Ajvar (Balkan Eggplant Relish)
From Emily Kaiser Thelin: Food memories we form as children are often lodged so deeply in our minds, they can stay with us even though the fog of dementia. Alzheimer’s is said to attack the brain in the reverse order of the brain’s development through childhood and early adulthood, so early food memories can be some of the last to go. The younger she was when she experienced certain foods, the more clearly Paula could recall them. Not always; she could recall the cheesecake at Lundy’s in Sheepshead Bay in detail, but the first months we worked on the book, she insisted she had no recollection of her grandmother’s ajvar, or Balkan eggplant relish, beyond the fact that it was one of the first truly good foods she ever ate. But then she stumbled upon a recipe that reminded her of it, and when I saw her cook it, it was eerie and magical—it was evident her hands remembered the steps to make it, though her mind had forgotten them. This happened with a handful of dishes; it was like watching her travel back in time, the food as time machine.
- 3 or 4 red sweet peppers, such as bell or Corno di Toro (about 4 ounces | 115 g each)
- 1 green bell or poblano pepper (about 4 ounces | 115 g)
- 2 eggplants (about 12 ounces |350 g each)
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- ½ teaspoon flaky sea salt
- ¼ cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for topping
- 1 tablespoon unfiltered cider vinegar
- Heaping ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Pinch of mild red pepper flakes, preferably Aleppo or Marash (optional)
- Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
- Light a medium-low fire in a charcoal or gas grill. Set the red and green peppers and the eggplant on the grill and cook slowly, turning occasionally, until they are nicely charred on all sides and soft to the point of collapsing, about 30 minutes. As they finish cooking, transfer the vegetables to a large bowl, cover with a plate or plastic wrap and let steam and cool.
- Using your fingers or a paring knife, peel the eggplant and the peppers. Remove any large seed pockets in the eggplant, and then stem and seed the peppers. Transfer the vegetables to a large bowl. Using your hands, pull the peppers and eggplant apart into chunks, then crush and massage them between your fingers to form a coarse paste. Set aside.
- Using a mortar and pestle, the back of a heavy knife and a cutting board, or a mini food processor, crush together the garlic and salt, forming a paste. Add the garlic paste, olive oil, vinegar, black pepper and the red pepper flakes and cayenne, if using, to the eggplant mixture and mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more vinegar, salt and black, red and cayenne pepper if needed.
- Transfer to a jar and top with a ¼-inch (6-mm) layer of olive oil. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least overnight before serving. Season lightly once more before serving.
- Excerpted from UNFORGETTABLE The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life by Emily Kaiser Thelin. Copyright © 2017 by Emily Kaiser Thelin. Photographs copyright © 2017 by Eric Wolfinger. Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.