"Ajvar preparation is somewhat difficult, because it requires considerable manual labour, particularly for peeling the roasted peppers." Wikipedia
Beware novice recipe readers of simple instructions like my post title for today. It's a very short sentence but when you are making avjar - which is really what I am writing about - it's a whole world of pain. Well not pain I suppose, but definitely tedium that slowly turns to irritation, almost despair.
As you know, yesterday we were entertaining friends to lunch and I eventually decided to make this delicious looking dish from one of my small group of current favourite recipe books - Mezcla. It's called Lamb fillets with avjar and I had to double the quantities because I was feeding eight not four people.
Now I do know that peeling capsicums is a tedious business. I have done it many times before. However, this recipe required about one and a half kilo of red peppers. Preferably Romano, but there are none of those around at the moment. I think I ended up with about ten peppers, maybe marginally less. A lot anyway. So I baked them whole in the oven - with a couple of eggplants cut in half. Easy and it didn't take all that long. I put them in a paper bag to cool and steam a bit, but then comes the peeling and deseeding bit. I tried to find a picture of how difficult this can be, but couldn't. They all make it look easy. And I suppose it's not too hard, but boy did it take me a long time.
Capsicum have a tendency to blacken unevenly. So whilst the black bits of skin come off perfectly - very satisfying - the unblackened bits in the nooks and crannies don't. That's your first tedious problem. Then there are the seeds, and these are the real problem. There are so many and they are tiny and they swim around in all the liquid that pours out of the peppers, and it's all so slippery and messy. It takes ages to get them all. I either balance them on the knife edge, or encourage them to stick to my fingers.
However I should have researched this, because I just saw a bit of a video which had the answer. First cut your capsicum in half and remove the seeds and that white bit along the ribs. So much easier to do it when the peppers are raw. And so very, very obvious. I feel so stupid. Then you place them down skin side down on on your baking sheet which will also ease that problem of turning them over now and then and trying to get them to stand upright, whilst missing bits. Why didn't Ixta Belfrage tell me that? Like I said, so very obvious and so very easy. I shall never do it the way I learnt again.
But no! I have just realised why you should cook them whole. If you split them you will lose all that lovely juice that comes out of them, because even if you line the tray the juice will probably just burn. I might try it once with some baking paper underneath, but I suspect it won't work.
It is worth doing it though, as the flavour is so different from raw capsicum and of course the capsicum are sort of cooked and soft and so therefore more versatile.
But back to avjar - a Balkan condiment. There doesn't seem to be a one and only way of making it - other than the main ingredient being those cooked and peeled capsicum. Sometimes they add eggplant, as did Ixta Belfrage, sometimes tomatoes - although this seemed less common. Garlic, lemon, olive oil are other potential additions, plus things like smoked paprika, or paprika, chilli and in yesterday's case, chopped mint. You chop it all up, or blend and you end up with this yummy condiment. I think it's one of those things for which every Balkan family has a recipe.
The name ajvar comes from the Turkish havyar via the Persian xaviyar, both of which mean caviar, because that is what it once was. Before the 20th century the Danube teemed with sturgeon and their roe - caviar - was harvested and sold. Then in the 1890s there were major labour disputes and production ceased or at least slowed substantially. As a substitute they began serving this peppery condiment - well so the story goes. Personally I would have thought the two were not at all similar and somebody expecting caviar might have been a bit peeved to get avjar. Be that as it may, today it is everywhere in the Balkans.
I have to say the avjar was pretty delicious but it was cold. Nowhere in the recipe did it say to heat it up. When I say 'cold' I mean lukewarm, because I took it out of the fridge first thing in the morning. The lamb was also pretty tepid because I did as told and allowed it to rest for 10 minutes. Fillets are small and I didn't cover them with foil - perhaps I should have - and so they cooled down a lot. So it's a little hard to say whether the dish was a success or not. If you are expecting something warm, hot even, it's a little disconcerting to take a bite and find it's cold - well not very warm. So I'm not really sure about this dish - three stars perhaps.
The herby dumplings on an onion base, from Ottolenghi - made for my lone vegetarian, were however divine and devoured by all and sundry. I just hope my vegetarian friend got enough. I think she did - she had first go at it, and everybody else only had a taste really. Be warned though if you are thinking of having a go, you need a lot of herbs and a whole kilo of onions. I didn't quite have enough herbs, so chopped up a gem lettuce to boost the greenery. It worked. You can find the recipe on the website Robby Dog Cooks. Next time you are going vegetarian for a day try it. Five stars for this one - and it was easy. Believe it or not, cutting up a kilo of onions - yes a kilo - was so much easier than peeling and seeding about ten capsicum.
All in all it was a good lunch, though I have to say that the focaccia I cooked was a complete disaster. So bad - thick and doughy - that we burnt it in the fire later that evening. And yet I have made that particular recipe many, many times before with complete success. I have no idea what happened. Fortunately we had other bread to replace it.
Now I have a whole lot of avjar left over. What to do with it? Lots of people seemed to be saying that you should never cook it. Surely you can? An alternative sauce for meatballs perhaps. Or maybe a sauce on a hamburger. Now it wouldn't matter if it was cold for that. Something with sausages?