spread the joy: zacuscă

when dorina, my romanian language teacher, first mentioned zacuscă in class, my classmate stefan, who had recently returned from a year in iași, got bright eyes. „ooooh, it’s so so good, you have to try it!“, he said to us, his voice thick with emotion. he had grown quite fond of zacuscă during his stay in romania.

and quite rightly so. the following week, dorina brought a glass of homemade zacuscă for us to try and which her mother had sent from sibiu. zacuscă is a vegetable spread (even vegan!) based on roasted red peppers, roasted eggplant, and chopped onion, and very popular in romania. dorina spread it over some slices of baguette, put a small chunk of feta cheese on top, and served us what looked like fancy reddish orange appetizers. needless to say, stefan was right. it was so so good.

in fact, it was so so good that i decided to spread the joy (literally, ha!) and make some for my friends and family (this would make a super nice christmas present for your favorite foodie – you can prepare it ahead of time and just preserve it in canning jars).

romanians make 8 to 10 kilograms of  zacuscă in one cooking session. i didn’t have that many canning jars nor did i want to produce that much of zacuscă in my first attempt of making some in case something went wrong, so i adapted the recipe (courtesy of my friend mihai). i used

1 eggplant
6 red, 1 green, and 1 yellow bell pepper (roughly 1 kg – the recipe asked for capia, but i couldn’t find any)
2 large carrots
4 common onions
800 g sieved tomatoes
5 bay leaves
200 ml sunflower oil
a pinch of sugar
salt and pepper to taste

and here’s how you prepare zacuscă (it may take up a whole afternoon – but rome wasn’t built in a day, either):

put the peppers and the eggplant on a baking sheet and roast them in the oven (220°c) until the skin is wrinkly and slightly blackened. make sure that they’re wrinkly from each angle. if they are not, flip them over and leave a little longer in the oven. once the eggplant and peppers are done, take them out of the oven and let them cool. slice the eggplant in half and peel the skin off. put the eggplant halves on a cutting board and tilt it in the sink or in a soup bowl to drain the eggplant juice (it’s bitter and you don’t want it in your zacuscă).

carefully peel and deseed the peppers. don’t pour away any of the pepper juices, you’re going to need them later. now chop up the peppers (i like it chunky, so i didn’t chop that much. dorina’s mother’s zacuscă was more finely chopped and a more homogenous spread than mine tunred out to be – if you want to spare some time and effort, you can also shred the peppers – and everything else – in a food processor).

peel and chop the onions, and sautée them in the sunflower oil. meanwhile. grate the carrots, add them to the onions. let simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. stir every once in a while to make sure nothing gets burned. add the pepper juices and let it simmer some more. add your chopped peppers, the bay leaves, and season with salt and pepper. after another half hour of simmering add the sieved tomatoes. throw in your pinch of sugar and let it simmer some more. again. chop your eggplant and add to the pot. if you think your zacuscă is about to be burned, add some sunflower oil. and now comes the fun part: let it simmer for 4 to 5 hours (stir every 20 to 30 minutes) and boil it down until your zacuscă has more of a firmer consistency.

and now the funnest part of all: enjoy!

[left jar, place mat and fabric are from ikea; the right jar is a recycled one; the label sticker is from casa di falcone; the teaspoons are heirloom from monja’s grandmother; the hand drawn plate is by my aunt; for the drawstring i entwisted some strings of yarn.]

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