Sauced: Ajvar (Serbian Roasted Red Pepper Sauce)
Spending a lot of time to find just the right recipe for cevapi—an uncased grilled Balkan sausage—it would have been a shame to serve it with a subpar ajvar—the traditional roasted red pepper sauce accompaniment. So while already at the grill, I took a shot at preparing ajvar in a few different ways to find the one that could proudly sit on the plate next to those delicious sausages.
All About Ajvar
Ajvar comes traditionally from Serbia, but spread throughout the Balkan region after World War II while the area was connected as Yugoslavia. Unlike cevapi, which comes in many variations based on location, ajvar seems to be more standardized, with fewer differences from one recipe to another.
Ajvar is commonly prepared in the fall, making use of the abundant harvest of red bell peppers, which are charred over a fire, peeled, and combined with roasted eggplant, garlic, oil, and vinegar, for a sauce that can be canned and eaten throughout the rest of the year. It's usually served alongside grilled meats, but can also be enjoyed on its own or as a spread.
As I researched recipes and tasted a couple ajvars, I noticed they all had a relatively standard list of ingredients and similar flavor. But while it wasn't too hard to come up with a base recipe, there were some differences in preparation that I decided to investigate.
Grill 'em All
First up was whether or not to use the grill. In many of my grilling recipes, I often get comments inquiring if the dish can be prepared in the oven or on the stove instead. My standard answer is yes, but you'll lose that smoky flavor. For ajvar, a little smokiness seems to be a pretty desirable trait, so I wondered why so many recipes failed to mention a grill at all.
I set out to make two different batches of the sauce, one where the peppers were roasted on my gas burners and the eggplant was cooked in the oven, and another where both the peppers and eggplant were roasted over a hot charcoal fire. Both ways produced sauces with identical textures—it all came down to flavor.
To Simmer, or Not to Simmer
The second issue I encountered was that none of the recipes recommended simmering the ajvar. Traditionally, once all the ingredients are combined into a sauce, the whole thing is reduced on the stovetop. I wondered how crucial this step was—did the extra time and effort of cooking the sauce yield an ajvar superior enough to justify the work? To find out, I simmered half of each of the ajvar recipes I made.
An Awesome Ajvar
I ended up with four different ajvars, all with the same base ingredients. For each, the balance of red pepper, eggplant, and garlic were right on, so it came down to the nuances of each preparation.
As I expected, the one prepared on the grill had a light but distinct smokiness that gave the sauce a unique depth. If you weren't tasting the two side-by-side, the non-grilled ajvar would seem pretty awesome, so I can see how it's easy to leave the grill out, especially since not everyone has one. Still, you'd be doing a disservice to yourself and your ajvar to not try to prepare it over a live wood fire.
The simmering of the sauce led to a bit more surprising result. I assumed cooking it down would thicken it a bit, with a minor effect on the flavor. In practice, though, the texture of the simmered sauce was pretty comparable to the non-cooked. What did end up changing was the balance of tang and sweetness. The versions that had been simmered had a sweeter character, with a red pepper flavor that was bit brighter and more intense. This lessoned some of the harshness created by the white vinegar, resulting in a more pleasing and balanced flavor profile..
I can now safely say that if you want to make your ajvar the quickest and easiest way—on a stove and without boiling—you'll get something pretty good, but if you want all the smoky, fruity, and tangy flavor of a great ajvar, it's worth the extra time and effort to prepare it the traditional way, cooked over a live fire and then simmered into submission. This is a ajvar that does justice to my cevapi.
About the author: Joshua Bousel brings you new, tasty condiment every other Wednesday and a recipe for weekend grilling every other Friday. He also writes about grilling and barbecue on his blog The Meatwave whenever he can be pulled away from his grill.