I traveled to Croatia in October of last year.
I was only there for a total of ten days. I stayed put in Zadar, a small coastal town with a quirky, ancient appeal. The compact Old Town, over a thousand years old, is enclosed in stone walls, and the whole area is surrounded by the sea. It was a perfect spot for some R&R with friends, inexpensive boat rides to neighboring islands, and Alfred Hitchcocks’ favorite sunset in the world.
On the peninsula off of the Old Town, there’s the sea organ and the ‘Greeting to the Sun,’ two beautiful public art installations that visitors can enjoy for free. The sea organ is a series of pipes and steps directly on the ocean’s edge; the waves crash into and underneath the pipes, creating haunting organ sounds that sound like a choreographed symphony piece.
The ‘Greeting to the Sun’ is a collection of lights installed into the ground near the sea organ. The lights lie flat, built under the surface of the ground, so you can stand or jump on them. Beneath your feet, the lights change color and dance…it’s odd, because you feel a bit like you’re in an electro club, but you’re surrounded by ocean and the sounds of waves crashing into the organ! It’s the perfect accompaniment to one of Zadar’s famous sunsets.
Outside of the Old Town, the residential areas are great for a short walk or a bed and breakfast excursion. Most homes in Zadar have gardens instead of yards. Balconies and gated land are overflowing in flowers and fruits. In the home I was staying in, the owners’ garden was home to fig trees, olive trees, pepper plants, and grape vines. It’s easy to imagine eating well in Zadar, it would be delicious enough to live out of a local garden!
Zadar was beautiful, that’s for certain. It also hosts some fantastic vegan food options. Many restaurants offer simple pasta or rice dishes with grilled vegetables. The fruit is plentiful, and rich in flavor. Since olive oil reigns supreme here, it’s very easy to avoid butter in local restaurants. Everything is fresh, and tastes like vegan heaven.
My absolute favorite vegan option? It’s called ajvar sauce, a simple red bell pepper sauce you can find in any grocery store. I’d spread it on sandwiches, dip veggies in it, or mix it into hummus! So many options. And, on top of that, it’s easy to make at home!
I’ve tried a few recipes for ajvar sauce that I’ve found online. This, however, is my own recipe I cooked up after a little experimentation. It tastes most like the ajvar I had in Croatia. It brings up such fantastic memories!
Ajvar Sauce (Creamy Red Bell Pepper Sauce)
6 red bell peppers
2 medium eggplants
3 red or green chili peppers, diced, with seeds and stems removed
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup pickled garlic cloves, drained
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1. Slice red bell peppers in half, lengthwise. Remove stems, seeds, and white membranes. Place on a baking sheet, with the inside of the peppers facing down, and roast at 475°F for about 20 minutes, until the skins blister and are mostly black.
2. While the peppers cook, slice the eggplants lengthwise in half. Spread olive oil, one tablespoon or so at a time, onto the cut side of the four eggplant halves. Let the olive oil soak through, and add more olive oil, one tablespoon at a time. Do this once every few minutes while the peppers roast.
3. When the peppers are done, remove them from the baking sheet and put them in a bowl. Cover the bowl in plastic wrap, so the steam continues to cook the peppers. Place the olive-oil soaked eggplants onto the baking sheet, cut side down, and roast them at 475°. The eggplants will be finished in about 20 minutes, when the skins are blistering and are dark purple or black.
4. While the eggplants cook, sauté the diced chili peppers in a tablespoon of olive oil. Cook them until they are a bit caramelized and brown, about 10 minutes. Set aside in a small bowl.
5. When the eggplants are done cooking, remove them from the oven and set them aside. You can leave them on the pan, they don’t need to be steamed like the peppers.
6. Remove the skins from the peppers and put the insides into a food processor. Scoop out the insides of the eggplant and place these in the food processor, as well. Finally, add the chili peppers, garlic cloves, lemon juice, and vinegar. Blend until smooth.
Serve immediately with crackers or on a sandwich! The ajvar can keep in the fridge, covered, for about a week. It can also be frozen for a few months, thawed out in the refrigerator overnight for future use!
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Photo: Abbie Zulock