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Monday, September 01, 2008

It's Ajvar Time, Y'all!

I try to be a Good Serbian Wife. Stop laughing. Yes, of course I'm kidding. While I might prefer at times to eat alone in the kitchen, away from my husband, I certainly don't serve him a big meal before I retreat. The only thing I'll serve him when I'm that mad is...never mind. I know very little about being a Good Serbian Wife, frankly, because my mother in law is French. She's married to a Serbian man, but one does not become Good Serbian Wife by marriage. I can tell you plenty about how to raise children in France, because I've heard more than enough about that. But I digress.

While I'll never be even half the French cook my mother in law is, I have definitely picked up some skills from watching her. And I do mean watching. It takes mad spy skills to get this stuff. The best cooks all claim not to be able to explain how they do it. I'm not sure if that's true or if they just don't want any competition, but I do know that spying on Maman is the easiest way to learn to cook like her. One of the most useful things I've learned is that sliced onions make an excellent baking rack for a roast or fish. They keep the meal from getting all gluey on the bottom and you aren't stuck with a greasy roasting rack to clean. Bonus: Cooked onions are yummy. Fennel works as a roasting rack, too. Maman was the first person in the history of the world to feed me fennel and I loved it. She roasted it with Sea Bass, lemon slices and maybe a sprinkle of capers. When the dish came out of the oven, she stirred a little bit of cream into the drippings to make a sauce. I can't begin to explain how good it is. Don't get me started on her ratatouille or clafoutis...

But I have no Serbian mother in law to spy on. My Serbian father in law doesn't cook, probably because he's been spoiled for years by living with a French lady, n'est-ce pas? There are Serbian dishes that I long to know how to make - Ćevapčići, gibanica, and ajvar are all delicious and elusive. I have a Serbian cookbook, but the recipes leave something to be desired, with names like Boiled Meat (Ingredients one pound of meat and some oil.) After sampling several jarred versions of ajvar recently, I've become obsessed. The stupid, buzz-killing internet warned me that this Serbian baba gannouj-like dish was labor intensive. Anything involving labor is very intimidating to me*. Finally, I came across this article, by Julia Mitric. In some places, ajvar might be labor intensive, but food processors and electric ovens seem to have put an end to that. I've used her recipe twice, with only minor tweaks.

Simple Ajvar

Start by roasting your vegetables. Preheat your oven to broil. Place the following on a large baking tray:

Some eggplant, cut in half, salted and drizzled with olive oil, skin side down.

About three to four times as much red pepper as eggplant, sliced in half, seeded and placed on the tray skin side down.

One hot little pepper, sliced in half.

Broil them until they're seriously roasted, five to ten minutes. The eggplant will probably be finished first. When it is, take the tray out of the oven, move the eggplant and the hot pepper to a plate to cool and flip the red peppers, skin side up this time. Finishing with the skin side up helps start the process of separating them from the skin, which you'll have to do later.

Put the red peppers back in the oven until there are burnt spots on the skin, maybe ten more minutes.

When the peppers are roasted, move them from the tray to a bowl and cover it with plastic wrap. This will steam then a bit and make the skin easier to remove when they're cool.

When your eggplant is cool enough not to burn the sh*t out of your finger, peel it and put the meat into a food processor with the roasted hot pepper and about a clove of garlic, chopped. Julia recommends raw garlic, but that was a bit much for me, so I recommend sautéeing it in a bit of oil or using the minced kind from a jar - it's a little milder. Blend them until it looks like baba gannouj, pretty smooth but with a little texture. Near the end, add a tablespoon of olive oil - lemon olive oil is nice if you have it. Scrape the eggplant mixture into a bowl.

When the peppers are cool, peel them and add them to the food processor. There's no need to clean the processor in between steps. I think a lot of people are intimidated by using one, because it's such a chore to clean it after each step. If all the food's going together in the end, don't bother - scraping will suffice. Use the pulse button on the processor sparingly to chop the peppers. Julia recommends 5-8 pulses and I think that's just right.

Add the peppers to the eggplant mixture, along with a splash of vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. You can also add chopped, fresh basil if you have it, and dried red chili peppers if you want more heat. Stir it all together and serve with warm bread, cut vegetables or cheese. Or on sandwiches. Or as a pasta sauce. Or salad dressing. Or in an omelet. Or in deviled eggs. Did I mention that ajvar is a very versatile condiment?

Ajvar is a great thing to make this time of year, when eggplant and red bell peppers are so plentiful. If you're really industrious, you can can it for the winter like a Good Serbian Wife. Julia's recipe makes more than mine, so it would be perfect for canning. If anyone knows how to do the canning thing, I'd love to learn. I could probably figure it out on my own, but why not be social about it? Email Me if you're interested in coming to an ajvar party at my place - Slivovitz will be served.

Namasté, y'all!

* I have three children, each one of which grew in my womb, and I have yet to have experienced even a moment of labor. Neat trick, huh?

1 comment:

Don Mills Diva said...

That sounds amazing - it's making me feel a little guilty about my lack of cooking lately...