Ajvar (Roasted Red Pepper Spread)
The key to this recipe is not to be shy about blackening the skins of the peppers. Underneath the blackened skins, the peppers become tender and silky -- that's the secret to ajvar's distinctive texture.
Serves 6 to 8 as a starter
10 to 12 red bell peppers
1 large eggplant (roughly 1 1/2 pounds)
3 to 6 cloves of garlic, depending on taste
1/4 cup olive oil, divided; additional oil to finish dish
A few splashes of white vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste
Dried red chili flakes and basil leaves, optional
Preheat oven to broil. Halve each pepper, discarding stems and seeds. Place peppers, cut side down, on an old baking sheet or one lined with foil.
Cut eggplant in half lengthwise and score with a knife, drizzle it with about 2 tablespoons olive oil and a little salt and place it on a second baking sheet.
Place one of the oven racks roughly 3 to 4 inches below the heat; place peppers on this rack. The eggplant should sit on a lower rack.
Broil the peppers and eggplant, turning the peppers occasionally until they are well roasted on all sides, roughly 15 to 20 minutes. The eggplant may be done first; if so, remove it and set it aside to cool. (You can also use an outdoor grill to cook the peppers and eggplant.)
When you remove the peppers from the oven, place them in a bowl, sprinkle them with a little water, and cover with a clean dishcloth. This step steams and lifts the skins, making it easy to peel the peppers once they've cooled. (Another method to loosen skins is to place the peppers in a glass bowl and cover with plastic wrap until the peppers have cooled.)
Use an ice-cream scoop to remove the pulp of the eggplant, leaving the skin behind. Discard the thickest seeds, but don't get nit-picky. Put eggplant in a food processor with about 2 tablespoons olive oil and 3 or 4 smashed garlic cloves. Pulse the eggplant a few times so that it's chopped with the other ingredients but not totally pureed. Remove the eggplant to a serving bowl.
Once peppers are cool enough to handle, peel them with your fingers or a knife. Add peppers to the food processor and pulse 5 to 8 times to chop coarsely. Mix the peppers with the eggplant puree, season to taste with salt, pepper, a splash of vinegar and a shake of dried chili flakes, if you like. Smooth the surface of the ajvar with a spatula.
If you wish, garnish it with more finely diced garlic and a few scattered basil leaves. Serve ajvar with toasted bread slices drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt.
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