It is one of those family recipes that have seen a lot and are rightfully qualified to be called heirloom.
Mom picked it up while Dad was stationed in Moldavia. By definition, a spicy paste of hot red peppers, garlic, herbs, and spices that takes its origin in the Caucasus region, it was ingeniously cooked up by Moldovans into a vegetable-based sauce to accommodate their ample harvests of tomatoes and sweet peppers. The only ingredient they didn’t dare touch (I am guessing to keep the name strings attached) was the hot pepper.
Over the years, as our family grew and change, so did the recipe to reflect those changes. When Dad decided go his separate way back to Moldavia decades later, he took all the spiciness out of this recipe with him. There was no more need for hot peppers, and Mom turned the sauce into a vegetable stew that she canned every fall and served all through the winter as an extra vitamin boost.
After the four of us grew up and left the house to pursue the lives and dreams of our own, there was no more need for adzhika, and the recipe lay dormant until just the other day when Mom and I stumbled across cute, little sweet peppers at a local farmer’s market. Beautiful red, yellow, and orange, they were asking to cook them up into a seasonal dish just as colorful.
“Honey, let’s make adzhika? Does Kevin like spicy? Do you feel like canning? Where can I find hot peppers?” she went off without a warning.
Before I had a chance to provide any kind of feedback on any of the issues touched upon in Mom’s rhetoric questioning spree, she started loading up on the sweet peppers that were part of the recipe as well.
“Well, Mom, Kevin loves spicy. I live to can for the moment. So, yes, let’s make adzhika. Where can you find hot peppers? Good question. What do they look like?”
I might as well have been talking to myself. Mom was already on the other side of the store, rummaging through a basket with spicy habaneros.
“She read the sign!” I rejoiced.
The weird way Mom and Nicole are communicating these days is starting to tell! Nicole perfectly understands Russian but prefers to express herself only in English whereas Mom mostly guesses what she says in English and replies strictly in Russian. I simply walk away when things start getting lost in translation and let them work it out among themselves because one needs to learn Russian to keep her heritage alive and the other needs to pick up enough English to get by alone.
The confidence and determination with which she, unfamiliar with these small, bell-shaped South American peppers, was picking them up, sizing them up, and throwing them into a grocery bag was also telling me that not only was she ready to revamp the family’s old recipe but she was also nicely adjusting to a brand-new life in a brand-new country now that she’d come for good.
I smiled and rubbed my hands.
There is no better time to make adzhika than in early fall when the season’s bounty of tomatoes on the vine, sweet peppers, apples besides Granny Smith and Red Delicious, and fresh carrots is so easily accessible. It is super easy to make and, if you don’t plan on canning it for long-term consumption, it will hold up in the fridge just fine for a couple of months.
Oh, and the things you can pair it with! The only one Kevin hasn’t experimented with yet is probably his favorite Bluebell Neapolitan ice cream. Otherwise, it complements greatly meat, poultry, fish and shellfish, pasta, grains, tacos, fajitas, etc.
Although I am trying to phase spicy out of my diet due to a medical condition, the other day I simply couldn’t hold back from chomping down my homemade adzhika on slices of roasted sweet potatoes with black beans, sour cream, and cilantro leaves. We had company over that day, and, although these appetizers didn’t go missing way before the party was over, each guest wanted to take some home with them. I guess, for the road. Or a midnight craving. Or tomorrow’s lunch. These easy to make, healthy, and satisfying bite-size snacks will deliver their best for any of those occasions.
P.S. To roast potatoes, preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Slice unpeeled sweet potatoes ½ inch thick, and place in a single layer on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Roast until browned on bottoms, 30 to 35 minutes.
Adapted from the October 2012 issue of Martha Stewart Living.
Recipe for Moldovan Adzhika:
1. 11.5 pounds (5 kilograms) ripe tomatoes on the vine
2. 10 large sweet peppers, seeded
3. 12 heads of garlic, peeled
4. 10-12 hot peppers, seeded
5. 1.1 pounds (500 grams) apples, seeded and cut into quarters
6. 1.1 pounds (500 grams) carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
7. 1 ¼ cups (300 grams) sunflower oil
1. Using a food grinder or a food processor, grind tomatoes, both peppers, garlic, apples, and carrots into a fine paste.
2. Pour into a heavy duty saucepan, add sunflower oil, and mix well.
3. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.
4. Reduce heat and simmer for 4 hours.
5. 30 minutes before adzhika is done, add salt to taste.
6. Ladle into sterilized jars and process according to manufacturer’s instructions.
7. Label and store in pantry for up to 1 year.
1. You can use any kind of hot pepper for this recipe. If you opt to go with habaneros, please keep in mind that this type of chili pepper is extremely hot and you should always use care when handling them. Read more on handling habaneros here.
2. I used 4 habaneros for half the recipe.