I have to admit, I was pretty bumbed about missing Thanksgiving this year. It’s my favorite holiday of all, the one for food lovers and family lovers, and lord knows I am both. But you know what, it’s okay. It wasn’t so bad after all. Largely because, along with all my friends and colleagues from the Alicia Foundation, I got to go to a calçotada – an autumn Catalan party just as festive and traditional and deliciously food-centric as Thanksgiving.
No turkey and stuffing here though. At calçotadas the featured food is calçots, of course. Long, skinny tender leeks – more akin to spring onions than the thick, sturdy, all too often squat leeks we find in the states. They’re roasted over an open fire, then dipped in romesco sauce, a rustic conglomeration of caramelized slow-roasted tomatoes, smoky peppers, sweet roasted garlic, toasty-roasty hazelnuts and almonds, extra-virgin olive oil, and tart sherry vinegar. With such a gorgeous variety of ingredients, it can’t help but hit all your taste buds at once, enlivening your mouth with happiness. Salty and mellow-sweet, pungent and smoky, romesco sauce beckons all the elements – earth, air, fire and water – and has them under it’s total command. It fills your mouth with such a pure and real taste, you think it’s what goodness itself must taste like. A less lofty way of saying it – it’s one of those sauces you’d lick your plate for when no one’s looking.
Now that I think about it, Turkey Schmurkey.
We headed out to the calçotada last Saturday morning, on the first true fall day here. It was so beautiful out, one of those days when just going outside makes you feel alive, and really glad to be that way. The air was crisp and cold. It was the first time I had to wear my winter coat, and I relished the toasty comfort of it. The cold, biting air on my exposed hands and face served only as a reminder of how good I had it all bundled up, and only made me feel more snug. While cold outside, the sun was so bright, it illuminated everything – the hills, the trees, every branch and every leaf. Each line was so defined; every element seemed to stand out so sharp and crisp against its surroundings. I just love days like this, and the feeling was so familiar, I could almost imagine for a few moments that I was home.
The calçotada was held at an old homestead in the Catalan hillside, complete with huge fire pits for grilling our feast, picnic tables under a grove of trees (for days a little bit warmer) and a cozy inside dining room with a long table next to a crackling fire in a stone hearth (for day just like today). It was a perfect spot for our fiesta.
Cooks to the core, we all got right down to business preparing our feast. We prepped our dinner on tables outside and grilled everything over a wood-burning fire – bunches and bunches of fresh green leeks, wide and thick slabs of crusty white bread, plump and juice Catalan sausages. All the while we laughed and chatted, sharing bottles of red Spanish wines and plates of thin-sliced cured meats and tiny green Arbequina olives.
And then we brought the party into the warm indoors, and gathered around the sprawling table, pre-set with large glass bottles of cold golden beer, bundles of grilled leaks unpretentiously wrapped in sheets of newspaper, bunches of tomatoes for squeezing and rubbing on our bread, and my beloved romesco sauce. We passes platters of grilled bread and sausage, and piled our plates high.
Much tradition surrounds the eating of calçots: The blistered, charcoal-black outside layers of the leeks are peeled back and slipped off to reveal the gleaming green of the tender inside layers hidden within. The outsides get discarded, each one contributing to your growing pile, a tally of your total consumption. (Not that it’s a contest, exactly, but you know, it’s a contest.) The insides get liberally dunked in the romesco sauce, then lifted high above the head and lowered into your open mouth. Definitely messy business, but that’s half the fun!
And if romesco sauce is incredible in the figurative sense, i.e. amazing and completely awesome in every possible way, then romesco combined with grilled leeks launches incredible into the literal realm. You truly can’t even believe how good it is. It’s just too good to be true, you’re convinced that you’re somehow suddenly in heaven, sharing a table with all your friends and messily slurping up the nectar of the gods.
Needless to say I had a blast at the Calçotada! While it wasn’t quite the same as gathering around the Thanksgiving table in our glowing, candle-lit dining room and sharing the evening with my favorite people in all the world, I could honestly say it came kinda close, and that’s not too shabby!