Several years ago, I watched a television food program featuring some calcots, from Cataluna, Spain. I was intrigued. Essentially, onions are forced to send out new shoots that are covered in dirt to keep the lower part of the onions white, then grilled savagely over a strong wood flame and wrapped in newspaper to steam for several more minutes. They are then dipped into a sort of vinaigrette… Sounds a bit bizarre, but I love braised leeks so I was thinking this was defnitely a dish to try. When I told the crew in the office that this was their appetizer cooking in newspaper, they looked as though I had well and truly completely lost my marbles… Calcots are a mild, flavorful onion, and we don’t have any here… but I decided to try the dish with some young thin leeks… :)
But I am aging and my brain is playing tricks on me. So instead of recalling the grilling step (with all the soil and stuff still attached), I thought they were wrapped in paper, soaked in water and put on a hot fire of coals. Now I remember that was another cooking show where the Scandinavian chef wrapped some fish in paper and put them on the coals… :) Confused? At any rate, we placed the leeks in soaked paper on charcoal and cooked them for nearly 30 minutes, wetting the paper when it looked as though it would ignite. Surprisingly, even on REALLY hot coals, the newspaper NEVER went up in flames! In fact, I undercooked the leeks by at least 10 minutes+ and some where still a bit spicy rather than sweet and tender.
I cut off the root ends before rinsing them and wrapping in the paper. In the “real thing” in the fields of Catalunia, they simply harvest the onions and throw them on a raging fire then they wrap them in paper and stick them in a cooler to steam until tender…
Out of 10 crew members who tasted this experiment, perhaps 8 of them thought I was wacky, and they really didn’t expect to have something edible to eat.
I was fascinated by the idea of cooking in wet paper, it means I could really do without a lot of my cooking utensils. :)
The paper showed some signs of igniting, but for the most part, the water in the paper heated up and steamed the leeks.
When brought to the kitchen, the paper actually did go on fire, which was a dramatic flourish to sceptical crew waiting to taste this latest experiment…
I made a dippping sauce of olive oil, some slow roasted garlic, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper and fresh lemon juice and whisked it until emulsified. Peel off the outer skins or layers of the onions, dip them in the dressing and eat most of the white parts… They were utterly DELICIOUS. The onions were soft, sweet and flavorful. The vinaigrette complemented the texture and taste. They were great on their own… or in a sandwich even. Definitely something I would do again, and perhaps properly, by grilling then steaming like the Catalunians do it… of course, they will never be the true calcots, but they are a tasty alternative!