Zacuscă – Romanian eggplant and red pepper spread

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One of my favourite go-to snacks and appetisers, zacuscă – Romanian eggplant and red pepper spread – is deliciously creamy and comforting, really easy to make, and perfect with rustic bread. It’s also great with crackers and covrigi (Romanian pretzels). I’ve even been known to use it as a relish, pasta sauce, pizza base, and as a topping for baked potatoes too. Yep, it really is that versatile!

There was a time when I believed ajvar to be the pinnacle of roasted eggplant and red pepper spreads… and then we moved to Transylvania, and discovered zacuscă. Oh my!

As I’ve mentioned before in my other Romanian recipes, sarmale and fasole bătută – most of Romania is rural, with its inhabitants living off the land, so come autumn, what do folk do in order to have enough fruit and vegetables to see them through the winter? They preserve it.

Some of the fruit is used to make wine*, liqueurs, and țuică – a type of schnapps (aaah, how I miss thee!), some made into jam, some pickled. Yes, you read that right – pickled fruit!

When we moved into our house in Băița, we discovered a massive jar of pickled fruit and vegetables in the pantry. OK, so pickled peppers is not really a stretch but pickled watermelon? It may be utterly delicious but since I’m not generally a fan of pickles at the best of times, I forewent that somewhat dubious pleasure! Vegetables, of course, are pickled too.

(*Transylvanians make the best wine; I have been of this opinion for about 30 years, and joining my neighbour, Iacob, on summer evenings to partake of his, did nothing to disabuse me of this notion!)

These murături (brine-fermented chillies, onions, and garlic) are from a local lady at the market – they put paid to every notion I’ve ever had about Balkan people not eating hot and spicy food. These would, I suspect, be challenging for my Thai friends. I can make 72,543 curries with this jar – that’s how flimmin’ evil it is! (Disclaimer: this number may be slightly exaggerated.)

Another way to preserve the harvest!

Zacuscă is another way of preserving food for the leaner months, and is a perfect example of how you can take a handful of simple ingredients, and turn them into something that’s not only mind-blowingly delicious but also helps to provide essential nutrients when fresh produce is thin on the ground (if you’ll forgive the pun!). And because it’s mild and creamy, and slightly sweet, zacuscă is also a great way of getting your kids to eat their veggies!

Store-bought zacuscă

You can, of course, buy zacuscă in stores but in my somewhat limited experience, it’s not that good, and very often has a metallic aftertaste.

When we first came back to Britain, and moved to Margate, we discovered several Eastern European supermarkets on our doorstep, so before I’d unpacked my kitchen stuff, our first grocery run included a jar of zacuscă. It was a disappointment!

I’ve never bought zacuscă from a store in Romania, although I did buy the odd jar here and there from roadside stalls and the local farmers market in Reghin… but that was all home made.

Home made zacuscă will always be far superior to anything you can buy in stores!

Origins of zacuscă

I can’t be 100% certain but I’m assuming that like ajvar, zacuscă has its origins in the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish (and Bulgarian) kyopolou is very similar to zacuscă, as is the Slavic pinđur (pindjur).

Fun fact; in both Turkish and Serbian, havyar / ajvar means ‘salted fish roe’ i.e. caviar, and in Serbia, ajvar is colloquially known as vegetable caviar!

What does zacuscă mean?

According to one of my Romanian friends, zacuscă means ‘quick spread’; however, I do know that zacuscă comes from the Slavic word, zakuska, which means ‘snack’!

Zakuski (snacks) are similar to the antipasti and cicchetti of Italy and Venice respectively; meze in the Balkans, Middle East, and North Africa; tapas in Spain; anju in Korea; hors d’oeuvre in France and Britain, and brännvinsbord & smörgåsbord in Scandinavia.

So basically… grown-up munchies and finger food. Yum!

A quick note about using oil

Zacuscă is traditionally made with around double the sunflower oil** that I’ve used here. It makes sense if your life consists of hard manual labour, and you don’t have the benefits of central heating and double glazing to keep out the winter chill; however, most of us in the West have no need of the extra insulation that so much fat provides, so I have reduced the amount of oil, and I don’t believe the zacuscă suffers for it.

(**Another staple of Romania – in the summer, fields become a spectacular blaze of golden yellow!)

Thank you to Ioan Cepaliga for this wonderful photo!

Which red peppers should I use?

In Romania, fleshy, rounded Romanian peppers, called gogoșari (Capsicum annuum Gogoscharii) are generally used to make zacuscă. If you don’t have access to Romanian red peppers, then Romano (bull horn) ones work really well, as do red bell peppers. In fact, now I’m no longer living in Romania, these are what I use most for zacuscă.

Usually, the eggplant and red pepper are chargrilled whole over a firepit in the garden, which was fine when we lived in Băița, and I had both a gas cooker and a barbecue; however, I currently only have a ceramic hob, and no garden, so have to roast the veggies in the oven. It’s no biggie but it does mean that this zacuscă doesn’t get the delicious smoky flavour of chargrilled eggplant and pepper.

How to make zacuscă

Making this eggplant and red pepper spread, as I said earlier, really is very easy; as with my ajvar, it starts with roasting the eggplants and red peppers. To do this, prick the red pepper skins a couple of times, and then place on a baking tray, just above the centre shelf. Cut the eggplants in half, lengthwise, and place cut side down on the same baking tray. Your oven should be pre-heated to 225°C (435°F / gas mark 7½).

While the eggplant and red pepper are roasting, in a large heavy-bottomed pan, gently fry the onions in the sunflower oil, until they become softened, and just start to change colour – you don’t want to caramelise them. Add the salt at this stage, too – it will help the onions to cook.

The eggplant and pepper will take around 25-30 minutes, at which point the eggplant will be soft, and the pepper will have somewhat blackened skin. Remove them from the oven, and set aside for a few minutes to cool. To make life a bit easier, you can put the peppers into a plastic bag, tie or seal it, and leave it for 10-15 mins. The steam from the hot peppers will loosen the skin, making it easy-peasy to remove!

Remove the skin and innards from the peppers, and place the flesh into a food processor or blender (I use my VAC2, of course!). Blitz for a couple of seconds, until you have a very coarse mash. You basically just want to break up the peppers, not turn them into a paste!

Scrape the eggplant flesh from its skin, and place into the pan with the onions, then stir in the smooshed pepper, passata, bay leaves, sugar, and black pepper.

Do I need to drain the red peppers and eggplants? I know that some folk advocate draining them but then add water to the zacuscă while it’s simmering, to stop it drying out That does seem counter-intuitive to me – why not just keep the flavourful juice from the vegetables in the first place? So no, I don’t drain my peppers and eggplants!

Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat to its lowest setting, and allow to simmer for about an hour. You’ll want to give the zacuscă a stir every 10 mins or so, just to make sure it’s not sticking to the pan. If you’re using a gas hob, do feel free to use a diffuser.

How to sterilise your jars

If you haven’t already sterilised your jars, do so now.

This recipe will make around 1,5kg of zacuscă, so you’ll need 4 x 375g, 3 x 500g etc. jars.

TBH, I do mine in my dishwasher because it’s so easy; just put the jars and lids in the bottom basket, and run it on its hottest cycle.

If you don’t have a dishwasher, you can easily sterilise the jars and lids by placing them into a very large pan of water (enough so it covers the jars), bringing the water to the boil, and then simmering for 10 mins or so.

Or rinse with boiling water, then bake in the oven for 10 mins while the zacuscă is simmering. Oven should be around 160°C (300°F / gas mark 2½). Don’t put the lids in the oven though, or else the seal will get damaged – just immerse in boiling water.

Lower the oven temperature to 110°C (225°F / gas mark ¼).

How to can this spread

Once the zacuscă is cooked, carefully ladle it into sterilised jars, up to a couple of centimetres (c.1″) from the top. Don’t burn yourself! Screw the lids on tightly.

To can using the oven

Place the filled jars into the oven (centre shelf) for around 20 minutes, then turn off, and allow the jars of zacuscă to cool before removing.

To can using a saucepan

Place the filled and sealed jars into a large pan, and fill with water up to the level of the zacuscă. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, and gently boil for around 30 mins. Carefully remove the jars from the pan, and allow to cool at room temperature.

The zacuscă will keep in the pantry, unopened, for at least a year. Once opened, store in the fridge, and use within a week.

Zacuscă – Romanian eggplant and pepper spread

Easy to make
Naturally vegan
Free from gluten, nuts, and soy
One of the most delicious things you can put onto bread!

Whether you eat zacuscă as a relish, with pasta, pizza or potatoes, or as a snack or appetiser on bread, I’m sure you’ll love this spread as much as we do!

Poftă bună!

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