This story begins with a gigantic bucket of red peppers on a sunny fall day. The bucket was supposed to weigh 11 lbs (as my mom advised me), but in fact the bag ended up being 25 lbs. You know how the farmers market has these big buckets of bumper crop at the end of the season, the produce is usually at a good price and is perfect for canning and winter storing. That is what I ended up buying for $13 and I didn’t realize the weight of the bucket until I got home. Oh, well...what is a girl to do in this situation...I tried staring at the pile of peppers hoping that my stare will reduce the amount in half, but it didn’t work. So, as the Americans say, “the more, the merrier”.
The story then continues with me trying to start the coal grill, which for some reason decided not to cooperate with me on the day I had to roast 25 lbs of peppers. After 30 minute struggle and a step by step phone tutorial from a friend, I managed to get the stubborn grill going. After this success I put my plan in order and estimated that I will be done grilling all the peppers in about an hour. The grill had other plans though and it got its revenge on me by making the process 4.5 hours long. Phew!
As you are reading you are probably wondering why on earth I am doing all this work. Well, the story goes back many, many years ago to the time when I was a young girl back with my family in my hometown of Sofia. It was another sunny fall day and my mom, sister and I would go on several trips to the farmers market and buy (what back then looked to me like) at least 200 lbs of peppers. Of course we didn’t buy that many peppers, but the bags seemed sooooooo heavy and the trips soooooo long. Then the whole family will be organized into a mini factory line – roasting, cleaning, grinding, chopping, mixing, jar filling and sterilizing. The end product was Lutentitsa. I remember how tired I would be after the intense long process but we had to keep going otherwise the peppers will get spoiled (back in the 80’s we didn’t have freezers in Bulgaria and those European refrigerators were of miniature sizes). The best part of the day, at this point night, was a chilled watermelon that we ate when we were done – at about midnight. I remember the fragrant aroma coming from the heavy watermelon slice with juices running all over my hand and along my arm. I didn’t care, I was about to bite into the crisp juicy flesh and enjoy it with my eyes closed. What a nice prize for all that hard work.
Everyone made Lutenitsa when I was younger. All of my friends will have those family canning days, especially in the fall when the nature’s abundance is so great. But what stuck with me the most was the smell of the roasted peppers. The charred sweet aroma would fill the air and it could be sensed all over the city. Every family, every balcony had a pepper grill (chushkopek) and it would be used with great pride every summer and fall.
Lutenitsa to Bulgarians, my dear American friends, is what peanut butter is to you. It is spread on breakfast toast and enjoyed as a snack or a party/appetizer bite.
Back to my story and the present day. I always missed Lutenitsa, not just any Lutenitsa, but my mom’s Lutenitsa. It is the best! It is chunky and sweet (not from sugar but pureed carrots) and with tons of parsley. I liked my mom’s Lutenitsa so much when I was younger that I always wished we would make more...it never seemed enough. And as people say, be careful what you wish for. Life has its own ways of giving us what we want. In my case, it came as a misjudged 25 pounder bucket of peppers.
Spread on the love, my friends, and enjoy Lutenitsa as Bulgarians do, on a piece of crusty bread with some butter, feta or soft goat cheese.
To my mom, with all my love!
• 8-10 16oz jars with screw on lids
• 1 large pot (at least 7” deep)
Makes about 8-10 16oz jars
• 10-11 pounds (25-30 peppers) of sweet red peppers
• 6 medium carrots, peeled and sliced in half
• 2 sticks of celery, sliced in four
• 1 cup parsley, chopped
• 18oz (1 medium + 1 small cans) tomato paste
• 1.5 tsp salt
• 3/4 cup olive oil
• 1/2 tblsp balsamic or red wine vinegar (optional)
Wash and dry the jars.
Preheat your grill to 400 F.
Wash the peppers and remove the stems and seeds. Keep the peppers whole, do not slice them. If you prefer you can roast the peppers with the stems and seeds and remove them later*. Grill the peppers in batches until evenly charred on all sides. Place and keep the roasted peppers in a large metal pot with a lid and keep the lid on through the entire grilling process (this is an important step because it will allow the peppers to steam which will make their skin easier to remove later). When done grilling, place the pot with roasted peppers aside.
Place carrots and celery in a medium pot, cover them with water and bring to a boil. Lower down to a low-heat and simmer until the carrots and celery are soft, about 10-15 minutes. Drain the water and let the carrots and celery to cool down for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, remove the skin of all peppers using your hands or scrape them with the back of a knife. Remove any seeds or stems if left. Working in batches, place the peppers in a food processor and pulse until chopped into small pieces. Make sure that the peppers are not pureed. If you don’t have a food processor, stack 3-4 peppers and finely chop them using a large kitchen knife. Place the chopped peppers in a large bowl.
Place the boiled carrots and celery in a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Place the puree in the large bowl with the peppers. Add the chopped parsley, olive oil, salt and balsamic vinegar. Mix everything until well incorporated. Taste and add more salt, vinegar or olive oil per your liking.
Take a jar, make sure it is dry, and fill it with Lutenitsa using a spoon. Make sure the jar is not filled all the way to the top, fill only to the point where the jar neck starts. Wipe clean the jar top, otherwise it might not create a solid vacuum with the lid. Close the jar with a lid and make sure the lid is tight. Repeat the process with the remaining jars until no Lutenitsa is left.
Working in batches if necessary, place the closed Lutenitsa jars in a large pot. Make sure that the pot is deep enough; you need at least 2 inches of space above the top of the jars. Fit as many jars as you can but make sure the jars are not touching each other. Fill the pot with water so that it covers the jar lids by at least an inch. Bring the pot to a boil, lower to low-heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Check the jars from time to time to make sure no jar is leaking or broken.
Pour the water from the pot carefully, it will be really hot! Using clamps or a thick kitchen towel, carefully remove jars from the pot and place them on a kitchen towel. Make sure all the lids had popped up, This will ensure that the sterilizing process was successful. If a lid has not popped up, let the jar cool down and replace or re-close the lid and sterilize again. Repeat the sterilizing process with the remaining jars.
Allow the jars to cool for about an hour and flip them with their neck down on the towel (this flattens the lid and makes the jars easier to stack).
Cool the jars completely and store in a cool place. Lutenitsa can be stored for up to 2 years.
*Removing the stems and seeds after the peppers are roasted is a bit more difficult and messier. The seeds might be quite stubborn; briefly run the peppers under water to remove the seeds if necessary.