The word ajvar supposedly comes from Turkish havyar, meaning caviar. But although widespread also in Turkey, the dish is actually Serbian in origin – its name and distribution perhaps a testament to the sharing of food and culture across the empire during Ottoman times.
Now is the best time to be making ajvar. It is traditionally made in large quantities in autumn, when the peppers are at their best and, at least in Ottoman times, people were facing the prospect of a long winter without fresh peppers (or indeed fresh vegetables at all). Turning the peppers into a spread helped conserve the bountiful harvest until the final jar was opened at some point during the winter. Because I refuse to believe that any jars would last until spring. It is simply too good to keep locked away.
Preparing ajvar to last the winter as the Serbian housewives used to do is a time consuming activity few of us can fit into the requirements of our modern day lives. However, in smaller quantities it is hardly time consuming at all, especially if you’re lucky with your peppers and they peel easily (in this department, not all peppers come the same). But even if they don’t I wouldn’t worry too much – there’s something altogether meditative about peeling a little batch of peppers. Large enough for time to stop for a little while, yet small enough that the end is always near once meditation turns into boredom. And if you couldn’t care less about meditating activities, rest assured it is still neither complicated nor takes very long.
Ajvar is incredibly versatile. I use it mostly as a spread at breakfast, on a fresh piece of bread or toast, perhaps with a little cheese and a scattering of rocket leaves, if I have them. When I posted this recipe on my Norwegian language blog, readers told me they added ajvar to stews and other hot dishes or used it as a base for a pasta or squashgetti (zoodle) sauce. If your plan is for the latter, you may throw in a chili too, if you like, for a little kick. Yields about one cup.
- 5-6 romano peppers (c. 500-600 g) or equivalent regular red bell peppers
- 1 small aubergine (c. 150-200 g)
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper
- Set the oven to 250 C.
- Spread peppers, aubergine and garlic cloves (skin on) on a baking sheet. Roast until the peppers and aubergine hva collapsed and are black and blistered on the outside, 30-40 minutes for the garlic cloves and peppers (longer if using bell peppers) and up to an hour for the aubergine. Turn at least once during roasting.
- Put the peppers in a bowl and cover with film or a tight lid. Once cool enough to handle, remove the skin, core and seeds from the peppers and scoop out the flesh from the aubergine and garlic cloves. Slice the aubergine a few times crosswise to avoid long, stringy bits.
- Mix peppers, aubergine and garlic with the remaining ingredients with a stick blender or kitchen machine until the mixture has a texture you like; I prefer mine chunky. Season with salt and pepper and, if required, more lemon juice or sugar. The ajvar will keep for a few days in the fridge if kept in a clean and tightly sealed container; covering with a little olive oil will extend its life further.
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