Lutenitza is a traditional Bulgarian relish that is often used as a spread with bread or toast, and may also be used as an accompaniment to foods such as grilled meats, meatballs, or even chips (fried potatoes). Variations of lutenitza, including ajvar and pindjur, are popular in the Balkan countries of Serbia and Macedonia. Traditionally lutenitza is prepared and stored in jars as a way of preserving surplus vegetables during the winter.
I first discovered lutenitza while browsing through the international foods section of our local Big Lots store. After noticing that it was made in Bulgaria and included ingredients that were similar to vegetables that I was already growing in the garden, I decided to give it a try. Although it is essentially a combination of vegetables (typically red bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and occasionally carrots) minced and mixed together, lutenitza has a distinctive taste derived from the grilling or roasting technique used to cook the vegetables and facilitate removal of their skins. Salt and sugar are usually added to enhance the overall flavor.
Actually making lutenitza is a rather labor intensive process but the delicious taste is well worth it, especially if you are able to make a fairly large quantity in advance and preserve it in suitable jars. Here is a good video that demonstrates the full process of making lutenitza.
The preparation procedure is generally described in the following steps:
1. Gather your vegetables. You will need red (ripe) bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplant (aubergines), and perhaps some carrots. There is no precise rule regarding the amounts or proportions; the video above suggests some quantities, but your actual amounts will likely depend on which ingredients you have on hand and how much of the final product you wish to make.
2. Slowly grill the peppers and eggplant over some type of flame (typically charcoal or gas), turning them around occasionally until all sides are fairly well charred and the skins begin to loosen.
3. When done, place the grilled vegetables in a covered dish and allow to cool. This could take up to an hour or so depending on the ambient temperature, but once they have cooled down enough to handle, you can remove the skins. You can also slice the vegetables and remove the seeds. It is difficult to remove all of the seeds from the eggplant, but with some practice you can usually take out most of them.
4. Mince the remainder of the grilled peppers and eggplant in a food processor and place in a large pot. Chop the tomatoes and carrots (if using) in the same fashion and add these to the pot as well. Some people also like to add a small amount of minced onion at this point.
5. Simmer the vegetable mixture over low to medium heat until it reaches the desired puree consistency suitable for jar storage. During this process, add small amounts of vegetable oil (traditionally this is sunflower oil, but canola or olive oil may also be used), salt, and sugar (some people substitute honey for sugar). The purpose of this step is to evaporate some of the tomato juice and help the flavors blend together.
6. After the desired consistency is reached, you can then spoon the finished lutenitza into jars. If you are planning to store the product for a long period of time, it is advisable to first sterilize the jars in a boiling water bath for at least 10 minutes after they have been filled and sealed. Otherwise, if you are planning to use your lutentiza within the next few days, you can simply store the jars in the refrigerator until needed.
Lutenitza has many potential culinary uses in addition to the traditional favorites. I have actually used it as a sauce for adding to stir-fried chicken and vegetables, which can then be served with noodles, rice, or couscous. I have also used it as a condiment for hamburgers, which has turned out to be a particularly tasty alternative to the usual mayonnaise, mustard, or ketchup that are more commonly used with this American classic. If you are able to make homemade bread, you can break off a piece and dip it in a bowl of lutenitza for a very simple but filling snack.
Another idea that I have thought of but not yet tried is to use lutenitza as a substitute for spaghetti sauce in the old spaghetti and meatballs dinner. Garlic bread and a salad (with tomatoes and lettuce from the garden) could serve as the side portions. Perhaps the best use for lutenitza, however, is to convert extra vegetables into a tasty and nutritious product that can be enjoyed for a long time after it is made.