Ajvar is a traditional roasted sweet red bell pepper relish from the Balkan Peninsula with many regional variations. In the south eastern Balkans roasted eggplant is also included in the ajvar. Adding dried ground red chile is customary throughout the region although more as a flavor note than adding a discernible heat. Ajvar is slathered on local flat breads or served with grilled meats, sausages, fish, or just about any other application that strikes your fancy. It is a real favorite of mine and easy to prepare. Well… that is when flame roasting peppers and eggplants has become second nature. The roasting process is really not that difficult and a ritual I quite enjoy while taking in the intoxicating aroma of roasting peppers. That little extra effort turns out beautifully sweet and smoky flavored peppers and eggplants for a multitude of applications. Ajvar is very similar to an Eastern Mediterranean roasted red pepper Muhammara with walnuts and pomegranate which you also might like to try. (See recipe here) It’s always a big hit when served with drinks.
Imported traditional Balkan Ajvar is available at some specialty food shops and online, but why not make your own with locally grown organic peppers. It really does make a difference and you are free to veer from tradition using various other vinegars and chilies. Try using a Jerez sherry vinegar and a smoked paprika paired with grilled Spanish sausages. It’s a flavor bite you will not forget!
Ajvar makes about 3 cups
Ideally, make the Ajvar a day before you plan to use it. This allows the flavors to develop.
- 3 large vine ripe red bell peppers, roasted
- 2 to 3 small long eggplants, roasted
- 3 garlic cloves, finely grated (1 tablespoon)
- 1 ½ teaspoons flaked sea salt + more to taste
- 1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons cider vinegar
- freshly ground black pepper
- 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 to 2 teaspoons pure ground red chile powder
Blacken the red bell peppers and eggplant on an outdoor grill or over a gas flame on the stove top. For full instructions on flame roasting (click here) .
Once the peppers and eggplants are evenly charred and quite limp transfer them to a bowl and seal the top of the bowl with cling film and set aside.
Once the peppers and eggplants are cool enough to handle remove the charred skin and discard it.
Note: Do not be tempted to peel off the charred skin under running water. It may seem like a good idea, but you will be rinsing away all the flavor you developed during the charring. Better to rinse your hands instead.
It is fine if there are some bits of charred skin left behind here and there. It will add a nice smoked flavor to the ajvar.
Open up the peppers and eggplants and remove the seeds and membranes and discard. This will reduce the volume of the eggplant considerably but you should still end up with about a cup of flesh.
Tear the peppers apart into bits and place them in the food processor or use a mortar and pestle if you want a truly authentic ajvar. Add the eggplant, garlic, and salt and pulse or grind until the mixture is broken down. Add the vinegar, ground pepper, and a couple tablespoons of olive oil and pulse or continue grinding until the mixture is to the texture you prefer, either coarse or quite smooth. Then stir is the ground red chile powder and pulse or mix until combined.
Taste and make any adjustments needed. Transfer the ajvar to a glass jar and add a little olive oil to just cover the surface. Seal the jar with the lid and refrigerate.
Serve chilled or at room temperature.
I am still surprised when I offhandedly mention ham loaf to friends, even American friends, who more often than not look puzzled and ask “what is ham loaf?” I always just assumed ham loaf was standard American fare, but I have been duly enlightened.
In actuality ham loaf’s roots reach back to various German speaking religious groups, including Amish and Mennonite farmers, who emigrated to America in the 17th century to escape religious persecution in Europe. They, as farmers, chose to settle in Southeastern Pennsylvania with its rich fertile soil that was ideal for their old world farming methods. The area became known as Pennsylvania (Deitsch) Dutch country which is where I grew up. These pristine family farms have been passed down for generations so a good bit of the rural countryside has remained, thankfully, mostly untouched by modernization.
Pennsylvania Dutch cooks have probably been making versions of ham loaf for a couple of centuries. The recipes have been passed down and have remained pretty much unchanged over the years judging from recipes I have looked at. The recipe here I found in one of my mother’s handwritten recipe notebooks to which I have added a couple of optional seasonings. The resulting ham loaf is every bit as comforting and scrumptious today as it was when we were kids back in Lancaster county.
Typically in Pennsylvania farm communities the big meal of the day is still served family style around noon during the busy summer months. Ham loaf would most likely be served along with several homegrown vegetables and potatoes freshly plucked out of the garden. Nothing fancy mind you, just a beautifully fresh and hearty meal that mirrors the balance of a considered way of life.
As pictured, the ham loaf is served with steamed young Brussels’s sprouts, including the outer leaves, spritzed with olive oil and lemon juice. Boiled potatoes are tossed with butter, olive oil, salt and pepper. The horseradish cream is my own choice for an accompaniment as horseradish is also locally grown in Lancaster county and adds a refreshing flavor note.
Ham Loaf serves 6
Equipment: 1 loaf pan: approximately 10” x 6” x 3”
- 1 ¼ pounds ground ham
- 1 ¾ pounds ground pork
- 1 cup finely diced onions
- 2 finely minced garlic cloves
- 1 cup tomato sauce ( pureed tomatoes)
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme or sage leaves
- ½ teaspoon dried marjoram leaves
- ¼ teaspoon ground clove
- 1 teaspoon sea salt plus more as needed
- freshly ground pepper to taste
- ½ teaspoon pure ground red chile powder (optional)
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- milk to soak bread crumbs
- 2 large organic eggs
- 3 bay leaves (optional
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon dried mustard powder
- ½ cup cider vinegar
- ¼ cup water
It is best to marinate the seasoned ham and pork mixture overnight to develop flavor.
In a large bowl combine the ham, pork, onions, garlic, 1/3 cup tomato sauce, thyme or sage, marjoram, ground clove, 1 teaspoon salt or more to your own taste, pepper, and chile powder if using. Knead the mixture with you hands until the ingredients are well combined. Cover the bowl with cling film and refrigerate overnight or for up to 24 hours.
The following day remove the ham pork mixture from the fridge. Briefly soak the breadcrumbs in milk. Squeeze out the excess milk from the breadcrumbs and add them to the ham pork mixture.
Whisk the eggs in a small bowl and add to the ham pork mixture. Using your hands kneed the mixture to completely incorporate the breadcrumbs and eggs into the ham pork mixture.
Lightly oil the loaf pan and fill it with the ham loaf mixture evenly without overly compressing the meat into the pan. If the meat is too firmly packed the meat will tend to be dense and rubbery rather than soft and tender when cooked. Press bay leaves into the top surface and set aside for baking.
Preheat the oven to 350f/180c
While the oven is heating you can prepare the glaze for the ham loaf
Combine the brown sugar, mustard powder, cider vinegar, and water in a small stainless saucepan. Set the pan over medium low heat and bring the mixture to a boil while stirring. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook a couple of minutes until the glaze thickens slightly. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool.
Brush the top of the ham loaf with the glaze and transfer the pan to the oven. Bake for 20 minutes.
Open the oven door and glaze the top of the loaf again and bake for another 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes remove the loaf from the oven and once again glaze the top of the loaf. You will notice the loaf has separated from the sides of the loaf pan leaving a small gap. Spoon tomato sauce (puree) into the gaps around the loaf until nearly filled. Return the pan to the oven and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes.Remove the ham loaf from the oven and place on a cooling rack. Keep in mind you do not want to over bake the loaf as it will tend to dry out!
Once the loaf is cool enough to handle, pour out excess liquid in the loaf pan into a small bowl and set aside. Run a knife around the edges of the loaf. Place a sheet of parchment over the loaf and invert the pan onto a cutting board. If the loaf is sticking a bit, grip both the cutting board and the pan together and give the pan a firm downward thrust. This should release the loaf.
Once the loaf is released, place a serving platter over the loaf. While gripping both the cutting board and the platter together, turn the loaf upright. Remove the parchment and discard.
Slice the ham loaf into generous portions crosswise. Spoon reserved pan juices over the slices of ham loaf and serve along with horseradish cream at the table.
- ½ cup sour cream
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise (Hellmann’s)
- 2 tablespoons prepared mustard (Dijon)
- 2 tablespoons fresh prepared horseradish
Combine all the ingredients in a stainless bowl and whip until combined and smooth.. Chill until serving time.
Maiale al Latte is a traditional northern Italian dish that has been passed on for generations by everyone’s Nonna (grandmother), and where their collective cookery savvy is all gloriously revealed. By slowly braising the pork in milk, not only is the meat tenderized, but the milk is transformed into a beguiling lemony caramelized sauce that defies everything you thought you knew about sauces. This is truly Italian comfort food at its very best!
The dish originates from the Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy that is considered by Italians to be where you will find the best food in all of Italy. The region’s products are a testament to its reputation and known the world over including, Balsamic vinegar from Medona and Reggio Emalia, cured hams from Parma, and of course Parmigiano Reggiano.
This all came to mind while reading a New York Times article The Secrets of Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk by Sam Sifton. Jamie Oliver’s recipe was inspired by a Maiale al Latte that he tasted while on a trip to Tuscany. His Chicken in milk recipe, published in his cookbook Happy Days with the Naked Chef in 2002, went viral and has since inspired home cooks around the globe.
Maiale al Lette is simple in concept, relatively easy to prepare, although a little time consuming, but well worth the effort. I have to say this is a recipe that is down right exciting to cook as the dish transitions into unfamiliar territory as it braises.
This is a dish that you are unlikely to find on any restaurant menu anywhere unless you happen to be traveling through the northern Italian countryside. This is, in Jamie Oliver’s own words, “a slightly odd but really fantastic combination that must be tried”.
Maiale al Latte serves 6
- 5 pounds/2 kilo pork loin with some fat attached, shoulder, or rib roast (ribs removed)
- flaked sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 large onion, peeled and finely diced
- 12 garlic cloves with skin on
- a handful of fresh young sage leaves (20-30)
- 2 ½ liters/2.6 quarts whole milk, heated to a near boil
- zest of 2 lemons cut into long strips with a vegetable peeler
- a small knob of nutmeg or ½ teaspoon grated
In the recipe that follows I have started the braising on the stove top and finished the braising in the oven. However, braising entirely on the stove top at a gentle simmer will essentially produce nearly the same results less a crusty finish on the top of the pork.
Equipment: cast iron Dutch oven or heavy bottomed casserole dish with lid
Bring the pork to room temperature. Season generously with salt and pepper on all sides.
Place the casserole on the stove top over medium high heat. When hot add the olive oil. When the oil is hot add the butter and stir until the butter is melted. Promptly add the pork and sear until nicely browned on all sides; about 2 ½ minutes per side. Transfer the seared pork to a plate.
Pour all but 2 tablespoons of the fat out of the casserole and discard. Don’t worry about the brown bits sticking to the bottom of the casserole. They will add a nice caramel flavor to the dish as it cooks.
Preheat the oven to 350f/180c
Return the casserole to the stove top set over medium low heat. Add the onions and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 6 minutes. Then add the garlic cloves and about a third of the sage leaves. Saute for several minutes until the garlic begins to color and the sage is wilted and dark green.
Move the onion mixture to the sides of the casserole and place the seared pork in the center. Then add enough hot milk to come about 2/3 of the way up the sides of the pork. Turn the heat up to medium and once the milk is boiling lower the heat to a simmer. Add the nutmeg, lemon zest, and the remaining sage leaves and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Then turn the pork over, give the sauce a stir, and transfer the casserole to the preheated oven. Partially cover the casserole and braise for 30 minutes.
Note: Braising times in the oven will vary depending on the cut of pork you are using. Pork loin will take about 1 hour braising time, while shoulder or rib roast will take up to 2 hours.
Remove the casserole from the oven, turn the pork once again, and give the sauce a stir. Add a little more hot milk if the sauce is looking rather depleted. Return to the oven and braise without the lid another 30 minutes.
Once again, remove the casserole from the oven and turn the pork over. You will notice the milk has reduced with a light caramel color, and the sauce may have started to curdle, looking like caramelized ricotta. This is what this sauce is supposed to do, so don’t be alarmed thinking things have all gone terribly wrong.
If using pork loin, at this point the pork will need about another 20 minutes in the oven. Add a little more hot milk if the caramelized sauce is looking a bit thick.
If you are using pork shoulder or rib roast you will have to repeat the turning process two more times and adding hot milk as needed at 30 minutes intervals.
When the pork is cooked to perfection remove the casserole from the oven and transfer the pork to a plate to rest.
Spoon off as much fat as you can from the surface of the sauce and discard.
Return the sauce to the stove top over medium low heat. If the sauce is a bit soupy reduce until the sauce holds together. Or, if the sauce is too dry stir a little hot milk into the sauce to loosen it up a bit.
Slice the pork loin into ½ inch slices across the roast. Fan out on a platter or individual plates and spoon the sauce generously over the pork and garnish with fresh sage leaves.
If you have used shoulder or rib roast simply pull the meat apart and serve topped with the sauce and garnish with fresh sage leaves.
As you know I’m mad for anything Sichuan and this time around it’s Sichuan Pork Tenderloin.
A recent post on Sichuan Chicken Wings (see here) was a big hit. All due to the fiery spiced Sichuan marinade my friend from Shanghai passed on to me which I now consider a building block of Sichuan cookery. It not only works beautifully with chicken, but with pork, beef, and fish as well.
Rather than resorting to the usual wok stir frying that tends to turn even the tenderest of meats into rubbery strips I opted for the western approach of high temperature roasting that produces a succulent tender juicy flesh. The pork Tenderloin is roasted along with cabbage and apples and sauced with a marinade reduction that delivers an easy Sichuan meal with all the refinement of a Michelin starred restaurant in China coming right out of your own kitchen.
A friend of mine who had tasted the Sichuan chicken wings at a dinner party at my house was all ready to try making the wings at home until he read the recipe and decided “it was just too complicated.” Actually it is not at all complicated and I urge you not to be discouraged by the list of perhaps unfamiliar ingredients. With the ingredients on hand the marinade can be made in five minutes. All the ingredients are available in your nearest Asian market and in some cases supermarkets. Once the ingredients are stored in your pantry you are ready for an extended adventure with Sichuan cookery.
Sichuan Pork Tenderloin – East meets West serves 4 to 6
- 2 pork tenderloins approximately 16 0z/450 g each
- 2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns, lightly toasted
- 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted
- 5 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 5 tablespoons Shaoxing cooking wine
- 4 tablespoons Chinkiang black vinegar
- 1 tablespoon red chile oil (see note)
- 1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
- ¾ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
- ½ teaspoon dried red chile flakes
- ½ teaspoon five spice powder
- cabbage and apples (recipe below)
- Sichuan pepper sauce (recipe below)
Lightly toast the Sichuan peppercorns and cumin seeds together in a small pan over low heat. Once aromatic remove from the heat and promptly transfer to a mortar and set aside to cool. When cool coarsely grind and set aside.
In a bowl combine the ground Sichuan pepper and cumin seed mix, soy sauce, Shaoxing cooking wine, Chinkiang black vinegar, red chile oil, garlic, ginger, white pepper, and chile flakes. Whisk the ingredients together and stir in the 5 spice powder.
Set aside half of the marinade to use later to make the sauce.
Select a bowl large enough to hold the pork tenderloins snugly. Pour the remaining half of the marinade into the bowl and add the pork tenderloins. Press the tenderloins into the marinade while massaging the marinade into the flesh. Turn the tenderloins over and press them firmly into the marinade until they are completely covered, stirring in a little water if needed. Cover the bowl with cling film and refrigerate for several hours.
Remove the marinated tenderloins from the fridge and bring to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 475 f/245 c with the rack set to the second level from the bottom of the oven.
Select a roasting pan large enough to hold both the pork tenderloins and the cabbage and apples.
Place tenderloins in the center of the roasting pan lengthwise without touching. Place the cabbage and apple mixture around the tenderloins and spoon marinade over and around the tenderloins. Place the tray in the oven and roast for about 25 minutes or until the internal temperature of the tenderloins reaches 140 f/60 c. Do not over roast! Promptly remove the tray from the oven, loosely tent with foil and rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Cabbage and Apples:
- 1 large head of green cabbage
- 4 firm apples
- 3 tablespoon olive oil
- sea salt to taste
- freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage and cut the head into quarters lengthwise. Remove the cores and thinly slice the cabbage and place in a large mixing bowl.
Peel the apples and quarter lengthwise. Remove the cores and slice each quarter into very thin slices then divide the slices in half and add to the bowl of cabbage. Toss together until the apples are evenly mixed into the cabbage. Drizzle the olive oil over the mixture and season with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle the lemon juice over all and toss until well combined. Set aside until you are ready to place it around the pork tenderloins for roasting.
Sichuan Pepper Sauce:
- reserved marinade
- 1 ½ cups stock
- 2-3 small dried red chilies
- 1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons corn starch
- 1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons cold water
Place the reserved marinade in a saucepan and add the stock. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a rolling simmer. Add the dried chilies and simmer until reduced by about a third.
Place the cornstarch in a small bowl and stir into the cold water until the cornstarch is completely dissolved.
While stirring the sauce slowly start adding the cornstarch mixture and continuing to stir. The sauce will begin to thicken within a minute or so. When the sauce has the consistency of thin glaze you can stop adding the cornstarch mixture. Continue to stir another minute.Then remove from the sauce from the heat and set aside until you are ready to serve.
Reheat over low heat jut before serving.
Transfer the roasted tenderloins to a cutting board and using a very sharp knife thinly slice each tenderloin diagonally across the grain of the meat.
Spoon portions of the cabbage and apples onto individual plates and lay 4 to 5 slices of tenderloin overlapping atop the cabbage.Spoon the warm Sichuan sauce over the tenderloin slices and garnish with the red chilies if you like for visual effect. These chilies are very very HOT and should only be eaten by those are fearless chile fiends.
Recommended: serve with Thai Jasmine rice scented with kaffir lime leaves.
Note: Red Chile Oil:(hong you) which means red oil in Mandarin is sometimes available in Asian markets, but if not you can easily make your own.
Place ¼ cup of coarsely ground dried red chile flakes or small whole dried red chilies in a small stainless bowl. Heat 1 cup olive, peanut or corn oil over medium heat until nearly smoking. Turn off the heat and let the oil cool for a couple of minutes and then pour the oil over the chilies, which will sizzle at first. Stir and set aside to cool. Once cool transfer the mixture to a bottle or jar and seal with the lid. Store in a dark place for a week or so to infuse the oil with the essence of the chile. Refrigerate for long term storage.