Friday, September 10, 2021



Last weekend I stumbled upon Macedonian red peppers at the Lani’s farmstand at the Union Square greenmarket. You cannot believe my excitement. Lani’s stall has always been a treasure trove but getting red bullhorns -- tt was like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And there is one word that explains it all.
Red pepper relish, slash spread, slash dip, slash salad (it's hard to say) traditionally made in the northern Balkans (think Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Montenegro). It’s pronounced “ayvar” and is derived from havyar, the Turkish word for caviar.

Ajvar, the pepper caviar. That tells you something.

There are recipes and dishes we carry with us for a lifetime. They tell stories of our homelands, our childhood, our family traditions. They are the pieces of us. For me, ajvar is one such dish.

In Serbia, where I grew up, early autumn, when red peppers are at their sweetest, was the ajvar preservation season. Making of ajvar was not just making of a dish, it was a ritual. For my mom and dad, it was so important that they always enlisted a large circle of friends to help and then turned the activities into a party. The fete would take an entire weekend, sometimes two, because we simply could not have enough ajvar. Mom kept a small pile of aprons on the kitchen counter, and as our friends arrived, usually around noon on Saturday, they each took one. Dad and his best friend Vučko always claimed the kitchen. They cracked up the oven temperature to the max, fired up the burners, and kept roasting peppers in bushels, stopping only to wipe off the sweat from their foreheads and take a sip of slivovitz. Mom’s girlfriends Peja and Ana sat at the balcony -- far away from the kitchen and the heat it radiated -- and kept peeling. Bowl, after bowl, after bowl; it was tedious, and boring, and the only way to do it was to have a buddy and chit-chat along the way. When they got tired, my aunt Ljilja stepped in. In between the two working zones, in our dining room, Dad had installed an ancient meat-grinder, where our neighbor Stanko and I took turns grinding the peppers into coarse paste. Once the raw material was ready, Mom awarded everyone with kebabs from the nearby restaurant, ice-cream popsicles and cold lemonade, while she went on to simmer the paste in three large pots for the rest of the afternoon and evening and sterilize jars in the oven. When ajvar was done and jars were sealed, taking over all counter space we had, Mom lit up a cigarette, sat at the barstool, and observed everything in silent content.

For me, the weekends in September will always smell of Macedonian peppers, the trembling heat from the oven, lemonade, and laughter. For me, a small jar of ajvar will always be a miracle; in it holds around two pounds of peppers, hours of labor, and so much love that, at the end, it's more precious than all the caviars of the world combined.

Ajvar was one of the first recipes I posted when 8 years ago, I started this blog. I posted a recipe for a popular variation that includes eggplant. But ajvar connoisseurs will tell you that the most prized version has no other ingredients but red peppers, oil, salt, and a drop of vinegar. It tastes like velvet:  lush, rich yet mellow, buttery, deep, slightly sweet, with a drop of acidity that only accentuates the sweetness. So here we go.


3 pounds meaty red bullhorn peppers
scant 1/3 cup sunflower oil
1/2 teaspoon white vinegar
salt, to taste

Preheat the oven to 420°F.

Wash and dry the peppers.

Arrange the peppers on a baking tray in one layer and roast them until the skin is somewhat blackened and peeling away. (If you have a large quantity of peppers, do this in batches.) Rotate the peppers from time to time to make sure that they blacken evenly. This seems like an easy step, but it’s important to get it right. Watch the peppers carefully because you want only the top surface to blacken. The meat beneath should be red, plump, and moist. If you go pass this stage ajvar will have bitter taste.

As each batch of peppers is finished, transfer them to a plastic bag and close the bag tightly. The steam will soften the skin and it will make it easier to peel the peppers.

Once completely cooled, take the peppers out, then peel and deseed them. Make sure to get rid of all seeds, as they also can make ajvar bitter. It will make it easier to peel and deseed the peppers if you dip your hands in water from time to time, so have a bowl ready on the side. Just wet your hands and clean them in water but avoid the temptation to rinse the peppers.

When done, put the peppers in a colander and leave to drain for a couple of hours. (If you have a small quantity of peppers, an hour or two should be enough to fully drain. If you are making more, leave them overnight.) Rotate the peppers occasionally to ensure even drainage.

When peppers are fully drained, chop them by hand, or grind them in a meat grinder using a coarse setting. (I try not to use food processor, because it may over-process the peppers. Pure is not what we are looking for.) Oil a pot with a tablespoon of sunflower oil. Add the chopped peppers and the remaining oil and leave for about 15 minutes.

Place the pot with peppers over medium heat and bring the peppers to simmer. Stir regularly to prevent the bottom from burning. Lower the temperature until the simmer is barely noticeable. Continue to simmer on very low heat until all the liquid has evaporated, the peppers have begun to fall apart, and you are left with a thick spread. Keep stirring all the time. Depending on the quantity of peppers, this can take from 45 minutes (for two pounds) to three hours (for a very large quantity). But the important thing to getting that mellow, buttery taste is to keep the heat at low setting and be patient. Near the end of cooking, add the vinegar, and season with salt to taste.

Remove the pot from the stove and let it cool completely.

Store in refrigerator and wait for one day before serving.


Yields about 12oz to a pound



If you are interested in learning about old ajvar preservation technique, check out the recipe on Taste Atlas. It also comes with a great story about the origins of the name.

Ajvar is typically made with sunflower oil and not olive oil, because sunflower oil does not impart any flavor. You do not want anything meddling with that buttery taste. Keep your best EVOO for other adventures. Recipes that call for EVOO are, uhm, how shall I put it, improvisations. I have also seen recipes that call for adding pepper flakes, black pepper, lemon juice, even onion. They are improv too.

You can make ajvar with bell peppers. I do it often when I have a craving. If so, add a pinch of sugar.

If you really want to try ajvar, but all this work is not up your alley, there are many brands of industrially produced ajvar. Most are dismal, some are OK. The best one I know, and the industrially produce ajvar that tastes like the real thing is Bakina Tajna (aka Grannys Secret). They jams are awesome too.