Our friend Mircea is from Moldova and he was the first to prepare cevapi with ayvar sauce for us. He brought over a mixture of meat, onions, lots of garlic and parsley, formed them around skewers and cooked them on the grill. He also made a sauce that was so delicious we kept the leftovers and referred to it as “Mitch sauce” after our friend. It wasn’t until I saw a couple of pins on Pinterest that I found out that these delights had names other than “kebab” and “red pepper sauce”, albeit in slightly different form.
Cevapi (che-vap’-ee) exists in some form or another all over Southeastern Europe and is related to the kebabs of minced meat served in Turkey and Iran that Mitch originally served to us (Wiki). The recipes for cevapi that I came across were typically shaped like breakfast sausages, about the size of a finger. I formed mine a bit larger, and I also formed some into patties. To be honest, I don’t know if the shape is important (like pasta). I do know that if you like a bold, robust burger, you’ll probably like cevapi with their strong onion and garlic flavor. You can mix and match the meat to suit your tastes. I chose a mixture of pork and beef, but ground lamb is also used.
Ayvar sauce is made from roasted eggplant, red pepper and garlic. It can be used as a condiment, like ketchup, or as a sauce over pasta or rice. It can even be used as a spread over bread or crackers. Ayvar (or ajvar, I’ve seen variations in the spelling) can be sweet or hot depending on the type of peppers and the amount of garlic used. I’ve made it with raw garlic and with roasted garlic and I like the mellowness of the roasted garlic better, but our Moldovan friends couldn’t get enough of the version I made with the raw garlic.
I used this recipe from Choosy Beggars for the cevapi. The baking soda helps tenderize the meat. All this meaty goodness deserves a great tasting condiment, doesn’t it? That’s where the ayvar sauce comes in. Check out this post from Jules’ Fuel for the recipe I used. (I encourage you to check out her website. It’s full of great information on nutrition, exercise and eating for health).
- 1 medium eggplant (about a pound or half kilo)
- 2 medium red bell peppers
- 2 - 3 cloves garlic, minced (3 cloves of raw garlic is too sharp for me, but 3 cloves roasted garlic is great)
- juice of half a lemon
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) extra virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 lb (500g) ground beef
- 1 lb (500g) ground pork
- 1 medium onion diced fine (about ¾ cup)
- 3 - 4 cloves garlic, diced fine (about ¼ cup) or 3 - 4 cloves roasted garlic, smashed
- ½ cup parsley, large stems discarded, leaves finely chopped
- ¼ cup (60ml) hot tap water
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 450°F/230°C or heat the grill
- Prick the eggplant in several places.
- I put the vegetables directly on the oven rack, but you can put them on cookie sheets.
- If you want to roast the garlic, cut the top of a garlic bulb off to expose the cloves and drizzle with some olive oil. Wrap the bulb in aluminum foil. It will take about 30 minutes for the cloves to soften. Keep an eye on it so the garlic doesn't burn, and remove it early if necessary. Burnt garlic = very bitter.
- Roast the eggplant and peppers for about 30 - 45 minutes. Turn them once or twice while they're roasting.
- The vegetables are ready when the skins have blistered and the flesh has softened somewhat. The eggplant will actually collapse a little bit. It's easier to peel the skins if they are blistered but not charred (ask me how I know...)
- Remove the vegetables from the oven or grill and cover them with a large towel.
- When they are cool enough to handle, cut the eggplant in half and scoop out the flesh. Place it into a large bowl or food processor.
- Peel the skin from the peppers and remove the seeds and stems. Add them to the eggplant.
- Add the garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and salt and pepper.
- Pulse in the food processor or use an immersion blender to mix everything together until it's nice and smooth. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper as needed.
- Dissolve the baking soda in the hot water and set aside
- Place the ground beef in the bottom of your largest mixing bowl.
- Distribute the onions, garlic, salt and pepper and parsley over top the beef.
- Place the ground pork over top.
- Give everything a gentle mix, then pour in the baking soda and water. Mix well, but stop when you feel everything is evenly distributed.
- Place the cevapi mix in the refrigerator and allow the flavors to meld for at least four hours. (It will keep a couple days, but transfer it to a sealed container unless you like to smell garlic whenever you open the refrigerator door 😉 )
- When ready to cook, allow the grill to heat while you shape the cevapi. I use a meatball size portion and form it into a sausage shape. The smaller, breakfast sausage size doesn't work well on my grill, so I make mine a little larger.
- Grill the cevapi until cooked through. The time is dependent on the size of the cevapi.
Serve the cevapi with the ayvar sauce, some sour cream and some pickles (Mitch tells us his mother always serves some sort of pickle). Potato wedges are an excellent accompaniment and are delicious with the ayvar sauce. I hope you enjoy a little taste of the Balkans.
While planning this post, it occurred to me that both cevapi and ayvar are perfect candidates for making in batches and freezing for later. I imagine you could can ayvar like you would ketchup if you had access to a pressure canner, otherwise freezing would be your best option for preserving large quantities. If you’re not tempted to cook in bulk, the recipes are simple to scale up or down depending upon your family’s needs. No matter the quantity, both recipes are perfect for preparing on the grill, so you can avoid heating up your kitchen. If using skewers form the meat around the stick and build them up until they have the desired size.
UPDATE Jan 2016: This has been a popular post and I’ve wanted to update it for awhile. When I first wrote it we were still living in the US and had access to a grill. Nowadays I use a grill pan and roasted peppers from a jar for convenience. I don’t bother forming the cevapi around skewers, either. The photo of the cevapi on the grill and the photo below are from the original post. At the time the fashion was to put titles in frames. I remember fussing to get the 3D effect that way I wanted it. 🙂