Why It Works
- Grilling red peppers and eggplant over a charcoal fire adds a smoked flavor to the sauce.
- Simmering the sauce brings out the sweetness and flavor of the peppers.
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.
Grilling vs. Stovetop Roasting
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 lessened 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 an ajvar that does justice to my cevapi.
2 pounds red bell peppers (about 5 medium peppers)
1 medium eggplant (about 3/4 pound)
5 teaspoons freshly minced garlic (about 5 medium cloves)
1/4 cup sunflower or olive oil
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon Kosher salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Place peppers on hot side of grill and cook until blackened all over, 10-15 minutes. Transfer pepper to a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit until cool enough to handle, about 20 minutes. Remove charred skin, seeds, and cores from peppers.
While the peppers are cooling, pierce skin of eggplant with a fork all over. Place eggplant on cool side of grill. Cover and cook until skin darkens and wrinkles and eggplant is uniformly soft when pressed with tongs, about 30 minutes, turning halfway through for even cooking. Remove eggplant from grill and let sit until cool enough to handle, about 10 minutes. Trim top off eggplant and split lengthwise. Using a spoon, scoop out flesh of eggplant; discard skin.
Place roasted red peppers, eggplant pulp, and garlic in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Pulse until roughly chopped. Add in oil, vinegar, and salt and pulse until incorporated and peppers are finely chopped.
Transfer sauce to a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper to taste. Let cool to room temperature then use immediately or transfer to an airtight container and store in refrigerator for up to two weeks.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 2g||3%|
|Saturated Fat 0g||2%|
|Total Carbohydrate 4g||1%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||3%|
|Total Sugars 2g|
|Vitamin C 65mg||325%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|