Fresno’s two most prominent ethnic groups are Hispanics and Armenians. We have no prior experience with Armenian food, but I was intrigued by the big jar of bright red stuff I found on a shelf at Whole Foods along with other jarred spreads. It was labeled “Ajvar,” and “Hot,” and the brand name was “ZerGut,” which Michael assures me is not German but which sounds like the German words for “very good.” So after looking at it on the shelf for a number of weeks, I bought it and decided we would try it. It is an eggplant spread – the second ingredient is sugar – and there are a respectable number of red peppers in it. It’s a stunning bright red-orange color. It wasn’t actually made in Armenia but in Turkey, and Michael found results on the web that led him to think that it was Macedonian, but I figure there’s eggplant spreads from there to India, and if I’m one country over, it probably means the grandmothers just make it with at least one difference substantive to the people in either country. This is sort of like the two different older women at the Aphrodite market in Arlington who both told me, on two successive visits to the store, the only proper way to make tabouli. One was Bulgarian and one was Lebanese. They both said, “Now the Lebanese/Bulgarians, they’ll tell you a different way, but this is the Bulgarian/Lebanese way, which is the real way to make it…”
So home we came with our ajvar, and since it was heavy with red peppers, I decided I would use it in some Mexican application. We made black bean tacos, and instead of putting salsa on them, we spread the fried corn tortillas thickly with ajvar before putting the beans and other toppings in. They look very dramatic with the red spread against the black beans and yellow tortilla.
They were good. It didn’t occur to me until we were eating that the incorporation of ingredients reflected the mix of populations in this strange place we’re living. If I had some Armenian cheese, we could have struck a better balance between the ethnicities – and I’m sure there’s someplace in Fresno where I can get Armenian cheese. If you can find some Ajvar in an ethnic market where you are, give it a try.
For the beans:
oil for the pan
2 c. dry black beans, soaked 8 hours or overnight and drained
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic
1 chipotle chili, minced
1/2 t. cayenne pepper
Saute the onions until almost translucent, then add the garlic, chipotle chili, and cayenne pepper. Place the beans in the pot. Add water to cover plus an inch or so. If using a pressure cooker, bring to pressure and cook for 25 minutes. Otherwise, cover the pot, bring the beans to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook until tender, which may take a couple hours. When tender, drain and season with:
salt and pepper
hot sauce if they need it
While the beans are cooking, fry corn tortillas in oil for the tacos. Two taco-loving people can easily go through a dozen tortillas with this recipe. Corn oil gives the best flavor, but since I don’t usually have it in the house, I use canola oil. Use a small frying pan, slightly larger than the diameter of the tortillas, and cover the bottom with a puddle of oil. Heat it over slightly higher than medium heat, and fry the tortillas one at a time, turning once, just until they lose their dull color. A pair of forceps-style tongs (not salad tongs) or a small metal spatula is the best tool for this. As you remove the tortillas from the pan, let the oil drain off of them, then place them on a plate with folded paper towling between them. Once they’re fried, you can cover the plate with foil and pop them in a 200 degree oven to keep warm.
For these tacos, we used just lettuce and shredded sharp cheddar cheese as toppings. Assemble the tacos by warming a small bowl of ajvar in the microwave, spreading it on the tortilla, then topping with beans, cheese, and lettuce.