Spain's Sweet Springtime Onions

schmitt june1 calcots post.jpg

Photo by juanvvc/Flickr CC

Alas, I'm writing this when the season for calçots is recently over, and I can't include beautiful photos of the calçotada, a festive moment in which friends and family and passersby stand around an open grill, dribbling delicious juices on themselves as they slide these pale onion sprouts out of their charred skins. But I can tell you about the calçot, and share a recipe for the romescu sauce that usually accompanies it.

A few years ago a friend in the U.S. asked me to bring him seeds for calçots, as some homesick Catalan clients of his farm stall had requested them. Despite the ubiquity of the calçot in all of Catalonia, Spain, there were no calçot seeds to be found. A short-lived mystery: as anyone can tell you, "calçot" comes from the verb "to shoe or to bolster," and therein lies the secret to these incredibly sweet early spring onions.

They are normal white onions that have sprouted, are replanted in the autumn and, as they grow, are shored up or "shod" with soil. Thus the white and tender part of the onion is unusually long, and the initial bulb divides into as many as 10 little bulbs. Between January and April these little bulbs are collected, separated, and thrown onto the grill, dirt and all. When the outside part is totally charred and juices bubble up through it, it is stripped off with a deft gesture, and--while still scalding hot--the onion is dipped in romescu sauce and joyfully consumed.

Here's the romescu sauce; the calçots you'll have to grow on your own:

Recipe: Romescu sauce

    • 300g of toasted almonds
    • 3 tomatoes
    • a handful of breadcrumbs
    • 3 ñoras (These are a little round Catalan pepper. If you can't find them they can be substituted with pimiento chorizero, the peppers used for making chorizo. In a pinch ancho chili peppers might work, though it's a stretch.)
    • 3 cloves of garlic
    • ¼ liter of olive oil
    • 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar
    • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
    • salt to taste

First, an hour or so in advance, place the ñoras in hot water to hydrate. When they are soft, remove the hard parts of the skin and the seeds.

Roast or char the tomatos until their skin is loose. Peel and seed them and set them aside.

In a blender, finely chop almonds, breadcrumbs and garlic. Then add tomatoes and ñoras, and while blending gradually add the oil. If you prefer a looser sauce, add some of the water from hydrating the ñoras. Add parsley and then, to taste, add salt and vinegar.

For lack of calçots, this sauce is exquisite with any grilled thing (vegetables, fish) or may be used to dress a simple salad of escarole and anchovies (called xató).

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Maggie Schmitt is a freelance researcher and translator based in Madrid.  She is currently working on a book called The Gaza Kitchen with Laila El-Haddad. Learn more at

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