Wednesday, February 14, 2007
When I moved to this small town located in the shadowy foot of the White Mountains and home to license plates that read, Live Free or Die- I tried to mentally prepare myself for the isolation that would surely follow. It wasn’t the withdrawal from friends that concerned me most; I was gravely worried about the state of my belly and the foods I would eat. Upon informal research of the local culinary climate, I tried my best to stock up on ingredients I might soon desperately need. I frantically threw together an assortment of ethnic comestibles, a custom SOS things-I-cannot-live-without cooking kit, unsure of what I might find or rather not find here. It included things like kombu and hijiki, ume plum paste and spelt, dried shrimp, quince paste, rooibus, asafoetida and ajvar. Most of my booty garnered quizzical looks or deep sniffs followed immediately by the puckered face of disgust, repulsion, even ennui. But ahhh, the Ajvar (Eye-var)! I made the mistake of praising and elaborating upon its virtues one too many times and even worse, spooning generous swoon worthy helpings next to beautiful sunny side eggs or nudged alongside a bronzed nub of potato crusty with herbs and garlic, all the while chiding a new friend to eat. Too soon my jar emptied out and I had to push this Serbian salsa into the far recesses of my mind to cope with the brutal realities of a poorly stocked ethnic food aisle at the local food mart.
It might not be too great an exaggeration to claim that ajvar, an immodest shockingly orange-red pepper condiment is the one thing that I clearly remember from 1987, a turning point that changed my life forever. When I travel back in time and fix upon that summer I uncover dusty fragments of memory: whispers, textures and crumbs of the most magnificent sights and sounds of Europe. I was “Going for Baroque” with a group of students taking in the Renaissance and Baroque architecture of Italy, Austria, Germany, the former Yugoslavia and the former Czechoslovakia. If it weren’t for a scattering of photos in possession documenting my participation, I might not believe that I was actually there. I was blind and closed, dumb from heavy saturation of all the richly layered experiences for which I had no words for: the hollow slap of cobblestone upon the concave soles of my feet disconnected from the quiet play of shadow chasing light in mischievous dance apart from the explosion of gilded putties and undulating rows of marbled columns thrust forward in enthusiastic religiosity. And as much as I loved food then- as now, nothing more than bland cottony rolls with butter and strawberry jam, beer, Wiener schnitzel and lots of Mozartkugeln dared to step forward.
With dismay and confusion I poke at my flabby memory with more holes than substance- and it occurred to me that I was not properly cooked. I was simply an unformed thing unable to grasp at the wondrous sensations around me. I did not have the eyes to see, the hands to draw or the complexity to hold the patterned web of mutuality which displayed about in dazzling array. Luckily the problem and remedy was anticipated and solved by the program’s organizers with a three week sail around the Adriatic Sea and it was there on a boat- where the few experiences retained began to knit and form a story and the inner and outer parts of me formed some sort of whole. Perhaps it was because I was held in a water womb bounded only by transparency, light and vapor that sensation stilled enough to finally be absorbed. In that dream world the vibrancy and full bodied sensuality of ajvar began calling out to me from the private corner of the captain’s breakfast spread- and before long small doses were metered out to me with my own morning eggs.
Ajvar is a roasted red pepper and eggplant paste popular in the Balkan countries. It is a lively mouthful that can easily accompany eggs, meats, fish, vegetables and breads. And as amplified as it sounds, this mere condiment shook me out of the stupor that I was in. It is not really surprising considering how arresting this vegetable like fruit is. These showy orbs peek and preen; they are self aware ornamental jewels seductive from every angle and when mixed with fire and smoke…one has a pretty devastating combination on hand. The flesh turns to something like dampened crushed velvet, silky and a touch sinful and the flavor is the aching pure heart of passion. When this pulse quickening food matches up with roasted eggplant, olive oil, garlic, vinegar and salt you end up with a soulful marriage hard to soon forget and I can’t. It seems to me that I transformed and became a whole person after eating ajvar. I grew eyes, ears, mouth and indeed even a heart. After this I discovered that I could string words together to form complete sentences and the gaps in my memory closed. While I cannot promise that the same will hold true for you, after all a story told backwards is different than the same moving forwards and the veracity of the claim may be suspect, ajvar may at the very least hold its own between the ketchup and the peanut butter in your pantry. And that my friend is still a very impressive thing.
The Elusive Ajvar adapted from navarrovineyards.com
After emptying my only jar of this pepper paste from Berkeley Bowl, I managed to locate one from Trader Joe’s and yet another from the Hanover Co-op. Being that two of these places are three hours away, I decided to make my own. As simple as this recipe is, I sadly discovered that it is not as good as the bottled stuff I last emptied. The flavors were not quite as piquant or flavorful, the color not as breathtaking. I offer it still as inspiration and starting point for something that inevitably will be tweaked and hopefully perfected. I do urge you to find the Trader Joe brand which is acceptable and for heaven sakes don’t hurry the roasting process like I did. The skins really need to char and the flesh underneath needs to lose cellular integrity and slump over before being ready.
1 pound red peppers (could use 1-2 yellow or orange peppers as well)
1 yellow hot banana pepper, or any other slightly spicy pepper
1 medium eggplant
1 garlic clove crushed
1/4 C olive oil
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar to taste
¼ tsp. salt
Directions: To help set the appropriate tone put on some KITKA and turn the oven onto 475 degrees. Place the peppers and eggplant on a cooking sheet and roast until blackened and soft. Place peppers in a paper bag for about ten minutes and then de-skin, remove seeds and stems. Scoop out the eggplant pulp and mash with the finely chopped peppers. Heat the oil in a pan and sauté the garlic, vinegar, eggplant-pepper mixture and salt. Cook this mixture until it thickens, condensed and jam-like without bringing to a boil. Cool the ajvar and eat on breads and such.