Pastas & Pizzas
Ajvar is a traditional roasted red pepper sauce/ puree favored throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, with regional variations across Lebanon, Syria, the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East. Ajvar is served with grilled meats, fish, kabobs, mezze plates, or just slathered onto a warmed pita bread.
Ajvar is a simplified Muhammara (see Recipe here),either of which I like to keep on hand to jazz up those meals that beg for a flavor boost.
Ajvar is available in in Greek and Middle Eastern shops and online, through rarely found on supper market shelves. So why not prepare Ajvar at home. The ingredients are all readily available and the recipe that follows will walk you through the process. Preparing the peppers and eggplant may seem a bit tedious, but it is all well worth the effort I assure you. The slightly sweet and smoky aroma wafting throughout the kitchen will be enough to spur you onward with the tasks at hand.
Putting up a jar freshly made Ajvar is one of those cook’s moments, a raison d’etre if you will and, I have to say, what makes cookery so compelling.
So, with that thought in mind let’s get cooking!
makes 1 quart
- olive oil as needed
- 4 ripe red bell peppers
- 1 ripe red jalapeno chile
- 1 medium eggplant
- 5 large garlic cloves, skin on
- 2 tablespoons unfiltered apple cider vinegar
- 2 teaspoons sea salt + more to taste
Rub the bell peppers, jalapeno, eggplant, and garlic with olive oil and place on a large baking tray.
Place the tray of vegetables under the preheated broiler and broil until the skins on the peppers, jalapeno, and eggplant blister and are are charred in spots. Turn all the vegetables and continue broiling. Remove the garlic as soon as it is lightly colored and set aside.
Continue broiling the reaming vegetables until all sides are charred and blistered.
Transfer all the broiled vegetables to a large bowl and seal tightly with cling film and set aside to cool.
When the vegetables are cool enough to handle you are going to peel away the charred skins and discard them. As tempting as it may be, do not rinse the vegetables under the tap as you work. Doing so will only wash away the flavor you have created during the broiling process.
Likewise be sure to reserve all the juices from the roasting pan as well as the juices collected as you remove the seeds from the peppers, chile, and eggplant. All these flavorsome juices will be added back into Ajvar later.
Cut the bell peppers and jalapeno in half. Remove all the seeds and membranes and discard them. Tear the bell peppers into strips lengthwise and place them in the work bowl of a food processor along with the peeled eggplant.
In a small bowl combine the jalapeno, peeled garlic, salt, and vinegar and mash together with a wooden spoon to form a paste and set aside.
Begin pulsing the peppers and eggplant in the processor until the mixture looks like a coarse puree.
Stop the machine and spoon the garlic chile mixture on top of the red pepper puree and pulse until the mixture begins to smooth out.
Place a wide nonstick fry pan over medium low heat and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is hot add the Ajvar puree to the pan and stir for several minutes. Then add any reserved juices and stir them into the puree continue to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time to avoid any scorching.
Taste and add salt if needed.
Transfer the Ajvar to a sterilized jar and cool to room temperature. Add a thin layer of olive oil on top of the Ajvar and seal tightly with a lid and refrigerate.
The Ajvar will keep in the refrigerator for at least a month or more.
Serve as suggested as well as with j sandwiches, pasta, tacos or anything else that comes to mind.
I used to make some stellar Thai basil pesto variations when I was living in in Thailand. But Thai basil is hard to find here in the US unless you’re lucky enough to have an Asian grocery store near by.
By all means use Thai basil if it is available for the recipe that follows. There are two varieties to look for. Thai sweet basil has pointed bright green aromatic leaves with a hint of anise and an after note e of cinnamon. Thai holly basil leaves are a deep green or sometimes reddish purple leaves with an earthy peppery flavor. Both variegates are distinctly more assertive in flavor than broad leaf Italian basil.
If Thai basil is not available, just adapt and diversify, which is how this recipe evolved. The secret to Thai food’s popularity is a cleaver one. Most Thai dishes include all five elements of taste, those being salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami (savory) flavors in one dish which is pure genius. It’s no wonder why Thai food is so loved. With that concept in mind I used readily available broad leaf Italian basil along with some hot jalapenos from south of the border, some Thai fish sauce, lime juice, cashews (abundant in Thailand) and you end up with a Thai- americano pesto!
This is a pesto you will want to add to your repertoire. A dollop added to almost any savory dish will have it bursting with all the flavors of a Thai- americano mash up.
Pictured is Thai..americano Peato served on toasted bread strips atop a salad of baby arugula, pickled beets and hard cooked eggs, and shaved aged provolone cheese.
Thai…americano Pesto Makes about 1 ½ cups
- 3 cups fresh torn broad leaf Italian basil leaves, or Thai basil if available
- 2 tablespoon minced garlic
- 3 to 4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 or 2 jalapeno chiles, seeded and diced
- ½ cup chopped cashews
- ¾ teaspoon sea salt + more to taste
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce +more to taste
- ¼ teaspoon sugar
- ¼ cup olive oil
- cold water as needed for thinning
Place the basil leaves, garlic, 3 tablespoons lime juice, jalapeno chiles, cashews, ¾ teaspoon of salt, fish sauce, and sugar in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the ingredients are broken down into a coarse paste.
Scrape down the sides of the work bowl. Turn the machine on and pour the olive oil into the feed tube and continue to run the machine until all the oil is incorporated.
Stop the machine and taste the pesto and add additional salt and fish sauce to taste. If the pesto needs thinning, turn the machine on and add 1 tablespoon of cold water at a time until you reach the desired consistency.
Transfer the pesto to a nonreactive container, cover, and refrigerate.
The pesto can be served chilled or at room temperature with endless applications.
Listed are additional pesto recipes that I have posted over the years to to expand your pesto repertoire for freezing for later use during the winter months.
Fresh Sweet Italian Basil Pesto (see here)
Pesto alla Siciliana & Pesto Trapanese (see here)
Spinach Pesto with Pancetta (see here)
Pomegranate Glazed Pork Loin with Pistachio Pesto (see here)
Pesto Diverso (see here)
In Italian capelli d’angelo con asparagi e limone has such a lovely melodic lilt to it that conjures up sun drenched plates of pasta bursting with all the essential fresh flavors of a summery pasta served up in the Italian countryside. Italians have such a lovely way with food that deliciously captures elegance in simplicity.
This is a very simple dish to prepare and an ideal way to take full advantage of summer’s farm to table garden fresh herbs and produce. I have included chicken in this recipe, but is entirely optional. This is a pasta that shines either way.
Angel Hair with Asparagus, Lemon, and Fresh Herbs Serves 4
- 2 plump chicken breasts, poached (optional)
- 12 oz organic young asparagus stalks, trimmed, steamed, and cut into 2 inch pieces
- 6 oz dry angel hair pasta
- 1/3 cup good quality Italian olive oil
- 2 lemons, zest and juice
- ¾ cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled, thinly sliced lengthwise, and again crosswise
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 3 tablespoons thinly sliced Italian parsley leaves
- 2 tablespoons whole baby mint leaves
- wild rocket (arugula) leaves
If you plan to include poached chicken in the recipe prepare it in advance. Fill a medium sauce pan three quarters full of water. Bring water to a full boil, add a teaspoon of salt, and put the breasts in the pot. Bring back to a boil, lower to a simmer and cook about 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, cover with a lid, and set aside for 30 minutes. Then transfer breasts to a bowl to cool. When cool enough to handle, pull the meat apart into bite size strips. Place in a bowl, cover with cooking broth, and set aside, or cover and refrigerate for later use.
Likewise steam the asparagus in advance. Place the trimmed asparagus in a steamer tray, cover and steam until the asparagus is tender, but not limp. Allow to cool, then cut into 2 inch pieces and set aside.
Place a stock pot three quarters full of water on the stove over high heat and bring to a full boil. Lower the heat to a low simmer and hold until you are ready to cook the pasta.
While the water is heating combine the olive oil, about three quarters of the lemon juice, and the Parmigiano in a mixing bowl. Whisk until well combined and the cheese is incorporated. Taste and season with salt and pepper, and more lemon juice if needed to taste. Set aside.
When ready to cook the pasta turn the heat back up to high. When the water reaches a rolling boil add a tablespoon of salt. Stir and add the angel hair. Stir until the pasta separates and floats freely in the boiling water. Cook about 8 to 10 minutes, stirring now and again, until the pasta is al dente. Drain the pasta in a colander just before you are ready to combine it with the sauce .
Place a large skillet over medium heat and add the butter. Once the butter is melted and bubbling add the garlic and saute 1 minute. Then add the poached chicken and saute 3 minutes. Add the asparagus and toss. Reduce the heat to low and pour the olive oil lemon juice cheese sauce over all and toss 1 minute. Add the drained pasta and toss until evenly coated with sauce. Add the parsley, mint leaves, about a tablespoon of lemon zest, and toss until well to combined. Taste and season as needed.
Transfer the pasta to a large serving bowl or individual pasta plates. Try to arrange most of the asparagus on top of the pasta. Place wild rocket on top in the center, add some lemon zest and serve! The pasta needn’t be piping hot. Warm rather than hot brings out the freshness of the combined flavors.
Just a mention of meatballs and spaghetti is probably going to conjure up a flashback to one of those cafeteria lunch offerings we would all rather forget from our childhood. And of course most of us didn’t have an Italian Nona to cook for us, so we were left with the next best option, the ubiquitous Italian American restaurant versions of meatballs and spaghetti which were just often delicious enough to keep us coming back.
Fortunately, the true glories of meatballs have surfaced in nearly every culture and cuisine throughout the ages. From China’s Qin Dynasty, the Romans, the Persians, and of course the modern day Italian’s cuisine we are all familiar with today.
The recipe that follows does not stray far from the wisdom of the Italian Nona. My one exception is making the meatballs larger than the smaller traditional Italian “polpettes”. I much prefer the tender juiciness of these meatballs that are slowly simmered in a simple traditional “passata” tomato sauce. Serve them as they are or with pasta along with a beautiful crisp salad and you have a perfect pairing for simple meal for any season.
Meatballs…(Basics) makes twelve 2 ½ oz meatballs
- 1 pound/ 455 g best quality ground beef
- 1 pound/ 455 g lean ground pork
- 2 thin slices pancetta, minced
- ½ cup dry breadcrumbs
- 3 tablespoons whole milk
- 1 ½ cups grated Parmigiano-Regiano
- 1 small onion, minced (about ¾ cup)
- 2 small garlic cloves, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
- ½ cup finely chopped Italian parsley leaves
- 1 extra large organic egg, whisked
- ¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
- 1 ½ teaspoons flaked sea salt + more to taste
- 1 cup flour
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Passata tomato sauce
- 3 bay leaves
In a large mixing bowl combine the ground beef, ground pork, and minced pancetta. Toss with your hands until well combined and set aside.
In a small mixing bowl combine the bread crumbs and milk. Set aside for 5 minutes and then squeeze out the excess milk.
In a medium bowl combine the milk soaked bread crumbs, 1 cup grated Parmegiano-Reggiano, minced onion, minced garlic, chopped parsley, whisked egg, ground pepper, pepper flakes, and sea salt. Toss the ingredients together until well combined. Then scatter the mixture over the ground meats and pancetta.
Using your hands, toss all the ingredients together until they are completely combined. Cover the mixture with cling film and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Once the chilled meatball mixture has firmed up, remove from the fridge, and weigh out 12 2 oz portions. Roll each portion gently between the palms of your hands until uniformly rounded. Do not over compress the mixture as you roll the meatballs. The less densely compacted they are the more tender and juicy they will be when cooked.
Gently roll each meatball in the flour until evenly coated. Shake off excess flour and place the meatballs on a tray. Cover the filled tray with cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes. This will firm up the meatballs so they retain their shape while browning them.
Preheat the oven to 350 F/ 180 C
Remove the chilled meatballs from the fridge. Place the olive oil in a wide shallow braising pan or oven proof skillet set over medium heat. When the oil is nearly smoking add half of the meatballs to the pan and cook them until evenly browned on all sides. When done remove the meatballs and set them aside on a platter while you brown the remaining meatballs.
Once all the meatballs are browned, pour most of the oil out of the pan and remove any remaining bits left in the pan using a paper towel. The pan should look fairly clean. Add a bit more fresh oil if necessary.
Return the browned meatballs to the braising pan and pour the preheated “passata” tomato sauce into the pan until it nearly covers the meatballs leaving just the tops exposed. Tuck the bay leaves into the sauce and transfer the pan to the oven. The braising can also be done on the stove top if an oven is not an option.
After 30 minutes open the oven door, turn the pan, and add more sauce if needed. Return the pan to the oven for another 30 minutes. When finished the sauce should have thickened somewhat and the tops of the meatballs nicely glazed.
If you are serving the meatballs on a bed of pasta as pictured, have the pasta cooked al dente and ready for serving as soon as the meatballs come out of the oven.
Serving: Place the pasta on individual plates and top with 3 meatballs per serving. Spoon sauce over the pasta and a little over the meatballs. Top each meatball with the remaining grated Parmegiano-Reggiano and serve.
“Passata” Tomato Sauce:
- 2 24 oz bottles or cartons of Italian passata tomato sauce (Mutti brand is very good)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 ½ to 2 teaspoons sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- a pinch of sugar
- ½ teaspoon ground red chile (optional)
- chicken stock as needed
“Passata” describes a process where vine ripe Roma tomatoes are passed through a food mill and then cooked. The process removes the seeds and skin from the tomatoes and once cooked makes a simple tomato sauce with just a few added ingredients.
I highly recommend using imported passata. There are several brands available. Mutti is my favorite and makes a beautiful sauce bursting with flavor.
Place a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the olive oil and when nearly smoking pour in the passata and stir. Once the sauce comes back to a boil lower the heat to a simmer. Stir in the salt, black pepper, sugar, and chile powder if using. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time. Add hot chicken stock if the sauce needs thinning.
Keep the sauce warm on the stove top to add to the meatballs for braising or for saucing pasta before serving.
You will most likely have left over sauce which you can freeze for later use.