Spring Means Alliums Aplenty: Celebrate with a Spanish Cal├žotada!

It all started with those little, bright green, lantern-shaped peppers called pimientos de padrón—known more familiarly as "padrons"—that only required a quick blistering in hot oil and shower of salt to melt my knees as soon as I popped one in my mouth. For awhile they were only available from one vendor—the late, lamented Viridian Farms at the Portland Farmers Market—but pretty soon they were being featured on the hottest chef's menus all over town.

A couple of years later I heard about another Spanish delicacy that had appeared on Viridian's roster, a spring onion called calçot (pron. cahl-SOH). In Spain they're harvested from November through April, and festivals known as calçotadas are held in towns all over the region.

Cooked on a hot grill until the outside layer is blackened but not charred and the inside is soft and creamy, the blackened outside layer is peeled off and the remaining onion is dunked in a tangy romesco-like sauce called salbitxada (sahl-beet-SHAH-dah). Then, holding the onion aloft by the greens, the trick is to lower the soft, saucy white part into your mouth and bite it off without having the sauce dribble all over your face. (This video explains it better than I ever could.)

With calçot season upon us, we finally held our own mini-calçotada on the patio. Traditionally served with beer and a variety of grilled meats, for our home version of a calçotada, Dave quickly grilled bone-in pork chops and I made an herbed rice pilaf with chopped tarragon, red-veined sorrel and parsley from the garden…though the drips on our shirts signaled that we may need some more practice on the eating portion of this spring festival.

Calçots with Salbitxada Sauce

For the salbitxada sauce:
4 Tbsp. blanched almonds
4 fresh bitxo peppers (or other mildly hot pepper), coarsely chopped, seeds and membranes removed
8 cloves garlic, peeled
4 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
1/4 c. bread crumbs
1 Tbsp. smoked paprika
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 c. olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

For the grilled calçots:
2-3 bunches (20-30) Spanish calçots or very young spring onions with long greens and a very small bulb

Heat oven to 350°.

Place almonds in hot oven to toast for 5-7 minutes. Place in a food processor and coarsely grind.

Mash ground almonds, peppers and garlic into a paste with a food processor. Add tomatoes, parsley and vinegar. Pulsing the food processor, drizzle in the olive oil until sauce becomes thick. Add salt and pepper to taste. (This sauce is terrific with any grilled vegetable. During summer months, consider serving it with grilled steaks or chops.)

To prepare the calçots, simple build a hot fire in a grill. On the grate over the coals, spread out the calçots with the white end facing the center of the grill and the greens extending over the outside edge of the grill (top photo). Grill, turning occasionally, so the outside is blackened but not charred and the whites feel tender when squeezed.

To serve, pull the calçots off the grill and peel off the blackened outer skin with your fingers. Grasping the greens in your hand, dunk the white part in the salbitxada sauce, raise the onion aloft and lower the white into your mouth, biting it off at the top of the white portion. When the calçots are all gone, whomever has dribbled the least sauce (or, I suppose, the most) on themselves is the winner!