Small digression from the usual Pruga topics. Autumn is, especially if you are trying to embrace country life, time for preserving food. I did quite a bit throughout the summer but there is this one thing, pretty important in the continental part of Croatia, that quite a few people make – ajvar.
Calling it simply “pepper and aubergine spread” (which is what it basically is) is not right. As there is so much more to it. You can buy it in every shop here, you eat it as a condiment.
There are many philosophies about what constitutes “the real one”. Including the sacrilege way of not baking and peeling the vegetables (the time consuming and tedious part) but just boiling it all in vinegary water (yuck) and then mincing and boiling. Nope. As I never had the family recipe I decided that I was to find the recipe – Vanja will be the ultimate quality control as he descends from the part of the country where the experts come from.
As with most very common recipes there is one for every cook it seems.
Four years ago, I was fresh out of the UK where I didn’t even think of making any. One could sometimes get these peppers at crazy prices in supermarkets and buying 10kg would be very price prohibitive indeed – price/performance ratio of the finished jar would be very, very tiny.
Plus, I find that generally, when I was in the UK, I was very keen to cook new and exotic things – there was so much new for me, all those cuisines with all possible ingredients so easily obtainable.
While the things with availability of the ingredients are really improving here, I find that I myself have resorted to cooking more basic food, more “Croatian”.
In any case, four years ago I decided to do proper research, find my ajvar recipe and make a point of making it every year. Both of us really love it and homemade one is unbeatable compared to even artisan made shop bought ones. Plus the (always very important) achievement factor of course.
Most of the pictures here are from that year one – they only now are making it into the world – 10kg of peppers, two days of work, jars to last till Christmas.
A cousin once made the observation about how you kinda had enough by Christmas and I tend to agree. You make it in September/October, gorge on it for a few weeks, then slow down and after Christmas you feel you had enough for that year.
Year two I partnered with my sister and two of us made 32kg of peppers into 16l of the stuff. Still two days of work plus lots of fun as this sister of mine is one very funny lady.
Year three was last year and I was already at Pruga with no proper oven. I had a tiny, tiny one so the process of baking the peppers and aubergines took forever – still I made 10kg – took ages, we enjoyed it.
Finally, this year we had a bit of a crazy month (hence no posts and a big backlog of pictures of Pruga autumn) with travelling around and I missed the peak ajvar making season.
So when I was finally going back back to Pruga two weeks ago, I knew I wouldn’t find peppers or aubergines at the market in Pazin (not really a thing in Istria ajvar as far as I could gather), so on our route to there I bought one of the last “rog” pepper batches (5kg only) on a market in Zagreb and what looked like absolutely last 7 small and not fantastic looking aubergines, packed it all into a car, heading for Pruga – never give up!
Back to making it. During my “research” I read all the ajvar recipes on the popular Croatian recipe portal and chose two that I felt were closest to what we were aiming for. Very creamy, not too greasy and mild. Only peppers and aubergines. Controversially – no chilli peppers. Garlic is also optional. Nearing September there are usually quite a few food magazine articles debating the nuances of the ingredients and preparation.
All available was read and two recipes were chosen to be combined.
This recipe claims it is the original Macedonian (it is generally held belief here that ajvar originates in Macedonia, I’m guessing that it must have started somewhere further to the east) and this one trumps that by claiming it is both Macedonian and grandmother’s.
That first year I did a test by making three separate batches. One with only peppers, aubergines, salt and oil. Other with added garlic. And the third one with chilli as well.
My personal taste prefers one without any additions. I like the texture and the simple pepper and aubergine flavours, slightly charred.
However, most (everybody actually) people said it is too bland and that the garlic one is better. So I now add a bit of garlic – just a hint really.
Oddly, not many people (in my circle of ajvar tasting people anyway) like hot and spicy food in general so the last one didn’t get many votes.
There are few hard core chilli lovers who claim that if ajvar is not hot, it is not ajvar at all. As I always have some chilli oil nearby, I decided they can spice it up ex post facto.
Interesting things with recipes in this tiny country is that they normally are very, very poor in detailing preparation steps. Even most new cookbooks, I find, compared to the UK ones, are lacking steps that can totally screw someone who is not an experienced cook.
Often, if cake recipes are exchanged between cooks they will only have ingredient list assuming that you will know how and in which order you should combine them.
I was thinking I’ll fix that here but as I uploaded the photos I saw that some steps are already missing (from the pictures, not from the steps below I hope), so – good luck to those who try for the first time 🙂
And one more thing. One doesn’t really give away ajvar much. It is precious. Lots of effort went into it. You do offer it as part of a dinner course. Or as a gift to someone very special and only if you know they reaaaaallly love your ajvar.
You do exchange your jar for the one from another crazy person who went through the same effort and whom you trust and know that the result is good (not those who boil their vegetables of course). As an exception, you can exchange it with a friend who made hers with peppers only because you know she is a good cook. And because she can support her philosophy that that is the only “real” ajvar. It was very delicious and I’m yet to venture into trying making it myself.
(Those are my rules, not sure there is en etiquette around this. I’m sure other people are more generous than me.)
So here it is this combined wisdom and experience:
5kg peppers (long red ones, called “rog” (horn) here)
5 medium aubergines
5 cloves of garlic
2 tsp salt (to your taste really – this is how much I put in this year)
0.75l oil (sunflower or similar with not much flavour)
Makes roughly 2l of ajvar.
1. Wash and dry peppers and aubergines
2. Turn the oven grill to highest setting
3. Lay the oven baking tray with aluminium foil and slide it underneath the oven rack (you will grill the vegetables so make sure your oven is protected as much as possible as it will leak and splatter all over the place and you want to minimise the oven cleaning effort in the end)
4. Grill the peppers until they are well charred all over, turning them every 5 minutes or so – they can be more black than on the picture above, you will remove the skin anyway and charring adds flavour.
5. When done, put them in a plactic bag and close (they will steam making the skin removal easier)
6. You can grill all of them and then peel or peel as another batch is grilling (this will optimise the time). You have to ensure that they stay in the bag for at least 15min. Different peppers will be more or less easy to peel so test one to see how it goes and decide.
7. Do the same with aubergines but prick the aubergines with a small knife all over first. They tend to explode otherwise. It is a bit harder to tell when they are done as they are almost black to start with. They crinkle a bit, get brown, loose some of their volume (collapse a bit) and are soft to touch.
8. Peel. Removing all the seeds and skin – hope the pictures above help. You need good small knife (filleting or similar), gloves, stain-proof working surface, board(s), rubbish/composting bin close by and good company or music to help you through it. Takes hours, especially if you are doing 30kg. You don’t have to remove aubergine seeds – they are much softer than pepper ones and often smaller as well. I find they don’t spoil the final texture. Some people say remove them but I find that removes too much of the flesh.
9. Divide the peeled vegetables among multiple strainers suspended over pots leaving enough space between the bottom of the strainer and the bottom of the pot so quite a bit of liquid can drain. You will be very disappointed by the amount of what’s left compared to what you’ve started with. And it’s not even drained yet. Cover with clean kitchen towels.
10. Go to bed.
1. Admire yourself for all the work you’ve done yesterday and that you know will be eaten and processed in a really, really short time.
2. Wash jars and lids. I now only use 210ml jars. Small enough to eat in one go, good for gifts/exchange.
3. Mince the vegetables in a meat mincer. Some people say you can do it in the food processors. I say no. If you don’t have a meat mincer and cannot borrow it from somewhere, don’t bother. The texture will be off. Use smaller holes if you like it creamier (we do) or larger ones for a more chunky texture.
4. About the drained liquid – I throw it away. Some people say keep it and boil minced vegetables with it as this is the essence of flavour. I imagine that is true and if it is, the whole overnight draining exercise is pointless I think. The point of draining in my mind is to remove excess liquid so the boiling process is shorter. I think there is enough flavour in drained vegetables but I guess I will only know if I make another experiment one year. I’ve not found any studies detailing pros and cons 🙂
5. Heat half the oil in a large pot (I use 10l stainless steel pot this year for 5kg peppers and think that is perfect as the size of the pot makes it harder for the mixture to splatter. When I did 10kg, I used two 5l pots as above, worked fine as well, I just needed to be a bit more careful with stirring. For larger quantities my sister and I used large restaurant kitchen pots which we had access to luckily.)
6. Add minced peppers and aubergines, stir every few minutes, bring to simmer, low heat.
7. Separately mince garlic in a garlic press.
8. Half way through cooking time (after about 40ish min) add garlic and second half of the oil. Continue stirring and simmering until you get a tick mixture and you see the oil separating at the top (see picture above). This can all take from one hour to about 2 or more if you are making large quantities and depending on your pot and heat. Oil separating is the good sign.
8. Heat the oven to 180C (assuming it is clean from yesterday, if not, you will have one smokey kitchen now).
9. Place lids in a pan with water. Add that plastic thing for a dishwasher salt and boil it together with lids. (You can buy similar something for the sole purpose of pouring jams etc into jars, but I find this works a treat.)
10. Boil lids for 10 minutes and heat the jars for 10 minutes (place them onto a baking tray first). Put lids onto very clean kitchen towels with kitchen tongs (make sure those have also seen some boiling water).
11. By the time this is all done, ajvar should still be hot.
12. Pour hot ajvar into hot jars, lids on top immediately, screw tightly. Make sure the outer rim of the jar is clean so that the lid will seal tightly. As soon as you fill the jar, seal it. Don’t wait until they are all filled like I did above. Turn the jars upside down and leave them for 5-6 minutes. Turn the jars back upright and leave them sit to cool down and seal (wrapping the whole lot in a blanket is a good way to ensure slow cooling and better pasteurisation). Apparently, the heat from the ajvar inside the jars creates a vacuum while cooling down which causes the jars to seal. When cool (the day after), press down on the middle of the dome lids to make sure that they sealed. If not, put in the fridge and eat asap. Store in a cool and dry place 🙂
I never had problems with things going off but that can happen and it is very sad. I buy new lids if I see any spots on the old ones. I reuse the jars of course.
My favourite way of enjoying ajvar is with “pole”.
Which is: scrubbed potatoes, halved lengthwise, placed on the baking tray, sprinkled with coarse salt and (optional) small pieces of smoked bacon. Bake on high heat for about an hour. Spread ajvar on warm baked potatoes, eat with fingers – yum!
Or, like just now, with only nice crusty, white bread. That was a lot of words. No more ajvar posts.