Why It Works
- Grilling and toasting the sauce ingredients creates a deeper, smoky flavor.
- Sherry vinegar adds a complex and round brightness to the sauce.
I started developing this recipe with a specific vinegar in mind: sherry vinegar. Sherry vinegar is made from fortified wine in the Cádiz province of Spain, mainly in the city of Jerez, which is known as the sherry capital of the world. It has a tangy oxidized note that nicely complements grilled food. Its distinct flavor comes from the method by which the sherry is made. Using what is called a solera system, barrels are stacked in a multi-level pyramid structure. New wine goes in the top barrels, and is gradually blended downward into the older barrels. The finished product becomes a blend of ages, rather than a single vintage. The same system is employed to age the vinegar, with the younger barrels picking up complexity from the older vinegars and the newer ones adding freshness to the older ones. The result is nuanced and singular. While some vinegars can be too assertive, sherry vinegar is mellower and has a roundness due to its significant aging, but it also isn't syrupy like balsamic.
I went searching for a sherry vinegar–based sauce that would make sense for grilled foods. In my online quest, I came across a little jar from a Spanish company called Ferrer. The label read: "Xató Salsa." I started Googling around—what was xató? At first glance, it certainly seemed romesco-like, if not simply just romesco—a combination of nuts, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and sherry vinegar. But I noticed that Ferrer was selling both jarred xató sauce and romesco. Was this just a marketing ploy? I went deeper.
I found that in Spain's northeastern region of Catalonia, the towns of Canyelles, Calafell, Cubelles, Cunit, El Vendrell, Sant Pere de Ribes, Sitges, and Vilanova i la Geltrú are considered the "xató route." There, a salad comprised of endive or frisée, bacalao (salt cod), oil-packed tuna, and anchovies is topped with a nutty, sweet, and slightly spicy condiment. Each town has its own iteration of the salad, some with different fish, some with olives, some with toasted nuts as a garnish. In those towns, this salad is called xató. In the nearby town of Valls (still in Catalonia), a sauce with a different name, salvitxada, is used to top calçots (spring onions) during the Calçotada festival. In the months leading up to spring, long deeply-rooted onions are harvested and grilled over a hot fire until they're black, at which point they're wrapped in newspapers to steam. Their charred exteriors are then peeled off with bare hands, and the soft onions are dipped in romesco, ahem, "salvitxada."
To make any of these sauces, the process is the same: Dried spicy red peppers are reheated in warm water and blended into a smooth paste with nuts, tomato, a clove of garlic, sherry vinegar, and olive oil, thinned in both flavor and consistency with water, then thickened with grilled bread.
I wanted to see if I could intensify all of these enchanting elements on the grill. I blistered fresh Fresno peppers to skip a dried-pepper soaking step. Most romescos are made from ñora peppers; they're small, red, round, and sweet-fleshed and almost always used dry. They can be hard to find whole and dried in the States (though online sources exist). Roasting fresh peppers on the grill creates a smoky depth not unlike a dried pepper, so it's a substitution that works well.
I also charred a tomato and toasted foil packets of nuts over the coals. The resulting flavor of the sauce almost reminded me of Spanish chorizo sausages, a bit peppery and smoky. With the addition of sherry vinegar to the mix, it was light and bright and could certainly be used for fresh vegetables or a salad.
Following the traditional way of serving xató, I reached for endives first. I love grilling them—it tames their natural bitterness—and I put some spring onions over the coals, too, a holler at Calçotada. While I omitted most of the cured seafood that you'd find on the xató route, I did top the salad with anchovies for a little briny seasoning. You can easily add flaked salt cod, oil-packed tuna, or even a rare seared tuna steak on top to make for a great main course salad.
One thing about xató continued to confuse me though. The more and more I looked into it, the more it seemed like "xató" refers to the entire salad, not just the sauce I'd found in a jar. I asked my friend Alex Raij, the chef and owner of NYC's Txikito (her tribute to Basque country cuisine) and several other Spanish-inspired restaurants, about xató sauce, and she was adamant that the name refers only to the iconic salad. She figured that the jars I'd seen with "xató" on the label were nothing more than micro-regional marketing. But I still couldn't get that jar of bright orange goodness out of my mind. When I bumped into Alex's husband, Eder Montero, a Basque native, I asked him about xató sauce, too. He was just as confused and resolute as Alex had been. He even texted a friend in Spain who formerly cooked for legendary chef Ferran Adria to see if he'd ever heard of such a thing. His friend's response was this: Xató must have more pepper, and fewer nuts, but it sounded basically the same as romesco. Apparently, there are many different sides to romesco; it's just a matter of where it comes from.
Whatever the case, I was happy with this tangle of char and acidity that I'd created—not quite the definition of xató, but unquestionably a celebration of the vibrant condiment I've come to love. This sauce is a route worth following.
1/4 cup almonds (1 3/4 ounces; 50g), wrapped in a small foil packet
1/4 cup hazelnuts (1 1/4 ounces; 35g), wrapped in a small foil packet
1 to 2 Fresno chiles, depending on your desired heat level (see notes)
1 medium tomato (6 ounces; 170g), cut in half
1 small slice crust-on country bread
1 medium clove garlic
1/4 cup sherry vinegar (60ml)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil (120ml), plus more for drizzling
Kosher or sea salt
3 endives (350g), cut in half lengthwise, mixed red and white if possible
1 bunch spring onions (520g), about 6 (2-3 bunches large scallions are a good substitute), root ends trimmed
6 oil-packed anchovy fillets, for garnish (optional)
Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and spread coals evenly over half of coal grate. Alternatively, set all burners of a gas grill to high heat. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil grilling grate.
Place almond and hazelnut packets on the cooler side of grill and cook, turning occasionally, until lightly brown and fragrant, 5 to 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, place chiles and tomato halves over hot side of grill and cook, turning occasionally, until chiles are dark and blistered on all sides and tomato is charred in spots, about 5 minutes. Let cool, then discard seeds and stems from chiles.
Set bread over hot side of grill and cook, turning, until toasted on both sides.
In a blender, combine chiles (see notes), tomato, almonds, hazelnuts, bread, garlic, sherry vinegar, and 1/4 cup cold water. Blend until a thick purée forms, then add olive oil and blend until incorporated. Season with salt. You should have about 2 cups sauce, which can be kept refrigerated for up to 1 week.
To make the salad, lightly dress endives and spring onions with olive oil, then grill over high heat, turning, until charred in spots. Chop endives and spring onions and transfer to a serving bowl. Spoon a generous dollop of sauce on top, add anchovies, if using, and serve. Salad can be warm or at room temperature. The remaining sauce can be used as a condiment for sandwiches, a dip for vegetables, and more.
Fresno chiles are relatively mild, though some can be hotter than others. It may be a good idea to grill two peppers, but then start by blending one into the sauce, tasting, and adding the second only if desired at that point.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 40g||51%|
|Saturated Fat 5g||24%|
|Total Carbohydrate 24g||9%|
|Dietary Fiber 9g||33%|
|Total Sugars 6g|
|Vitamin C 61mg||303%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|