Someone once wrote that every good novel must contain at least one recipe. Although I wouldn’t go quite that far, I agree that food can be a window into a novel’s world and its characters’ culture. I always pay particular attention to what characters are eating, especially when a book is set in another part of the world. Last week, I spent my spare time reading Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, a novel about life and death and the stories we tell about how we get from one to the other. I highly recommend it.
The novel is set in fictional towns and cities in a region that is immediately recognizable as the former Yugoslavia. In one pivotal scene near the end, two of the main characters meet in a city on the eve of its destruction and order an elaborate meal, which they eat on a balcony from which they can see the flash of the bombs hitting a neighboring town. It’s a powerful scene, and the reason for the enormous meal is significant, so I won’t spoil it for you. But as I was reading the names and descriptions of the dishes, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the ones I didn’t know (tulumbe, tufahije, kadaif) and happy to be reminded of some I did, such as sarma, baklava, and ajvar.
Ajvar (pronounced “eye-var”) is a roasted pepper and eggplant condiment that is popular all over the Balkans and Eastern Europe. In my family, it is familiar as “that delicious red stuff” in the jar that we buy every once in a while from the Middle Eastern grocery store. I think of it as Eastern European ketchup or salsa and use it anywhere I’d use them.
Though you can sometimes find jars of ajvar in the international aisles of larger supermarkets, the flavors are never as bright as homemade. Plus, those store-bought jars are usually full of olive oil, which though tasty, isn’t really necessary. My homemade version keeps a little of the olive flavor by substituting a few olives for the oil, making this a very low-calorie, unprocessed sauce that you can use any number of ways–dip crackers in it, spread it on sandwiches, mix a little into hummus, or slather it onto slices of baked tofu, as I did here. You can make it as mild or as spicy as you like by adding or taking away cayenne or red pepper flakes. The possibilities are endlessly delicious
Ajvar (Roasted Red Pepper and Eggplant Relish)
It’s a dip, it’s a sauce, it’s a condiment, it’s a spread! Here are just a few ways you can use ajvar: Serve as a dip with crusty bread, crackers, or raw vegetables. Use as a sandwich spread alone or mixed with vegan mayo. Use anywhere you’d use ketchup–on roasted potatoes is particularly good. Stir into warm pasta. Add a little to your favorite vinaigrette for a zesty salad dressing. Top slices of baked tofu or roasted cauliflower with a dollop of ajvar.
- 5 red bell peppers (about 2 1/2-3 pounds)
- 1 medium eggplant (about 1 pound)
- 6 kalamata olives, pitted and chopped (optional)
- 3-5 cloves garlic
- 1-2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon hot smoked paprika (optional or to taste)
- 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon red (cayenne) pepper (or to taste)
- salt to taste
- Cut the peppers in half and remove stem, seeds, and white membranes. Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise.
- Place peppers and eggplants cut-sides down on a large baking sheet and place it in the oven about 4 inches below the broiler. Broil until the pepper skins blister and blacken and the eggplant is tender in the middle. The blacker you get the peppers, the better the flavor, so don’t be shy! If you find some are blackening before others, move them around on the baking sheet so that they will roast evenly.
- As the peppers blacken, remove them to a large bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. When the eggplant is tender, remove it to a plate or cutting board. Scoop out the flesh, discarding any large seeds, and place it in the food processor with the olives and garlic. Process until smooth.
- Allow the peppers to steam in the covered bowl until they are cool. Then peel off the blackened skin; the more skin you remove, the better, but don’t worry if you can’t get every bit. Add them to the eggplant in the food processor and pulse to chop them finely but do not blend them into a smooth paste. Remove to a bowl and add the vinegar, hot pepper, and salt to taste. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
Preparation time: 30 minute(s) | Cooking time: 20 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 12
Makes about 3 cups. Nutrition (per serving): 34 calories, 7 calories from fat,