Aaaaaah Ajvar!

Say it! You’ll sound like a pirate.

When I lived in Amsterdam, I had a friend from Macedonia. Once a year his mother would send him jars of homemade Ajvar made by her good self and other family members.

Apparently, it’s a tradition that the whole family get together when the peppers are harvested and make Ajvar, which is put in jars and used throughout the year. It’s basically a roasted red-pepper dip/sandwich spread/great on a pizza/you name it, kind of a stuff.

Take about 10 red bell peppers (Paprikas to the kijkers thuis) and a large aubergine (egg plant). Take a couple of serrano peppers too if you are so inclined.

Stick them all very loosely in an oven dish, and drizzle some olive oil on them. Put them in a hot oven – about 250 deg c (475 F) and roast them until the skin blackens and almost chars. The aubergine will likely be done before the peppers – about 20 minutes, the peppers will take about 1/2 an hour. Check them frequently and turn about 1/2 way through.

Remove from the oven and put them in a paper bag for about 10 minutes. The steam will make the skins very easy to remove. Save any juices which may have been released while roasting, in a bowl.

Remove and discard both the skins and the seeds from the peppers, place the rest in a bowl.  Do the same with the serranos but either keep or discard the seeds depending how hot/not you’d like it.

Remove the skin from the aubergine and add to the bowl. Add any juices the veggies may have made while roasting. Mash up the pepper and the aubergine. You can make it as chunky or as smooth as you want. I use a hand-blender – just a couple of short burst to make a thick spread.

In a heavy frying pan, add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and fry a medium sized onion that you previously wizzed in a blender until it was very finely chopped – a bit mashed even. What? Read that sentence again. Oh, yeah, I see what you’re saying.

After about 3 minutes, when the onions are soft, add about 3 or four finely chopped cloves of garlic. Fry for a couple more minutes then turn off the heat.

Add the pepper mix to the onions, mix well. Add juice of 1/2 a lemon and slowly stir in about 1/2 a cup of olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. Add a small amount of finely chopped fresh parsley when serving.

Serve on bread, toast, with pita bread, as a dip, spread over pizza dough and bake in oven with cheese, smear it all over your face and let the dog lick it off, do whatever you want – it is very healthy, easy and cheap to make.

And it is incredibly delicious. Even more so if you let it sit in your fridge for a night or two. We are planning on making some more soon – two batches actually, one with roasted garlic – we plan on roasting 2 heads of garlic in the oven alongside the peppers, and one with a little more oomph, with more serranos or a single habanero.

Poblano Meatballs (Albóndigas)

We recently entered a cook-off at our local pub. We made an Ancho-chile soup with Spanish (in this case hispanic) meatballs. After a bit of experimentation we came up with the recipe below. They work well in a soup in the way that we served them, but they’d do equally well in other recipes – even in a Tex-mex version of Spaghetti and meatballs. I originally used a small soldering blow-torch to burn the skins on the poblanos, but it was slow and tedious work. I decided to buy a propane brazing torch. Heh. It made very short work of the poblanos.

2 Fresh Poblano Chiles
1/2 lb 15% ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
2 fresh serrano chiles finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 finely grated onion
3 tsp ground cumin – fresh if you have it (toast the seeds first)
1 1/2 tbsp ancho chile powder – freshly ground is best
2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 cup japanese breadcrumbs (panko)
2 tsp mexican oregano
1/2 tsp kosher salt

1. Use a grill or blowtorch to remove the skin from the Poblano chiles, remove the seeds and finely chop
2. Gently mix the meat and other ingredients in a bowl
3. Roll into 1 inch meatballs – an ice-cream scoop helps here to keep the meatballs the same size.
4. Fry in olive oil until browned, but not cooked through, add to a sauce, or a soup and gently simmer for a further 20 minutes. If you aren’t adding them to a sauce or soup, you can continue to fry until cooked through.

Roasted-Tomato Sauce

This vegetarian tomato sauce is delicious on pasta, or as a base for other sauces and soups. It freezes well, so just make up a batch and use as and when as you need it. At some point, I think I’ll use our “Big Green Egg” to roast the tomatoes to see how the sauce would work with a more smoky flavour.  Below is the basic sauce – it’s pretty quick and easy, and tastes great.

2-4 lbs ripe tomatoes (tomatoes on the vine seem to have the most flavour, but Roma tomatoes work quite well too)
3-4 Cloves Garlic
3-4 tbs Olive Oil
Salt & freshly ground black pepper

Cut the tomatoes in half and arrange cut side up in an oven-proof dish. Finely chop the garlic and immerse in olive oil. We sometimes have a jar of crushed garlic in olive oil in the fridge – that works well here.

Drizzle the olive oil and garlic onto the tomato halves, then lightly season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Cook in an oven at about 375 F (190 C, Gas Mark 4) for about 40 minutes until the tomatoes are soft and any flakes of garlic are starting to char.

Tomatoes straight from the oven
The completed Sauce

Press the tomatoes through a sieve with a wooden spoon, throw away the skins and seeds, use the sauce immediately or freeze. I found pressing the tomatoes through a sieve to be quite hard work – a food-mill makes very short work of this. With a food mill, you can make this sauce in bulk with little effort, and freeze it until you need it.

Mac et Fromage

Mac and cheese with pain de tradition and a Bourgogne Aligoté

After living in Bordeaux, France for a year and a half, I’ve finally broken down… There are just certain things you can not get here: pickles, bagels, beer, mac and cheese, a LARGE café. Worse is if you try to explain this to a french person they will usually just say how our coffee is like water or that the pickles here are fine, and they dont even know what they are missing with bagels. Anyways, I chose to remedy this problem while riding my bike home tonight. I needed to stop and get bread anyways, so while waiting in line (yes, there are lines at bakeries. If there is not one at yours, you need to try one that has a line to find out why.) I looked up Alton Brown’s mac and cheese recipe on the iPhone.

AB has two versions. The baked, and stove top. I was feeling lazy and even contemplating just doing a wine, bread, and cheese “dinner”, so I went with the stove-top. Simple, one pot, less to clean. Here’s the list:
1/2 pound elbow macaroni
4 tablespoons butter
2 eggs
6 ounces evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Fresh black pepper
3/4 teaspoon dry mustard
10 ounces sharp cheddar, shredded

Had everything except the cheese and evaporated milk… Of course I have cheese, just no cheddar. I think they take away your carte de séjour (residency permit) if you don’t at least have a camembert in your fridge. Evaporated milk… uh… lait.. evaporatée?? That might get interesting… oh well, only 45 minutes before the store closes, which means only 15 mins of being allowed inside. They stop letting you in up to 30 mins before close at some places, then shut down all the registers but one and make you wait in line a long time, grr that was a frustrating day… Back on the bike, next stop, Carrefour (Kroger equivalent).

I should have known when I locked my bike up and was “welcomed” to the storefront by the screaming crazy SDF (homeless or Sans Domicile Fixted) this was gonna be interesting. Out of an entire wall of fromage, there was one cheddar… at dedicated cheese shop price too, that is to say, too much. No matter, I needed it to complete my mission. Evaporated milk… ugh. I had no idea how to say that. Headed to the milk section, which is no where near the cheese (hah! you thought they refrigerate milk?). Silly american, the milk is next to the eggs, which is next to the bottled water palettes. So… milk… there are 20 types of milk. Milk that could probably survive a nuclear war. This is only one of the reasons I don’t drink milk. I mean, it’s sold in boxes, wtf is up with that? lait écrème, demi écrème, entier, blah blah blah…. no evaporated… wait a sec, there is a section of cans! Lait concentré, thats sounding close, but concentrated (or condensed, I guess) milk is usually sweet. Success! one is marked “non-sucré”. That’ll do. Picked up a bottle of bio (organic)Aligoté from Bourgogne, Château de Sassangy and was out of there. Crazy guy even said “bye” at me. He must have known I bought a Bourgogne wine instead of a Bordeaux, quel scandale!

The food prep thankfully was much easier than finding cheddar and evaporated milk. Cook the pasta al denté and drain. Return it to the pot and mix in the butter over low heat. Whisk the rest of the ingredients (except cheese) together and add to the pot and stir. (I used a mix of black and yellow mustard seeds ground in my mortar and pestle. I also substituted cayenne pepper for the hotsauce.) Finally add the shredded cheese, et voila! Delicious mac and cheese. Bread was great for scoping up the last of the cheese sauce off the plate too!

Next time I may experiment with some stronger french cheeses. I see a bit of roquefort in my mac and cheese future. mmm….

senior french-ish correspondent