Making Romanian Zacusca The Traditional Way

Members of the Buharest Expat team were recently invited to join some friends to make Zacusca in the traditional way. Zacusca in Romania is a traditional vegetable chutney (for want of a better description) made from fresh seasonal vegetables.

The basic ingredients for our recipe, with quantities, can be found below:

3 kg onions (ceapa)
3 kg bell pepper (ardei)
3 kg egg plant / aubergine (vinete)
2 kg carrots (morcovi)
2 l tomato juice (suc de rosii)
Tomato puree (pasta de rosii)
Vegetable oil (ulei de legume)
Salt to taste (sare)
Black Peppercorns to taste
Bay leaves to taste (dafin)
Optional – chilli peppers to taste (ardei uite)

The amounts can be increased or decreased in proportion if you want to make more or less. Our group actually made five times the amount of Zacusca in line with the above recipe but there were quite a few of us. As ever with cooking, the amounts do not have to be clinically exact and you can add additional herbs and spices of your choice depending upon your taste. This may not be so traditional but this is again the joy of cooking – you can make food to meet your taste and requirements.

The process of cooking the Zacusca is not complex but the preparation of the ingredients is slightly time consuming. All of the four primary ingredients need to peeled and chopped, and at this point we gladly used a food processor for the chopping process. When you have to peel and chop 10 kg of carrots or 15 kg of onions you will use any labour reducing trick that you can find! The bell peppers and eggplant should be pre-cooked to soften them, and the skin and seeds need to be removed from the peppers so the preparation process is not a swift one.

Once the ingredients are ready, the traditional technique is to cook everything over an open fire (which is, ideally, outside).  The first step is to slow cook the onions in the vegetable oil. If you have two pans / pots then you can start to cook the carrots at the same time. You need to keep the heat relatively low and stir regularly to ensure even cooking and no sticking and burning to the bottom. Controlling the heat level of an open fire burning chopped wood is not the simplest of tasks but we managed well enough. Once the carrots and onions are soft, you can then add the prepared eggplant and peppers.

You now settle down to let the batch cook gently, stirring regularly. As ever with an open fire, you start to get a smoked feel after a while, but this is all part of the experience. You should not really be wearing your Sunday best for this! After approximately two hours you add the tomato juice and puree to the mix, stirring all the way. By this point you should also be prepared to drink something traditional such as tuica (or beer in the case of emergency). There will unsurprisingly be a change of colour at this point. You can also add bay leaves, salt and peppercorns to taste. For the adventurous, you can also add chopped chilli peppers (with or without seeds depending on your level of adventure).

The rest of the cooking process is pretty simple – you stand and stir, adding wood to the fire when necessary and doing your best to stay downwind of the smoke and upright in light of the tuica. The legend is that the Zacusca is ready when the oil starts to bubble up to the surface. The exact point at which this was clear was the source of much debate – if in doubt taste the mix and judge whether it is soft and tasty enough for you. It’s ready when you are happy – this is not rocket science!!

Now comes the final part of the preparation which means that no preservatives are required. You put the Zacusca into jars with screw top lids (jam jars are a favourite). The tricky bit is not spilling anything after several hours of standing around being pickled (by the tuica) and smoked (by the, erm, smoke). You then place the jars in the oven and heat them to 200 degrees C for 30 minutes. Once the heating process is over, carefully remove the jars and wrap them well in newspaper. You now allow the jars to cool over a period of up to three days in a warm space. The Zacusca is now good to eat and will remain safely in the unopened jars for a period of at least two years. Once you open the jar you need to refrigerate the product if it lasts long enough to require storage.

When this is all finished, it is allowed to sit around with some fresh bread and more tuica to enjoy the fruits of your labour. We were treated to a glorious sunset to go with our glorious home made zacusca. Delicious!!

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