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ahh……finally ajvar

March 3rd, 2010 | 13 Comments »

What’s that, you say? Ajvar? Is it AHJ-VAR? AGG-VAR? How do you say it?? And what the heck is it?!?

It’s delicious, delightful, piquant, sweet and when spread on a toasted pita, a tiny slice of food heaven. The origin is Balkan in nature, and it shares it’s etymology with caviar, although there is no fish roe involved.

And it’s pronounced EYE-VAR. As with most foods that pass through this little blog of mine, it has a story. A pricey one. And it goes like this.

I love ethnic foods, and the more eclectic and unique the ethnicity is, the better I like it. I’m happy to browse any manner of unusual food market I come across, my eyes trailing the shelves, fingering the ingredients found there and trying to determine if I know what is is, first and foremost, and if I can take it home and use it. I am so blessed to live in a very culturally diverse city, and within many channels and pockets of the population one can find amazing stores full of ingredients that will elevate simple home dining. In the middle eastern market that I frequent in Columbia Heights, where the pita bread is often so fresh that the bags are still warm, I came across a jar of a bright red condiment that caught my eye. Roasted red peppers, roasted eggplant, garlic, oil. Oh my, what’s not to love? Despite the hefty price tag, I took one home. Big mistake.

I toasted some of that wonderful pita bread and slipped it through the bowl of bright red Ajvar in front of me, lifting it to my mouth. I was lost. I fell hard and fast for this sweet, somewhat spicy and cool relish. Mixed with a bit of plain yogurt, I could eat it night or day. And I did. I made pilgrimages back to that market for more bread, for more Ajvar. The price always got me, but I forged on. I loved the stuff. But like all good things, bested as they can be by economic downturn, I had to suspend my tastebuds desire for it and stop driving back to that store to buy another jar.

But I didn’t forget. There would be a day to enjoy it again. I was certain of it.

Like for many, that economic downturn hasn’t really let up it’s grip on us, and being the case, I’ve yanked up the bootstraps and found ways to further stretch the dollars and yet not go without some of the foods I really love. But it took coming across a superbly simple recipe for Ajvar to prompt me into actually making this at home.

What could be simpler than roasting vegetables to a nice rich blackened state and running my big knife over them? Because, you know, when looking at this, I yet again get that feeling that I wish I hadn’t waited so long.

recipe source unknown (somewhere in Internet land)

1 large eggplant, sliced in half the long way
2 red bell peppers, split in half and de-seeded
2-4 garlic cloves (optional)

Preheat oven to 450° and adjust one rack to the lowest level in your oven. Cover a baking sheet with foil and spray the foil with cooking spray. Place the vegetables cut side down on the sheet and lightly mist the tops with cooking spray. This is optional, but I find it helps with the charring.

Roast the vegetables on the lowest rack until the tops of the peppers are black and wrinkly, and the eggplant has softened. Depending on your oven, this could take anywhere from 15-30 minutes, or maybe more. Check regularly to monitor. If your house is like mine, you may need to de-activate your smoke detector. This is a fragrant and hot process.

Remove the sheet when the veggies are ready and allow to cool completely. At this point, you can either place them in a food processor to blend, or simply mince them on a cutting board. I used the cutting board and my big chef’s knife. It took me about 2 minutes. Place minced veggies in a bowl, add about 1/4 cup of good quality olive oil, and then season to taste with salt and pepper. If you want it spicy, feel free to add crushed red pepper, or if you can find it,  ground szechuan peppercorns would be amazing in this. I prefer mine on the mild side. It can be served room temperature, but the flavor will develop after a day or two in the fridge.

Eat it with toasted pita, carrots, or spread on hearty crackers. It tastes wonderful when mixed with a little plain yogurt too. I also think it would be delicious served over pasta.

Deconstructing Dukka

June 9th, 2008 | 3 Comments »

Nuts, seeds…..it isn’t too complicated, but in trying to find out more information about this aromatic and amazing Middle Eastern spice mix (say ‘Doo-kah), I came across more variations on a theme than I ever anticipated. It’s just nuts. And seeds!

But apparently, it’s one of those ‘authentic’ spice blends that varies as much as the fingerprint on the cook who is creating the mix. Use roasted hazelnuts; no use roasted chick peas. Don’t use sunflower seeds…oh wait, this version calls for sunflower seeds. This one requires pumpkin seeds, this one walnuts This one needs a bay leaf! I need thyme!! I need cinnamon!!! I need telicherry peppercorns!!!!

Oooh boy….. I need a drink.

Thankfully, all this clicking around on the web came after I had already made up the recipe from the current issue of Food and Wine magazine. Had I done all this foot work beforehand, I may have just tossed my hands in the air begging for mercy. Cooking, at least in my kitchen, just doesn’t need to be so whittled away like one may peel an onion. I’m all for the philosophy that if it works for you, then that’s the best way to go.

And this recipe worked for me. But then again, I am a nutcase, er, well, I mean….. I really like nuts. To eat. And a recipe with no less than four types of nuts in it deserves a spot in my kitchen. Pistachios, almonds, cashews and hazelnuts are oven-roasted; coriander and cumin seed, along with unsweetened coconut and sesame seeds are lightly toasted in a hot skillet, and the resulting fragrant chaos is pulsed in a food processor to a coarse consistency. Or chunky. Or a powder. Or a paste. According to the endless variations, you can pick your level of nutty destruction, and if you’re one to have texture issues, this is a good thing.

The one thing that all the recipes I came across seem to agree on is that the most common way to eat the delectable mess of nuts is to dip bread into olive oil and then dredge it in the mix. I can vouch for the reliability of this usage; it works really well. And had I not made a delicious Chicken Satay for dinner, with a nice vegetable coucous on the side, I would have been fully satisfied to consume the entire ciabatta loaf dipped in perfect oil and rich with the heady crunch of this blend. Even upon discovering that an error on my part resulted in about 10 times more cumin seeds in my mix than the original recipe called for, it was still wonderful, fragrant, and happily received. I can’t wait to spoon it into my morning yogurt, sprinkle it over a salad, blend it into hot cereal, use it to coat chicken, spoon onto ice cream……..

You see……the resulting possibilities, as I have discovered, are as endless as the recipe variations I found, making it not only delicious, but infinitely versatile as well. And I just love foods like that.

(jump for recipe and notes)

Come in to my kitchen…


September 1st, 2006 | 3 Comments »


Combine the following in food processor: 1 14-oz can garbanzo beans (i drain and rinse, you decide about that one), 1/3 c. tahini, 1/4 c. lemon juice, 1 T. oilive oil, 2 t. minced garlic, 1 t. salt, and 1/4 c. water for smoothness (this is optional but it seems to even it out well- you will need less water if you don’t rinse the beans)

Whirl together until well blended, scraping sides and stirring from the bottom as needed. Keep in fridge, eat with pita bread, crackers or veggies. Resist standing at the counter and eating it with a spoon.

I often add about 1/2 c. chopped kalamata olives to ours because we love the flavor. I have also used roasted red peppers which makes it sweeter. Don’t skimp on tahini, it gives it the authenticity you want and if you can find organic tahini, buy it. The flavor is way better.