During my time in Romania last year – I fell so hard and fast for Transylvania. The foliage. The castles. The folklore. Oh yeah, and the incredible food. Comforting, carb-heavy, pork-centric, and loads of savory herbs like basil, parsley, bay leaves, and more. No visit to Romania is complete without a hearty serving of zacuscă at every meal. Bonus points if it’s followed by ciorbă de burtă (beef tripe soup) or a hearty filling of sarmale (stuffed cabbage). This is why I couldn’t resist putting together a traditional zacuscă recipe for you to enjoy a bit of Romanian spirit right in your home. This zacuscă recipe is made up of roasted eggplant and peppers and stewed in sunflower oil with fragrant peppercorn, bay leaves, and my personal addition – chili pepper.
It’s perfect on toast, with crackers, with cheese or if you’re like me, by the spoon. 🙂
In this recipe, we are making everything from scratch – even the tomato pureé. Most recipes will call for a food processor and tomato sauce, but I prefer to stick to the old school Romanian methods of chopping everything by hand and preparing my own puree. While eaten year-round and on just about every restaurant menu across the country, at its heart, zacuscă is an autumn dish. It’s usually made in late summer with fresh eggplants, and gogosari (Romanian bell peppers) then preserved through the winter months. This is ideal since zacuscă only becomes more flavorful with time.
Ok, let’s get to it
You’ll need 4 eggplants, 6 red bells, 2-3 tomatoes, 2-4 chilli peppers(not traditionally added but optional), 4 bay leaves, 25-30 peppercorns, 2 medium onions, 1 1/2 cup sunflower oil (or any neutral oil) and 1 1/2 tbsp salt.
Preheat the oven to 220C/430F. Poke the eggplants and bell peppers all over with a fork. Roast in the center of the oven for 45 minutes (eggplant) and 35-40 minutes (bell peppers) rotating halfway through. You want them to be blackened and soft.
Remove from the oven and allow them to cool. Remove the skin from eggplant and the skin and most of the seeds from bell peppers. To remove the flesh from the skin of the eggplant: cut it in half and push out the flesh with a spoon.
Allow the eggplant flesh to sit in a strainer for at least one hour to release the liquid.
While the eggplant is draining prepare the tomato puree. Start by cutting x shapes into the bottom of the tomato. Boil for 3-5 minutes. Set in cold water for 3-5 minutes. Remove skin and blend.
Now for the fun part! Take a knife and roughly chop the eggplant and bell pepper until a chunky paste forms. I just go horizontally and then vertically several times. In Romania, they actually have a special wooden knife/cleaver for this process. This is because most kitchen tools used to be metal which would turn the eggplant black (#science). Nowadays most kitchen tools are stainless steel, though!
Thinly dice your onions and chilli pepper if using. Add to a large pot with sunflower oil and heat until translucent.
While the onions are simmering, add your peppercorn. I prefer to roughly grind mine with a mortar and pestle so that they open up but remain chunks. I suggest using about 25-30 for this recipe depending on your taste preference. (around 1.5 tbsp)
Next add in the eggplant, bell peppers, bay leaves, peppercorn, tomato puree (1 cup) and salt. Bring to a boil then reduce to simmer for 90 minutes.
After the 90 minutes is up do a quick taste test and adjust the seasoning. Keep in mind that over time the flavor develops more and more. One night in the fridge will make a world of difference! Tip: I like to reserve some of the oil from the pot and use it on veggies or rice! I hope that you enjoy this zacusca recipe as much as I do 🙂
Romanian Zacuscă Recipe
- 4 medium eggplants (aubergine)
- 8 medium red bell peppers
- 2 medium ripe tomatoes
- 2 spicy peppers such as jalepeno, serrano or 1 tbsp crushed chili flakes
- 3-4 bay leaves
- 1 1/2 cup sunflower oil (or other neutral oil)
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 1/2 tbsp peppercorn (around 25-30)
- 2 medium red onions
- Preheat oven to 220C/430F. Poke eggplants and bell peppers all over with a fork. Roast in the center of the oven for 45 minutes (eggplant) and 35-40 minutes (bell pepper) until charred and soft. Rotate halfway through.
- Once cool enough to handle, remove the skins from the eggplants and bell peppers. To remove the flesh from the eggplant: cut in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon. (photos above)
- Set eggplant in a strainer to drain its liquid for an hour and 30 minutes.
- While the eggplant is draining prepare the tomato puree. Cut an x into the bottom of each tomato. Boil for 3-5 minutes then place in cold water for 3-5 minutes. Peel skin and blend with hand mixer or blender.
- Thinly dice onions (and peppers if using). Add oil and diced onions to pot.
- Roughly chop eggplant and bell peppers to form a loose, thick paste.
- Roughly grind peppercorn in mortar and pestle
- Add eggplant, bell pepper, tomato puree, bay leaves, peppercorn and salt to pot.
- Bring to a boil then reduce to simmer for 90 minutes.
- Adjust seasoning to desired taste and enjoy! You can serve this immediately however it drastically develops flavor over time so I recommend a night in the fridge first.