what exactly is a calçot?

Unlike the true scallion or spring onion (Allium fistulosum), which doesn’t form bulbs even when mature, the calçot is a variety of Allium cepa, the regular onion species. It’s a variety bred for mildness of flavour and, after the bulb has been planted, it’s earthed up, just like leeks are, to increase the length of white stem. That action of earthing up the trunk of a plant or vegetable is known in Catalan as calçar, hence the name calçot.

It is grown in Catalonia, Spain and calçots grown in Valls, where thsy are said to have originated, have protected geographical indication status.

And a calçotada ?

In a gastronomical celebration of the calçot, it is popular to hold an event focused on the enjoyment of this local delicacy. It runs from the end of winter through to March or April, the time of year when calçots are harvested.

At the calçotada, calçots are barbecued over charcoal, carefully peeled, dipped into a salvitxada or romesco sauce and joyously and messily eaten. The feast continues with meat, roasted over the charcoal after the calçots have been cooked.

Clearly, the calçotada is not something to be taken lightly. So Rachel enlisted the charming Borja Letamendia, a professional chef and also head of exports for Real Jamon, to be the calçotada head chef for the evening.


The charcoal grills were set up in the pub’s garden area, and the canapés, calçots and meats were enjoyed by three large tables of merry diners in the pub’s upstairs dining room, where Borja told us a little about the feast to come.

Over some glasses of Cordoniu Raventos Cava, we enjoyed canapés of Martiko foie gras mi-cuit and duck confit, both on toast.

At our tables, we sat down to bowls of Arbequina and Empeltre olives and the magnificent platters of Iberico ham, chorizo, lomo and salchichon, from Real Jamon. The meats were truly fabulous do get your hands on some, if you can.

After this, the calçots started to arrive. And they just kept coming, plate after plate after plate.

All the diners tucked in with gusto, none more enthusiastically than my Spanish table neighbours, who were clearly not newcomers to the calçotada and were happy to see it come to London. We enjoyed them dipped into Rachel’s wonderfully smoky romesco sauce, a recipe you can learn from Rachel at one of her cooking classes.




Making a happy mess, it became clear why Rachel had provided bibs for the occasion!

Just when we were almost satiated, and couldn’t fit in a single extra calçot, the next course was served. More huge platters, this time creaking under the weight of butifarra sausage, chicken and lamb chops with aioli.

Just to make sure we didn’t go home hungry after all that meat, out came the most delicious Crema Catalana. I’ve enjoyed this wonderful dessert before, at one of Rachel’s Catalan supper clubs and cannot praise highly enough that soft, gently citrusy custard and burnt sugar topping.

As is traditional, we were each given an orange to complete the calçotada.

You’ve not finished a calçotada”, Rachel told me, “until you’ve eaten that orange!” So for me, the calçotada didn’t finish until the next morning!

Calçot season is over for 2011, but do visit Rachel’s website for more information on Catalan Cooking, and to sign up for her other great Catalan food events throughout the year.

Extra images provided by MiMi of Meemalee’s Kitchen… which is just as well as I was far too busy eating to take enough myself!


The hipster-food glossary: what will we be eating this time next year?

Modern food moves at a bewildering pace. Where once, influences from star chefs would disseminate slowly and new products could take years to establish themselves, today rare ingredients and new dishes can proliferate online, globally, almost instantly. On Instagram, a coalition of food nerds - not just chefs, but (amateur) bakers, baristas, brewers and artisan producers - are generating a creative frenzy of new ideas and potential break-out trends.

It is exhausting. It is exciting. The ideas are often ludicrous. Yet food’s appetite for the new is currently insatiable. The next menu you read will invariably be filled with words such as kefir (a fermented milk drink) or tsukune (Japanese chicken meatballs) that would stump all but the most painfully cool of diners. But, fear not. Together we can make sense of this head-spinning, at times stomach-turning world - with this, the ultimate hipster food glossary.

Whopping great south-east Asian fruit being pulled hither and thither as vegetarians recognise its fibrous potential as an alternative to pork.

Wine! Would you just stand still for a minute! No sooner had we got our collective head around orange wine (grapes fermented skin-on for greater complexity), natural wine (minimal chemical/mechanical intervention) and biodynamic wine (hippy, mumbo-jumbo wine) than up pops low-tech pet-nat - or petillant naturale - a subset of softly sparkling, cloudy wines bottled midway through their first wild fermentation, to create raw, exciting plonk. Or unpredictable rubbish. Depending on your POV.

Hispi (cabbage) and crosnes (tiny Chinese artichokes) ran it close, but if you want to name-drop a fashionable vegetable this season, it has to be Kalettes, a trademarked kale/brussels sprout crossbreed that produces sprout-sized kale cabbages. Think of it as the new plango (the plum-mango hybrid) or a sequel to the cronut (the croissant-doughnut). Only less fun.

A G&T spiked with cold-brew coffee, which everyone (okay, the style mags after it blew up on “Insta”), is calling, “the new espresso martini”.

An overgrown Catalan spring onion? or is it the Iberian leek? Either way, suddenly visible in ambitious UK restaurants where we heathens often eat the whole thing, not just the sweet white bulb, usually charred and eaten dipped in romesco. Brindisa’s traditional cal?otada feast is served in London throughout March.

The in-crowd loves to shroud trendy ingredients in linguistic mystery. Hence why these unprocessed shards of what we used to happily call cocoa beans are now referred to by their Spanish name (derived from the Aztec language, Nahuatl). These bitter, chocolatey pieces are scattered across everything from porridge to Michelin-star desserts.

Miso caramel

Salt? Using salt to season food? What are you, a barbarian? No. All the cool kids now use miso, with miso caramel (the new, super-charged salted caramel), promising to be its big, crossover hit. “You get the salinity but with added umami, making it more savoury and complex,” says British chef Nick Grieves.

Instagram-driven idiocy (do you see a theme emerging?) that - for reasons unknown - has seen craft beer “fans” take to pouring murky beers in a way that leaves the glass brim-full with zero head. Result: the beer looks horribly flat and is impossible to drink.

Golden milk

The clean-eating cabal is really pushing turmeric’s health benefits, often in the form of this blend of nut milk and turmeric root, also known as a turmeric latte. Writing for Food52, Mayukh Sen concluded: “It’s a hideously awful drink.” He pointed out that in India, this bitter concoction (in Hindi, haldi doodh) is used to nurse sick children. Essentially, this is a Calpol cappuccino. But mystical. And romantic. Because ayurveda, yeah?

If you thought the freakshake was peak infantilisation for modern food, think again. Unicorn is all about turning cakes, bakes, shakes and even the occasional toastie into eye-watering, multicoloured monstrosities, using a rainbow of food dyes, sprinkles (known as unicorn food), edible glitters and tiny marshmallows. It has already spread (like devastating wildfire? contagious disease?) across Instagram and Pinterest, to, last month, ITV’s This Morning. At least, that cookery item was aimed at parents entertaining their kids at half-term, instead of ostensibly functioning adults who take this cutesy-wutesy, cartoon nonsense seriously.

The collective term for various colourful, soy-dressed Hawaiian raw fish salads, poké (rhymes with okay, not bloke) is big news in the UK and the States and is on the way here.

Matcha Mille crepe cake

Multi-layered pancake ‘n’ cream stack infused and/or dusted with vivid green matcha tea. Think: the Incredible Hulk does Bake Off. Does it taste nice? No idea. But it looks stunning on Instagram, which, in 2017, is far more important.

The descriptor du jour (among craft-beer geeks keen to suggest they took drugs once), for IPAs that have a resinous, sticky, skunk weed character. Tip: up the ante by insisting you are “coming up too fast” on your 9% DIPA (double IPA).

Root-to-shoot

Nose-to-tail for the flexitarian generation a waste-minimal ethos of cooking that embraces the whole plant. Damn tasty if we’re talking about deep-fried Jerusalem artichoke skin.

Want to freak out your hipster friends? Casually mention khachapuri. Recently tipped by Restaurant magazine, this Georgian speciality has a growing cult status in the US, but is largely unknown here. However, it is only a matter of time before someone enterprising takes khachapuri - imagine a pizza-like dough-boat filled with cheese, eggs and butter - and makes it massive. What’s not to like?

– Guardian News and Media 2017

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I have a mortar and pestle obsession, and romesco sauce just adds to my love of them. A mortar and pestle is the tool traditionally used to make romesco, and I'd argue it's what you should use today if you want a romesco with the most character, in both its texture and its flavor. The sauces I've made with my mortar and pestle have been sweeter, more complex, and more delicious than those made with a blender or food processor. The texture is also more rustic, which I like as well.

The flavor improvements I noticed from the mortar and pestle are likely due to how the tool works. Unlike the spinning blades of a blender or food processor, which chop the ingredients into smaller and smaller bits, a mortar and pestle crushes them, breaking open the plant cells and releasing more of what's trapped inside. This generally translates into better flavor.

That said, you don't have to use a mortar and pestle. This is a forgiving sauce, and it comes out great even with those chippity-choppity appliances of modern convenience.

And that's what's so great about romesco—it's open to interpretation. But to interpret something, you first need to understand the basics, so that your decisions are informed and deliberate. Use fresh tomatoes and roasted red bell peppers if you want, but do it knowing there are other options, not just because that's what all the Americanized recipes are telling you.


Vegetarian traditional Catalan food to die for

Pa amb tomàquet

It consists of toasted Catalan country bread scraped with garlic (optional) and lightly coated with of the flesh of fresh tomatoes. The final touch is always a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of sea salt on top. Usually, it is eaten as an accompaniment to a meal or, more commonly, as a base to sample the traditional cured meats. However, it is so delicious that it can even be a starter in itself.

Traditional pa amb tomàquet

Calçots

A type of long-stemmed green onions grown in Catalonia which is barbecued on an open fire. Charred outer leaves make them very messy to eat so a bib and gloves are sometimes provided. Did you say a bib? Yes, a baby bib! The soft inside is always dipped into a garlic, tomato and almond sauce. They are seasonal from December to March and it is one of the culinary social highlights if you visit at this time of the year. Best place to appreciate the ceremony of calçots is out in the countryside but plenty of Barcelona restaurants have them on the menu during the season.

Calçots cooked on an open fire

Escalivada

A vegetarian delight: Smokey grilled veg (red peppers and eggplant) served with olive oil as a hot or cold dish. Some variations can include tomatoes onions and garlic. Anchovies can also be added so if you are a vegetarian be sure this is not the case.

Escalivada of red peppers and eggplant

Espinacs amb panses i pinyons

This is a very simple but fab dish that has been consumed in Catalonia since medieval times. Fresh green spinach are sauteed in olive oil together with raisins and pine nuts. Sometimes the spinach has been steamed beforehand but I definitely prefer the first version.

Espinacs amb panses i pinyons


Preparation

  • Pat the lamb dry with paper towels and season generously with salt and pepper.
  • Heat the oil in a 12-1/2-inch cassola (on a heat diffuser if recommended by the manufacturer) over medium-high heat. Working in batches so as not to crowd the cassola, brown the lamb on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes per batch, adding more oil as needed. Transfer each batch to a platter and cover with foil to keep warm.
  • Reduce the heat to medium, add the onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, reduce the heat to low, and cook, uncovered, stirring frequently and then tapping down the mixture with the back of a wooden spoon until thickened and darker, 10 to 15 minutes, adding a little water as necessary to keep it from drying out and sticking.
  • Return the lamb to the cassola and turn to coat well. Drizzle with the wine, stir, and cook for 1 minute. Add the stock and bay leaf, increase the heat to medium high, bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. Cover with a large pot lid or foil, leaving it slightly ajar, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes if using bone-in lamb or 30 minutes if using boneless.
  • Add the potatoes and olives, replace the lid slightly ajar, and cook over low heat until the lamb and potatoes are fork-tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour, adding more stock if needed to keep the sauce moist. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Serve from the cassola with the bread, and be sure to warn everyone about the olive pits.

A cassola is a traditional Catalan shallow terra-cotta casserole dish. When shopping for one anywhere outside of Catalonia, you’ll most likely see it called by its Spanish name, cazuela. Some manufacturers recommend using a heat diffuser to protect the cassola from direct flame and help the food cook more evenly. If you don’t have a cassola, you can use a 12-inch-wide heavy-duty Dutch oven or straight-sided skillet instead.

Recipe Notes

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London calçotades

Indeed Rachel McCormack, a Catalan food expert credited with bringing calçotada to London in 2011, says: “I wanted to show that there’s more to Spanish food than tapas and paella”. She points out that it was in fact the food photographer Jason Lowe who first hosted calçotades in London – but they were private events for friends, and concedes she was the first to introduce them on a commercial scale.

Over the years she has held calçotades at several different venues. So well-received are her events that a number of delis and greengrocers have started selling calçots as a consequence and several restaurants and bars now host calçotades or serve the onions as a tapa. She says: “Calçots are getting more popular: they sold double in 2013, for instance, compared with 2012. A lot of places are just grilling them and serving them with romesco sauce and a knife and fork, which is just sad, but the standard is gradually improving.”

To get a feel for what the ‘authentic’ calçotada should be like, we attended McCormack’s event last year at the superb Boqueria restaurant in Clapham. Walking down Acre Lane, a plume of pungent, aromatic smoke led us to a side street where she and a chef had lit up a wooden grill.

Inside the restaurant, a £30 menu generously included calçots with romesco, barbecued marinated lamb and chicken with allioli (Catalan garlic mayonnaise), morcilla and chorizo, a sumptuous yet light dessert of crema Catalana, and a glass of red wine or cava. (You can substitute meat with seafood or vegetarian tapas.)


Sustainability of Scallions and Green Onions

Pesticides and Scallions and Green Onions

On the commercial level, fungicides and pesticides are sometimes used to eliminate any risk of crop failure, particularly when the scallions do not benefit from crop rotation, which would naturally keep pests at bay. If you are shopping for commercial scallions, it may be best to choose organic if you want to avoid pesticide exposure. The best bet is to buy scallions from the farmers market, where you can discuss growing conditions directly with the farmer.

Seasonal Food Guide

Find Out When Scallions and Green Onions Are in Season

Scallion and Green Onions Seasonality

In warmer climates, A. fistulosum grow year-round and can be propagated by dividing. In colder climates, north of Zone 6, the allium is direct-planted in the spring from seed.

A.cepa can be grown from seed or sets (seedlings that are started in a greenhouse and replanted in the field). They are daylight sensitive and require a certain number of hours of sunlight to trigger bulb formation. They are susceptible to a number of pests and diseases. Crop rotation is critical for the health of the plants, which are often treated with a number of topical inputs to stave off failure.


Contents

There are several Catalan language cookbooks from the Middle Ages that are known to modern scholars. The Llibre de Coch [es] (1520) was one of the most influential cookbooks of Renaissance Spain. [3] It includes several sauce recipes made with ingredients such as ginger, mace powder (flor de macis), cinnamon, saffron, cloves (clauells de girofle), wine and honey. [4] [5] Salsa de pagó took its name from the peacock (Catalan: el paó) that it was intended to be served with, but could accompany any type of poultry, and was part of the medieval Christmas meal. [6] Salsa mirraust (or mirausto alla catalana as it's called in the Cuoco Napoletano) was half-roasted (mi-raust) poultry that was finished in a salsa thickened with egg yolks, toasted almonds and breadcrumbs. In the version of the recipe from the 14th-century Llibre de Sent Soví [ast] , the sauce is thickened with mashed poultry liver instead of egg yolks. [7]

Hippocras (pimentes de clareya) was spiced wine made with cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper, honey and wine pressed through a manega, a pastry bag shaped cloth that was originally designed by Hippocrates to filter water. [8]

Catalan cuisine relies heavily on ingredients popular along the Mediterranean coast, including fresh vegetables (especially tomato, garlic, eggplant (aubergine), capsicum, and artichoke), wheat products (bread, pasta), Arbequina olive oils, wines, legumes (beans, chickpeas), mushrooms (particularly wild mushrooms), nuts (pine nuts, hazelnuts and almonds), all sorts of pork preparations (sausage from Vic, ham), sheep and goats' cheese, poultry, lamb, and many types of fish like sardine, anchovy, tuna, and cod. [9]

Traditional Catalan cuisine is quite diverse, ranging from pork-intensive dishes cooked in the inland part of the region (Catalonia is one of the main producers of swine products in Spain) to fish-based recipes along the coast. [10] These meat and seafood elements are frequently fused together in the Catalan version of surf and turf, known as mar i muntanya. Examples include chicken with lobster (pollastre amb llagosta), chicken with crayfish (pollastre amb escarmalans), and rice with meat and seafood (arròs mar i muntanya).

The cuisine includes many preparations that mix sweet and savoury and stews with sauces based upon botifarra (pork sausage) and the characteristic picada (ground almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, etc. sometimes with garlic, herbs, biscuits). [9]