Ajvar is the king of relishes, a vegetable caviar, which can last from one autumn to the next. It is vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, super healthy, goes well with many dishes but the best is spread on a fresh slice of toast on a sleepy winter morning… Oh yeah, and it’s so rich in flavour that you will probably have to redefine your notion of relishes.
Considering the number of ingredients that ajvar is made of, you would wonder why does one need a recipe at all. I still remember my mother buying bulk ingredients with some other neighbours and then sharing the samples of finished products and they would all taste different. Heck, I bet you I could still recognize the different ajvars from my relatives in a blind testing. So, what’s the trick here? Why the recipe at all?
I’ll try to provide explanations to how changing different variables of the recipe will alter the taste of the final product, and it’s up to you to tailor it to your taste. Also, the produce available will differ each year, so you might make some adjustments according to what you’re working with. Finally, ajvar recipe is not calcified, it allows never-ending tweaking and adjusting to the tastes of the eaters that it’s almost like a living organism. There will be some important tips on the way, so read carefully.
It’s best to make ajvar in open space or a kitchen that needs repainting. My mother in law does it on electric cookers in her garden, my aunt in her country house gas stove but the best, of course, is on a old school wooden stove at my grandma’s. It’s a dirty business, boiling bubbles can pop even to the ceiling so make sure you’re up to the task.
If you’re making bulk (30+ kg of peppers), ajvar takes two days to make. And it’s labour intensive. Depending on the volume, it takes hours to peel the peppers – a backbreaking task. Plus, once everything is in the pot, you have to stir it for 3-4 hours, depending on the level of creaminess you want to achieve. And sorry, there are no shortcuts, good things take time. But it’s time well invested.
- Red peppers – you want the big ones, with firm and not watery flesh such as Pimientos, Bulgarian horn, Harlequin, Anaheim, Cubanelle, etc. Bell peppers are no good since they contain too much water.
- Chilli peppers
Since ajvar is a relish that takes time to prepare, you usually make one batch per year which ideally lasts until next fall. You want to buy the ripest produce in the peak of the season at the lowest price. That’s why you’ll most probably be buying bulk, in which case ratios matter. The golden cut of ajvar is peppers:aubergines = 1:0.3. Now, this is also debatable, and each house has its own preferable ratio. I’ve eaten ajvars ranging from 1:0.2 to 1:0.5. This is the range you should ideally be working in. Why?
Well, the peppers give ajvar sweetness and porridge-like consistency, while aubergines give it bitterness and creaminess. So, if the peppers you bought are thin or have a watery flesh, you’d most probably want to tweak up the aubergines. On the other hand, if you have kids who do not like bitter and pungent taste of aubergines, you’d probably do better off by keeping them at the lower end of the scale.
However, and I cannot stress this enough, MAKE NOTES when making your first ajvar. This is the only way you’ll be able to tweak it for next year and get better and better. Although at the moment it may seem that you remember what you’ve used, you will forget it in one-year time.
One other thing that cannot be overstressed is TASTING ALL THE TIME. This is the best method for coming up to the desired result. When you’re adding salt, be very conservative. Take into account that the volume will cut in half due to evaporation. By the end, something that was perfectly salted in the beginning, might become inedible. So, although salt is important for breaking the cellular walls of the veggies, I add only half during the cooking and determine the rest at the very end.
Oil. I’ve seen oil content ranging from 1:0.03 (1 kg of peppers : 30ml of oil) to 1:0.07 (70ml of oil per every kg of peppers used). Oil is important for several reasons. First of all, many of the aromas and vitamins (e.g. vitamin A) are soluble in oil only and this will improve their absorption. Secondly, oil will raise the temperature of the mixture so parts close to the bottom of the pan will slightly fry. Oil will prevent ajvar from sticking to the bottom and homogenize it into a velvety texture. You can play mixing different types of oil (olive, grapeseed, sunflower…)
Garlic is added according to the taste – usually 2-3 clover per kilo of peppers. This is very individual as well.
TIP: For extra flavour, keep the garlic in skins and blacken them in a slightly oiled skillet. Peel and grind into a paste.
Vinegar can be skipped if you like aubergines, which will give the pungency. If you have high peppers content, ajvar can be too sweet and then adding some vinegar will balance the tastes. This is very individual so add little by little until you reach the right balance.
The process – Day 1
Aubergines and peppers need to be baked in an oven. I tried ajvars when people were boiling them and the result cannot be called ajvar. You need high temperature to get the sugars (glucose and fructose) that the peppers are rich with to caramelize. This is done on the first day as the baked peppers and aubergines need to cool off and strain.
Some people clean the peppers of stems and seeds before baking them, I find it easier to clean them afterwards. Also, if you do not remove the stem prior to baking, you will keep the moisture (and part of the aromas) inside the pepper.
Arrange the peppers on baking tins and put into a well heated oven – 200°C. Make sure the peppers are dry (or coated with oil) when going into the oven because it will make it easier to peel them afterwards. Bake until the peppers are soft and the skins get black on some spots. Be careful – it is OK the burn the skins, but it is not OK to burn the peppers. When you take them out of the oven, place in a covered pot and leave to cool down.
TIP: You can also grill the peppers, which takes more time and effort, but gives the smoky aroma.
Repeat the same thing with the aubergines and leave them to cool down in a separate pot.
If you have done everything right, the transparent cellulose skin should be coming fairly easily of the peppers. Peel the peppers, remove the stems and seeds if you haven’t before, and put into a strainer for a couple of hours (best overnight). Getting rid of the excess water will shorten the cooking process so you’ll appreciate this eventually.
Peel the aubergines as well. Some people remove the seeds, some don’t. I prefer to remove them, but not as meticulously as from the peppers, so some still find the way into the ajvar. The fibres around the seeds give a nice texture and the seeds are very soft so you’ll barely notice them.
The Process – Day 2
Once the peppers and the aubergines have strained, grind them in a meat grinder using a plate with small holes. DO NOT process them in a food processor because you will and up with a mush which will not mix or cook properly. You need to feel the ground pieces roughly the size of a fine ground meat.
You can now mix the two in a large pot and put it over medium heat until it boils. Switch to low heat. Now is the time to add the garlic, salt, oil and hot peppers – according to taste. Add oil little by little, constantly mixing. Wait until the oil has been absorbed by the relish before adding more.
TIP: I like to simmer hot peppers, such as habaneros, in a litre of oil for half an hour to get all the capsaicin (hot stuff) into the oil. Then, I use the oil instead of the peppers, because it’s easier to adjust the dosage and you also avoid someone getting a whole piece of pepper in their mouth. Remember that the warm ajvar will feel hotter on your tongue than the final cold product, so don’t be afraid to add that extra pinch of hotness.
Now comes the fun part – constant stirring. This is the crucial part because ajvar likes to stick to the bottom. Also, this is the only way to achieve the wonderful creamy texture in the end. So, have a large wooden spoon and mix slowly but constantly. Taste every now and then and keep your tastes in balance. Ajvar is done in c. 3-4 hours, once you start seeing the bottom of the pot when you drag the wooden spoon.
When the ajvar is almost done, make the final tasting and add salt/vinegar/hotness if needed. It is good to ask other members of the household to give their comments if you feel your tongue is already numbed. After all, you want everyone to be able to enjoy it. Or do you? 😉 😉
Once the ajvar is done, relax. Stretch out. You’re almost done. Now you just need to put it into sterilized glass jars and close them hermetically. I mean, after all this hard work, it would be a shame to find your ajvar gone rancid or spoiled by mold.
TIP: If you want to make batches of various hotness, now is the time. Fill as many jars of “neutral” ajvar as you want, then add more hot peppers/hot oil into the batch. Repeat to create multiple levels of hotness.
Wash the jars with detergent and rinse thoroughly. Then either boil them in water or bake in the oven for 10 minutes at 150°C. Leave upside down on a clean dry cloth to dry. Boil the lids.
Pour hot ajvar into jars and close immediately to minimize the chance of picking up bacteria and spores from the air. Some like to sterilize the top layer in an over before putting the lid. Store in a cool and dark place. Enjoy according to cravings!