Zacuscă - Romanian eggplant and red pepper spread - is deliciously creamy and comforting, really easy to make, and perfect with rustic bread. It's also great with toast, crackers, or covrigi (Romanian pretzels), as well as a relish, pasta sauce, pizza base, and topping for baked potatoes too.
Heat your oven to 225°C (435°F / gas mark 7½), and line baking tray with silicone parchment or a silicone mat.
Wash the eggplants and red peppers, make a few pricks in the pepper skins, then lay out on the baking tray. Cut the eggplants in half, lengthwise, and place cut side down on the same baking tray. Roast just above the centre of the oven for around 30-35 minutes, until the eggplant is soft, and the skins of the peppers have started to turn black.
While the vegetables are roasting, place the onions into a large heavy-bottomed pan, mix in the salt, and then gently fry in the oil over a medium-low heat.
Once the eggplants and peppers are cooked, remove from the oven, and set aside for a few minutes until cool enough to handle. Scoop out the eggplant flesh, and add it to the pan with the onions.
Cut the peppers in half, remove the skins and innards, and place into a food processor or blender. Blitz for a few seconds - just enough to break up the flesh.
Add the peppers to the pan, with the tomatoes, bay leaves, and ground black pepper. Mix well, and taste. If it's too acidic, add the sugar, and stir well.
Increase the heat, and bring the zacuscă to the boil, then immediately reduce the heat, and simmer for around an hour. Do give it a stir every 10 mins or so, just to make sure it's not catching.
Sterilise the jars:
In a dishwasher: put the jars and lids in the bottom basket, and run on its hottest cycle.
In a pan: place the jars and lids into a large pan of water, boil, and simmer for 10 mins.
In the oven: rinse jars with boiling water, then bake in the oven - 160°C (300°F / gas mark 2½) - for 10 mins. Immerse lids in boiled water for the same length of time.
Preserve the zacuscă:
Once the zacuscă is cooked, carefully ladle it into sterilised jars, to a couple of centimetres (c.1") from the top. Don't burn yourself! Screw the lids on tightly.
To can the zacuscă in the oven:
Lower the oven temperature to 110°C (225°F / gas mark ¼).
Place the jars of zacuscă onto the centre shelf for around 20 minutes. Turn off the oven, and allow the zacuscă to cool before removing.
To can the zacuscă on the hob:
Place the jars of zacuscă into a large pan, and fill with water up the level of the eggplant and pepper spread. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, and gently boil for around 30 mins. Carefully remove the jars from the pan, and allow to cool at room temperature.
Unopened, the zacuscă will keep in the pantry for at least a year. Once opened, store zacuscă in the fridge, and use within a couple of weeks.
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