I believe that the most beloved “something good” to preserve for winter is, for Romanians, this homemade zacusca. Basicly, this is a vegetable spread that we use to call zacusca. Our neighbours, the Bulgarians, call it lutenitsa, which is less or more the same. My daughter absolutely loves this zacusca! She has been telling me for months now not to eschew it this year. Which, yeah, is what I did last year.
Since her wish is my command, I obviously sought to fulfil it as soon as all the ingredients found their way into my pantry at the same time, preparing a portion of aubergine zacusca. This one is the most widespread variety and also one of the dearly loved ones. I must specify that there are other varieties as well. As the French beans or dried beans one, and also the mushroom zacusca. Right, coming back to my recipe – you should know that it is a simple one – I would say classic. I have been making it spread for years now. Before me, my grandma, mum and all of my aunts have too, prepared it themselves. To obtain a proper zacusca, with a spectacular taste, it is essential that you use high-quality ingredients and that you give it the deserved attention during the preparation.
I use to make quite large batches of zacusca so I prefer to cook it outside, on my grills side burner. I use a large cast iron cauldron for this but of course that this zacusca may be cooked on your kitchen stove as well. My advice is to choose a thick bottomed, preferably non-stick pot. Also, I usually place a cast iron plate between the flame and the pot’s bottom. It would be desirable if you didn’t place the pot directly on the stove’s flame, because zacusca may easily burn and change it’s taste.
1. Zacusca or Lutenitsa – what do we need for it and how to make it?
The zacusca is made of natural ingredients, only: aubergine, red pepper, onion, thick tomato juice/purée (such as passata), sunflower oil and seasonings.
For the preparation of this zacusca you can safely use the peppers as they are, uncooked. Though, I prefer to roast them. But what you cannot possibly skip is the roasting of the aubergines until they become soft. You can go about this any way you think is easier. You can roast the aubergines on the grill, on a hot metallic surface or directly on the stove, actually on anything that gives you the possibility to do it. But the main thing is that they must come into direct contact with a flame or a hot surface. It is highly recommended that the aubergine’s peel becomes slightly charred. This will give them the nice, smokey flavour that is essential for zacusca. I recommend to pierce the aubergines beforehand to avoid any accidents that might occur in the case of an explosion. Yes, they can explode during the roasting!
You need to roast them on both sides until the peel becomes slightly charred here and there and the flesh is very soft. After that, put them, one by one, on a working surface. Open the aubergine lengthwise, using a wooden/ceramic/plastic/stainless steel instrument. Scrape out all the soft and moist flesh inside.
Immediately, put the aubergine flesh in colander placed on top of a bowl for the collection of the bitter liquid they produce after roasting.
Chop the aubergines very finely with a non-metallic object (wooden or earthenware), so as to prevent them from oxidizing.
The peppers and onions
Coming back to our peppers: as I said before, you can successfully make the vegetable spread with raw peppers, passed through the food processor. In this case, it will take longer for them to cook and it will make the spread as a whole harder to digest because of the thin skin of the peppers. My recommendation is to roast the peppers as well using the same procedure: direct contact with a very hot surface as a hot grill.
As soon as the peppers are well roasted (their skin has a charred look all around) take them out in a lidded bowl. Allow them to rest in the steam they generate until they are cool enough for you to be able to touch them. Keep in mind not to use water at all when peeling the roasted aubergines and peppers! the vegetables are usually washed prior to being roasted and it is not indicated that they come in contact with water again. this would cause them to lose their pleasant taste as well as their roast, smokey flavour.
The next step is to skin the roasted peppers. Remove their stubs and seeds as well. Process the clean roasted pepper flesh until you get a coarse, but homogenuous texture.
Pass the onions as well through the food processor. Now we are ready to cook our zacusca!
2. Let’s cook our zacusca!
1. Add the oil (all at once) in the pot. Place it on the hob, on medium-low heat. Add the onions and a teaspoon of salt. You need to add salt from the very beginning in order to draw out the water from the onion. This will determine it to cook by slow braising, rather than by frying. Stir frequently and cook the onion until it becomes soft (about 8-10 minutes).
2. Add the minced (or finely chopped) roasted peppers. Stir thoroughly and bring to a boil.
3. After 1-2 minutes of boiling, add the chopped aubergines. Stir well.
4. Add the tomato juice, the peppercorns and the bay leaves. Stir well, reduce the temperature and cover the pot only partially with a lid so as to allow the steam to dispel without, however, leaving it completely uncovered, because, while boiling, the zacusca, being viscous, tends to make quite a mess/to bespatter everything around.
5. Boil the zacusca for an hour, checking and stirring every 10 minutes, insisting on the bottom. If you want, you may of course check the pot even more often than that. You don’t need to boil it for a longer time, since all the ingredients are already cooked. Finally, the lutenitsa has a homogenous, pasty consistency.
Season the zacusca with salt and ground pepper to your taste. If you wish to emphasise the natural sweetness of the peppers and the onion, you can also add a tablespoon of sugar.
3. Zacusca – preserving, storage and serving
For properly preserving our zacusca, we will need to store in sterilised jars. All the informations you may need on sterilisation can be found it this article. Pour the hot lutenitsa in sterilised jars placed on a metallic tray. Seal off the jars and place them together with the tray in the preheated oven at 100°C (212°F), for about an hour, then switch off the oven and leave them inside to cool down completely. Another option would be to place the jars filled with lutenitsa in some kind of a nest padded with several layers of thick blankets, to cloak them well and allow them to cool down slowly. When the jars are cool, you may store them in a cool, dark pantry.
Before wrapping up, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the quantities of this recipe are merely meant to serve as a guide. What I want to say is that my aunts prepare the same recipe using a whole litre of oil. I have sensibly reduced it to half, considering 1 litre to be too much and too useless. My zacusca came out just as good (or better, without false modesty). Similarly, if you expect more acidity from you zacusca, add a little additional tomato puree. Nothing bad will happen, it will only be a bit sourer.
If you have an additional aubergine besides the three indicated kilograms, do not abandon it! Add it to the recipe with all confidence, it will not influence anything negatively. Also, if your taste feels the need for some additional spice other than the classic ones already indicated, please do not hesitate to add it too. As long as you do not exaggerate, adding little by little, stirring thoroughly and tasting after each new supplement, all will be just perfect. For example my inspiration generally demands a pinch of caraway powder in my zacusca and no one ever complained.
Good luck with your preserves and enjoy!
Zacusca - Romanian Recipe or Bulgarian Lutenitsa
- grill or hot metallic plate
- food processor
- a large, thick bottomed pot
- a few bowls
- wooden spoon/chopper
- 3 kg aubergine pick the ones with the black, shiny peel/skin – slightly fluffywhen touched
- 2 kg red bell pepper
- 1 kg onion
- 1 liter tomato puree such as passata
- 500 ml sunflower oil
- 1 tsp peppercorn
- salt to your taste
- ground pepper to your taste
- 3-4 piece bay leaves
- Roast the aubergines and the bell peppers and peel them of. Put the roasted aubergine flesh in a colander to drain, then chop it finely.
- Process the roasted bell peppers flesh and the onion, too (separately).
- Heat the oil and add the processed onion. Sprinkle a little sald and cook it about 8-10 minutes on low heat, stirring frequently.
- Add the processed bell peppers, stir and bring to a boil. Add the chopped aubergine and the tomate puree. Add the bay leaves and peppercorns. Boil for about an hour, partially covered with a lid. Stir in every 10 minutes. Finally, season to your taste with salt and ground pepper.
- Heat the oven to 212F. Pour the hot zacusca into sterilsed jars. Keep it in the oven for about an hour, then turn of the heat and leave it to cool slowly. When cold, store the jars in a dark, cold pantry.