As memorably as I’ve eaten away from home over the years, there’s no restaurant, anywhere, that calls to me like Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, where for four glorious years in the 1990s I covered the food scene for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Judy Rodgers, Zuni’s longtime minder and chef, is mostly to thank for the many fond memories. Before she died in 2003, too young at 57, she wrote “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” (2002, W.W. Norton). Of the hundreds of cookbooks on my shelves at home, hers would be the first one I’d reach for in a fire. Not only is it a scrapbook of sorts of a time and place I cherish, it’s also a master class in how and why good cooks do what they do.


As Judy Rodgers noted in her headnote for this recipe, the flavor of the sauce improves with a day’s refrigeration. We’ve streamlined a few steps, thanks to the availability of prepped ingredients that weren’t around 14 years ago. But be advised that the recipe does call for several pans.

The sauce needs to sit for 30 minutes (in the saucepan).

Adapted from Rodgers’ “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” (W.W. Norton, 2003).

Makes 4 servings

About 1 cup mild-tasting olive oil, or as needed

1 thick slice (11/2 ounces) chewy white country bread, torn into several pieces

3 cloves garlic, crushed to a paste

1 dried ancho chili pepper, stemmed, seeded and soaked for 1 to 2 minutes in boiling water

1/2 ounce (about 2 tablespoons) blanched almonds

1 ounce (1/4 cup) skinned unsalted hazelnuts, toasted (see note)

1/2 cup drained, coarsely chopped fire-roasted tomatoes

1 teaspoon assertive red wine vinegar, preferably Spanish (as a substitute, may add a few drops of sherry vinegar to another red wine vinegar)

1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton), or more as needed

1/2 teaspoon mild paprika, or more as needed

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

1 cup no-salt-added chicken broth, seafood stock, water or a combination

3 tablespoons dry white wine

1/2 cup diced yellow onion

About 11/4 pounds peeled, deveined large or jumbo shrimp, preferably American wild-caught (tails on or off)

12 ounces fresh spinach

Water (optional)

FOR THE SAUCE: Line a plate with paper towels. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Pour the mild-tasting olive oil into a medium skillet to a depth of 1/2 inch; heat over medium heat. Use a small piece of bread to test the temperature; once the oil barely sizzles around the bread in the skillet, add the rest of the bread. Fry for a total of 2 to 3 minutes, turning as needed, until golden on both sides.

Combine the garlic, the rehydrated ancho chili pepper, the cooled fried bread pieces, almonds and hazelnuts in a food processor. Pulse to a moist paste, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Add the tomatoes and pulse a few times, then add the vinegar, smoked paprika, mild paprika, 1/4 cup of the extra-virgin olive oil and a good pinch of salt; pulse just to combine, forming a thick sauce.

Taste, and add salt or paprika as needed.

Spread the sauce in a small, shallow baking dish; roast (middle rack) for about 8 minutes or until the surface has darkened, with occasional brown flecks.

Meanwhile, heat the broth, seafood stock, water or combination of those liquids, plus the wine, in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in the just-browned romesco sauce base until well incorporated. Cover, and turn off the heat; let it sit for 30 minutes.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the extra-virgin olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onion and a couple pinches of salt; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent.

Stir in the rested romesco sauce; once it has warmed through, add the shrimp and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook gently for 6 to 7 minutes, turning the shrimp over, until they are opaque and cooked through.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the spinach and season lightly with salt. Use tongs to turn the leaves until just wilted and bright green.

Divide the spinach among individual plates.

If the romesco sauce seems too thick to spoon over with the shrimp, stir in a little water. Spoon the shrimp and sauce over each portion of spinach. Serve right away.

NOTE: Toast the hazelnuts in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat for several minutes, until lightly browned and fragrant, shaking the pan often to prevent scorching. Let cool completely.

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