Bites & Starters

AJVAR: Balkan Roasted Red Pepper Relish

AJVAR: Balkan Roasted Red Pepper Relish

 

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.

Blue Corn Nachos with Mexican Chorizo

Blue Corn Nachos with Mexican Chorizo

 

Now days Nochos are as much American as they are Mexican. The story of Nachos began in 1943 in the Mexican town of Pedros Negras across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. There is where Ignasio “Nacho” Anaya invented Nachos, nacho being the diminutive of Ignasio. By the 1950’s Ignacio’s creation spread across the US and Mex-Tex food became as American as apple pie.

And who doesn’t love nachos! Well, even today nachos can be a bit baffling for the uninitiated living beyond the Americas. Visually nachos do look like a “mash up” and then there is the challenge of how to eat them. With your hands… of course! With that all inhibitions are off the table and the fun begins. I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t love nachos.

Nachos have many incarnations and can veer well beyond the Ignacio’s original idea. Fast food joints are notorious for drowning the whole affair with a lava flow of processed cheese and mountains of faux sour cream.

My advice is to choose your ingredients with consideration so that that each ingredient’s flavor is complimentary, identifiable, and does justice to Ignasio’s original concept. Less is more makes all the difference here.

The recipe that follows does require the gathering together of several preparations made in advance, but there are some shortcuts. Mexican chorizo is readily available where there are Mexican communities and canned beans can be used in lieu of cooking them yourself. I highly recommend splurging on the corn tortilla chips and cheese. For this recipe I have used Garden of Eatin’ organic blue corn chips and Spanish Queso Manchego cheese. Queso Manchego is a semi hard sheep milk cheese from the arid  plateau of La Mancha in central Spain with fruity, grassy, and tangy notes. It shaves beautifully and well worth a try.

Nachos can be served with drinks, as a snack, or even as a main course as I often do. I assure you nachos will become an all time favorite with friends and family and they will love you for all your efforts!

See sourcing tips in Chiang Mai below.

 

Blue Corn Nachos with Mexican Chorizo

Queso Manchego

Queso Manchego

  • 1 teaspoon cold pressed peanut oil
  • blue or yellow corn chips
  • refried beans, warmed (see recipe here)
  • Mexican chorizo warmed (see recipe here)
  • Monchego cheese, thinly shaved (or other)
  • sour cream or full fat Greek yogurt
  • flame roasted tomato salsa (see recipe here)

Have ready a cast iron comal (grilling platter) or skillet.

preheat oven to 350f/180c

Lightly oil the cast iron platter or skillet. Arrange a layer of corn chips over the bottom of the platter and add a second layer of chips crisscrossing the first layer.

Spoon the refried beans here and there over the corn chips.

Queso Manchego

Queso Manchego

Generously spoon the chorizo over the chips and beans.

Distribute the shaved cheese over all.

Transfer the platter to the oven and heat for about 15 minutes or until the cheese is just melted.

Remove from the oven and add dollops of sour cream or Greek Yogurt over the nachos.

Serve with the flame roasted tomato salsa which pulls all the flavors together!

 

Buen provecho!

 

Sourcing tips for those of you who live in Chiang Mai

For those of you who don’t have a cast iron comal or skillet, Rimping at Promenada have stocked a rugged looking skillet that looks perfectly functional at just under 1000 Baht!

Top’s Market has a full selection of Garden of Eatin” organic corn chips and well worth the 115 Baht.

Rimping Markets carry El Charro Nacho Chips which are made with stone ground masa. They are the real thing and made in Thailand.

Canned beans are available at Top’s Markets and Rimping Markets. Rimping at Maya has recently added black beans to their selection!

For an an alternate cheese source check out Wine Connection’s retail cheeses and meats. They often have cheeses that are not available at other retailers and their prices are generally cheaper.

Paul’s Cold Pressed Peanut Oil is available at Rimping Markets. Wonderful peanut flavor and the perfect substitute for lard when cooking Mexican food

Fire Roasted Tomato Salsa

Rustic Fire Roasted Tomato Salsa

 

I’m always adjusting and tweaking salsa recipes to use for specific dishes. A slight twist to a tried and true salsa recipe can transform the taste with the slightest of hand. And to be honest it’s just an excuse to fool around in the kitchen and come up with what may be the next best salsa to add to your repertoire.

Flame roasting brings out flavors that no other cooking method can achieve and why grilling is so popular. Searing with intense heat releases otherwise lost flavors. In this case tomatoes and fresh chilies are charred on the outside with a sweetened flesh and an overall smokiness.

The results speak for themselves!

 

Rustic Fire Roasted Tomato Salsa   makes about 3 cups

  • about 1 ¾ ponds/800 grams firm vine ripe tomatoes
  • 3-4 jalapeno chiles/ about 2 ounces/ 60 grams
  • 1 onion, peeled and sliced into 1/4 inch rings
  • 5 whole garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • about 1 ¼ teaspoons sea salt + more to taste
  • 2 teaspoons Jerez sherry wine vinegar
  • 5 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves or 1 ½ tablespoons minced fresh marjoram leaves

Flame roast the tomatoes and jalapenos on your stove top or outdoor grill (see here) . Set aside in a bowl until cool enough to handle.

Fire Roasted Tomatoes & Jalapenos

Fire Roasted Tomatoes & Jalapenos

Then, working over a bowl peel off and discard about half of the charred skin from the tomatoes and the jalapenos, leaving the remaining charred skin in tact as this will add a smokiness to the salsa.

Slice the tomatoes on a cutting board into quarters and remove the white inner core and chop each quarter in half being mindful to scrape all the juices into the bowl as you work. Set the tomatoes aside to use later.

Fire Roasted Tomatoes for Salsa

Fire Roasted Tomatoes for Salsa

Likewise, using another bowl peel off and discard about half of the charred skin from the jalapenos, leaving the remaining charred skin in tact. Slice the jalapenos in half on a cutting board and remove the firm white vein and some of the seeds if you like and discard. Chop the jalapenos and set side to use later.

Fire Roasted jalapenos

Fire Roasted jalapenos

Preheat the oven to 400 f/200 c

Peel and slice the onion into rings about ¼ inch thick. Place the onion slices and peeled garlic on a small baking tray, drizzle with the olive oil, and toss. Place the tray in the oven and roast for about 15 minutes, turning the onions once while roasting. When the onions are nicely browned and charred along some edges and the garlic is colored and browned in spots, remove the tray from the oven and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile place the tomatoes in a food processor and pulse until the tomatoes are evenly chopped but not pureed. Transfer the tomatoes back into their bowl.

Roasted Onions & Garlic

Roasted Onions & Garlic

Then add the jalapenos, roasted onions, and garlic to the processor and pulse until well chopped and transfer them to the bowl of tomatoes and stir to combine.

Add the salt, vinegar, and cilantro (or marjoram) to the bowl and mix everything together until well combined. Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking.

Transfer the salsa to a non-reactive container, seal with a lid, and refrigerate for up to 5 days.

Serve the salsa chilled or at room temperature.

Frijoles Refritos

Frijoles Refritos

 

Frijoles means  beans of course in Spanish. However the word Refritos can be misleading. Mexicans have this habit of qualify a word to emphasize the meaning by adding the prefix re-. Refritos actually means well fried as opposed to re-fried as the word is often mistakenly interpreted to mean outside of Mexico.

Frijoles Refritos (well fried beans) are an everyday Mexican staple with many regional variations. Essentially, boiled beans are tipped into a pan of lard fried onions and garlic along with their cooking broth. I know, lard has gotten a bad rap over the years, but recently lard has been making a come back and not be so bad for you after all. I’m famous for saying “a little indulgence now and again isn’t going to kill you.” However if lard or bacon fat isn’t in the cards for you I have found that cold pressed peanut oil imparts the same unctuousness that lard does without any guilt or regrets.

The texture of frijoles refritos can vary widely. They can be mashed and fried with their broth to a thick porridge like consistency or by continuing the frying until the beans are almost dry and roll out of the pan and onto a plate much like you would do with an omelet. The latter is by far my preference as the flavor intensifies with a longer frying time. These are the frijoles refritos I really fell in love with while travelling all over Mexico.

Mexican Frijoles Refritos    serves 6

Have on hand 10-12 inch non-stick frying pan

cooked dried beans/bean masher

cooked dried beans/bean masher

  • 4-6 tablespoons melted lard, bacon drippings, or cold pressed peanut oil
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 4-5 cups cooked beans (or canned beans) in their cooking broth (see here)
  • sea salt to taste
  • 4 oz Mexican farmers cheese (if available), dry feta, or creamy goat cheese

Optional seasonings:

  • oregano (Mexican if available)
  • fresh marjoram
  • chipotle powder or pure red chile powder (New Mexican is ideal)

 

Place the fat of choice in the frying pan over medium-low heat. When the fat is hot add the onions and fry until the onions are very soft and translucent, about 12 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to fry another 2 minutes.

I would advise wearing an apron as the beans will splatter a bit until the cooking broth evaporates while frying.

Turn the heat up to medium and add 1 cup of the beans and some cooking broth. Begin mashing the beans with a bean masher, potato masher, or large fork. Move the beans around as you mash diligently until the beans resemble a coarse puree. Then add another cup of beans and broth and continue mashing as before. Repeat the same process with the remaining beans and broth while continuing to mash the beans until the mixture is the texture you prefer.

If you would like a smoother texture, remove the pan from the heat and blend with an immersion blender set on low speed until the bean puree is to your liking. Then return the pan to the heat and continue frying.

At this point you can stir in any of the optional seasonings if you like.

Using a heat proof silicone spoon is ideal for moving the puree around in the pan as you continue to fry. Be sure to continuously move the spoon around the edges and across the bottom of the pan as you fry, folding the puree over on top of itself as you continue frying. As the liquid evaporates the bean puree will begin to firm up. At this point taste the beans and add salt to taste being sure to stir in the salt throughout the mixture evenly.

Continue frying just until the bean puree has a sheen to it and releases from the sides and bottom of the pan nearly on its own as you move the beans from side to side of the pan. Total frying time will be 20 to 25 minutes from start to finish. Be careful not to over cook as the beans will firm up somewhat as they cool.

Once the beans are firmed to your liking move the puree to one side of the pan and tip into a serving platter.

Serving:

Scatter the cheese over the beans and serve. The interior of the beans will remain quite warm for quite a while for second helpings.

Delicious served along tortilla chips with drinks, included in a nachos platter, or as a side with many Mexican main courses.

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