What do Eastern Europeans eat, I'm asked sometimes. Middle Eastern and Greek food are far more popular in the States, and while everybody knows what is a gyro or a shish kabob, few know what is a sarma. In the Balkans, we have a special liking for smelly cheeses, pickles and sauerkraut. But one thing that we really, really love, whether you live in Romania, Bulgaria or Serbia, is zacusca. This, at least, is something that we can all agree upon.
Balkanic people are frugal. They've had to be, because of centuries of foreign rule and imposed austerity. In the States we can have romaine lettuce in the middle of winter for $2.99 a bunch, peppers and tomatoes galore from Mexico, papaya from Belize and more tasty things. But in Romania, there are no such luxuries. Fruits and vegetables are scarce during the cold months, and whatever supermarkets offer comes from far away and is neither fresh, nor affordable. Meal staples during this time are root vegetables (beets, celery roots, parsnips) and legumes (beans, lentils). The only way to remember summer is to have it trapped, with all its marvelous flavors, in a jar. So traditionally, Balkanic families (specifically grandmas) do a lot of canning in the fall.
In my family, zacusca was a very long and arduous project which grandma would perform stoically throughout an entire day of standing, roasting and mixing in the kitchen. I knew when the zacusca time had come because of the terrific smell of roasting eggplant, which permeated every corner of the house and made us all flock to the kitchen to catch a glimpse of the process. Grandma had enormous pots (or at least they were enormous compared to me, a little child) and she would energetically stir in them for a long time, until zacusca had precisely the right consistency. Then she would can 30 to 40 jars of the stuff and keep it in the pantry for the winter. And boy, was that zacusca a great joy for us in the cold winter months, when there was snow outside and we could sit by the window and pop open a jar of the red deliciousness and spread it on warm slices of freshly baked bread...
~ makes about 6 cups
2 medium eggplants
2 red bell peppers
1 sweet onion, minced
2 cups (16 oz) chopped tomatoes (I use Pomi, you can also use canned)
1 bay leaf
salt, pepper, to taste (if using chile, skip the pepper)
1/4 cup hot green chile or 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, optional
First, we're going to roast the eggplant and peppers. So find yourself a good audio book or podcast, because you're going to be in the kitchen awhile. You can do this in a cast iron skillet or a tortilla pan (or even directly over the fire if you have a gas stove).
Set the pan on medium-high heat and place the eggplant and peppers inside. Turn them with tongs every few minutes to make sure they're equally roasted on all sides. If the heat is high enough, you'll have to do this every 3 minutes or so.
Note: you can also just bake the vegetables, but they won't have the same delicious roasted flavor and honestly, that's what makes zacusca. So don't be lazy!
When the peppers are done, set them immediately in a pot and cover them quickly. They need to "sweat" in there so you can peel them easily.
In the meantime, peel the eggplants as soon as they're cool enough to touch. Don't use metal utensils at any time to manipulate the eggplant meat, because it will turn dark. Use only wood or ceramic. Peel the eggplant and then chop it horizontally and then vertically lots of times, until you get a mash. I use a large wooden spoon to do this, but maybe you can find an even better tool (not metal!).
Then peel the peppers and chop them very very small. Keep the juice too, it's very tasty!
Heat up some olive oil on low heat and add the onions with 1 tsp of salt. Cover and cook for 7-8 minutes, stirring some. You want to smother, not caramelize it. Then add the peppers and bring to a boil.
Add the eggplant, then the chopped tomatoes, black pepper, bay leaf and chile if using. Mix well, reduce the heat to low and partially cover (it will splatter, so be careful).
Boil for 1 hour stirring frequently, every 5 minutes or so. Season with more salt if you need it.
Eat by itself, on bread, as a snack, with pasta, with potatoes or with eggs, or however else! Zacusca is just awesome!
Recipe adapted from Laura @ Retete ca la mama.