Food Memory: Zacusca, by Anca Pop
Zacusca is a staple of Romanian cuisine. There are two versions: traditional and contemporary (the latter sometimes called “Summer Zacusca”). Even though the recipe requires a short list of ingredients, the traditional procedure is a tedious process which takes up to ten hours, mostly due to home canning, the final step in its preparation. This dish reminds me of my childhood, a time when food was more seasonal. The main source of vitamins from fruits and vegetables were cans of vegetables and jars of preserves that Romanian families prepared in the late summer, when produce was at peak season. My family canned approximately twenty to thirty jars of zacusca yearly, and stored it our house cellar for late fall, summer and winter consumption. Very few people relied on supermarkets, because the offer was very limited, and they did not like the taste of supermarket food.
Zacusca is a boiled mix of eggplants, red bell peppers, tomatoes and onions, cooked slowly for a couple of hours and poured into sterilized jars which are closed tightly, after leaving some space at the top of the jar, required for a vacuum seal. The canning method used by my parents is the boiling water technique, which was safe against microorganisms such of Clostridium botulinum, considering the acidic ingredients of the recipe. The fairly elaborate preparation process reminds me of my childhood and the time friends and families spent together participating in the preparation and intermediate sampling of this traditional dish, which is important in fine-tuning the proportions of ingredients. This is how we noted, in culinary language, the end of summer and beginning of fall. Even though Romania is a small country, the recipe has quite a few variations, which reflect the influences of other eastern European cultures (Hungarian, Russian, Bulgarian and Croatian), and in all these recipes the different proportions of two main ingredients (peppers and eggplant) account for the subtly distinctive taste of the final product. Zacusca is an example of a refined and nutritious dish made of basic ingredients, which are the principles of any traditional cuisine.
After food became more widely known, city dwellers started to prepare it in a fast, contemporary style, which eliminates the canning steps and prolonged cooking time, because the ingredients used are available all year round. The recipe I am posting is my father’s simplified version and it can be done in approximately one to two hours, depending mostly of one’s experience with roasting eggplants.
2.2 lb. Red bell peppers (choose the ones that are ripe but firm because of increased sweetness)
2 Medium size eggplants (choose a heavy, smooth, glossy, firm and dark color eggplant for best results)
4 medium sweet onions
1.5 lb. tomatoes
70 ml. olive oil
3-4 Bay leaves
1. Prick the eggplant in a few places with a knife and place them on a sheet of foil in the oven at approximately 500 F. When soft, remove and let them cool until they can be handled. Peel the eggplants, squeeze the bitter juices and chop them by hand with a chef’s knife.
2. While roasting the eggplants, peal and grind the peppers and tomatoes, to expedite the cooking process. The tomatoes have to be mashed into a fine paste (use a sieve or the fine side of a shredder), while the peppers can be chopped by hand or using a food processor.
3. Chop and sauté the onions with olive oil in a deep skillet or pan, until golden brown and translucent, but do not overcook. Add the bell peppers first, cook for about 20 minutes and then add the tomatoes and cook for another 10 minutes. Add the mashed eggplants and the bay leaves, bring everything to a boil and remove from the stove. Let it cool and serve with the choice of your bread and fresh salad leaves. The leftovers have to be refrigerated and can be preserved up to one week. This recipe serves 10-12 people.
Pop, Nicolae (2012, August), “Zacusca”, or Romanian Eggplant. (Anca Pop, interviewer)