I am from Odessa, and Odessa has always been just as multicultural as South Florida where I live now. A young and vibrant city, an important sea port on the Black Sea, a southernmost melting pot of international trade and romantic smugglers, it was a rich city, a decadent and hedonistic place, a fertile ground for culinary influences and gastronomic experiments. Fusion? We knew from fusion before the concept was invented!
Very close to Odessa was Bessarabia, a province of Romania, in 1940 “voluntarily” attached to the Soviet Union and named Moldavia, and now a separate country called Moldova. As plentiful and colorful as Odessa Privoz (the famous farm market) was, it could not compare with Moldavian markets during the summer when the fiery red Gogosari peppers came into season.
There were many ways to prepare them, but the most popular, a traditional Romanian recipe was to marinate halves, quarters, or strips, and preserve them in marinade for winter. They have been, and still are, produced this way commercially. I’ve tasted different versions of marinade, both homemade and commercial, some of them quite good. However, even the best preserves do not compare to the fresh taste of Gogosari made an hour ago. There was no choice in the former Soviet Union, since seasonal vegetables were only to be found during the season. In the US, though – What a country! – I have discovered mini-peppers. I prefer to use locally grown produce which still means seasonal, but the season for peppers in Florida lasts from October to July. I can make my version of Gogosari almost all year round.
Most of my preparation method is traditional, as shared by an old Gypsy woman in Moldavia many years ago. The marinade, however, is my own, since these babies are not slated to be preserved. Quite the contrary; they disappear almost as soon as I put them on the table. While I wash my gorgeous baby peppers, I preheat the oven to broil and mist a shallow baking sheet with oil.
Once the oven is ready, peppers are placed on the baking sheet in a single layer and also misted with oil. The center of the sheet gets hotter than the sides, so larger peppers would feel more comfortable closer to the center, while the little babies surround them on the sides.
Watch your timer because it only takes seven minutes for them to be ready to flip. Again, start flipping them from the sides towards the middle. Put them back in the oven for five more minutes and get busy with the marinade.
It is actually very simple. Mash up a generous portion of squeezed garlic with chopped cilantro, salt and pepper. Add equal amounts of olive oil and light balsamic vinegar. The secret ingredient is Agave nectar that makes these baby peppers as sweet as the real Gogosari. Adjust the proportions of sweet and spicy to your own taste! Mix it real well.
Meanwhile, peppers are ready to come out of the oven. Transfer them to a deep frying pan or dutch oven and pour marinade over them. Bring them to boil and turn them off immediately. Cover and let them steep in the marinade.
If they don’t get devoured right away, you have to keep them refrigerated because you don’t want them to start fermenting. However, make sure to take them out of the refrigerator at least an hour before serving as the oil tends to thicken and needs a little time to warm up and liquefy. This beautiful appetizer, sweet and spicy at the same time, will grace your table the way it graces mine. And by the way, in Romanian, marinated Gogosari peppers are called Zakuska, which means appetizer.
Fine-tune your senses by listening to the pre-World War II recording of the famous Russian / Romanian artist Pyotr Leschenko singing Bessarabia, My True Home.
- 1 1/2 lb mini-peppers
- 3 -4 cloves of garlic squeezed
- 1/2 chopped fresh cilantro
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 3/4 cup light balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons Agave nectar
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Pre-heat oven to broil
- Mist baking sheet with oil, arrange peppers in single layer, mist them with oil. Hint: place larger peppers in the center, smaller ones towards the edges.
- Broil for 7 minutes, turn over, broil for 5 more minutes
- Remove peppers from oven, transfer to a dutch oven or deep frying pan
- Prepare marinade by mixing garlic, cilantro, salt and pepper into a paste first, then adding liquid ingredients. Mix well and pour over peppers.
- Bring to boil and immediately remove from fire.
- Cover and let stay for at least an hour.
- Cool peppers completely before serving.