Not to worry: my kitchen has not split into warring factions. I just happened to be at Big Lots! [or, as some stores’ signage reads, Big! Lots (formerly Pic ‘N’ Save)] earlier today, poking around to see if they had any more jars of Macedonian Lutenitza, as one often does on a Tuesday. And that’s when it happened.
Let me back up a minute. Back in the ’50s, in Culver City, California (not far from where I live), a guy named William Zimmerman put together a chain of stores that specialized in overruns and closeouts, and called it Pic ‘N’ Save. Later, as the chain expanded — overexpanded, as it turns out — they redubbed themselves MacFrugal’s, and were purchased in 2002 by Consolidated Stores Corp., who converted the locations they kept open to their pre-existing brand, Big Lots! (and ultimately renamed the entire business Big Lots, Inc., which currently trades on the NYSE with the symbol BIG). While most of the merchandise in these stores is off-brand or otherwise out of favour (see picture below), they occasionally bring in weird little items that magically appear — and then just as magically disappear. So it was with my introduction to Macedonian Lutenitza.
Lutenitza (also known variously as ljutenica, lyutenitsa, or lutenica, plus a dazzling variety of Cyrillic-alphabet spellings) is a type of salsa/sauce/relish widely made throughout Bulgaria, Serbia, and Macedonia. Its basic ingredients are tomatoes, red peppers, aubergines (eggplant), vegetable oil, sugar, and salt, though variants also contain onions, carrots, garlic, and black pepper, among other things. Like salsa, everybody’s grandmother makes “the best,” and family recipes are handed down as prized possessions. I’m sure my Bulgarian friends — if I had any — would blanch at the idea of buying commercial lutenitza, but heck, I didn’t even know about it until a week ago. [Note to self: Make some Bulgarian friends.]
While lutenitza itself is entirely vegan, it’s served on meats, fish, breads, roasted vegetables, French fries, and pretty much anything that doesn’t move. Some versions are apparently hotter than others, but if you make your own — which I’m guessing you’ll probably have to do, unless you have a Balkan grocery (or Big Lots!) in your area — you can adjust spices to taste. This recipe, courtesy of rhubarbfool.co.uk, looks like it would match up pretty closely to the one in the bottle I have, except it would seem that this commercial version has upped the pepper and carrot content in favour of using aubergine, and he uses olive oil rather than a more neutral one such as canola.
Lutenitza –- Bulgarian Vegetable Relish
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
1 onion, diced
1 medium aubergine, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 large roasted red peppers, skin and seeds removed and then diced
1 400g (14 oz.) can chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon dried thyme (or summer savory if you have it)
2 tablespoons sugar
salt and pepper to taste
Take a medium sized saucepan and fry the onions, carrots and aubergines in the olive oil until soft. Add the red peppers and fry for a further 2-3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and seasoning, bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Add a little water if the mixture seems too dry. Mash some of the mixture using a potato masher. You are aiming for a thick ratatouille type texture. Spoon into a clean preserving jar, cool, seal and refrigerate. Makes about 1 kg/2 lb.
If, however, you plan on making it the old fashioned way — which is to say in bulk to put up for winter — this video, which calls for an astonishing 8kg (nearly 18 lbs.) of tomatoes, might serve you better, as might this video, featuring the “Sexy Chef,” Liz Todorova.
More on lutenitza’s cousins, ajvar and pinjur, in a later post. Do come back.