How can a dish with this much flavor and complexity and layers not be on my radar?! Let alone not in my regular meal planning rotation (like it is now)?
See, I thought it was just me. I felt like I must be the only person in the world who has never heard of shakshuka.
But then I asked around and talked to other people. And for some, like me, it was indeed a word they’d never heard before. And when I described the dish itself, again like me, they looked dubious at best.
A little history
Interestingly enough, the word shakshuka was added to the American Heritage Dictionary just last year, 2017. So maybe I’m not the only one after all. Perhaps I’m just the last one in line.
Regardless, it is now deservedly a part of our vernacular. At least here at the house.
And, most importantly to me, the kids ask for it by name! (shak-SHOO-kuh) They also ask if they can bring friends over for it. That tells me a lot.
shakshuka: A North African dish of eggs poached or baked in a spicy tomato sauce.
— American Heritage Dictionary
Seems simple enough.
Shakshuka is a tremendously popular breakfast dish around the world. In some cultures, it’s as commonplace a dish as bacon and eggs is around here. But honestly, you can serve this for any meal and you’ll be mighty fine.
After a fair amount of research, I found variations of this dish in so many different cultures across Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and elsewhere, especially in Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, Libya, Yemen, and Israel. The idea is the same but the ingredients vary, sometimes subtly and sometimes rather wildly. I’ve even found a green shakshuka made with tomatillos instead of tomatoes!
According to some food historians (how do you get that job?), it originated in the Ottoman Empire and spread far and wide from there. I know of a Turkish dish, menemen, which is quite similar but the eggs are scrambled.
And, you guessed it, I made and tried and subjected family members to a TON of these recipes!
I’ve gone through so many peppers, tomatoes, and eggs over the last couple of months I think the grocer suspects something is amiss. Though you’d think he’d be used to it by now. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve gotten obsessed and thrown a wrench into his automated inventory ordering system.
Again with the Ottolenghi?
To that end, I must say that when I made the shakshuka recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem cookbook, it was hands down the best I’d had. And the others were very good. (At least most of them were.)
You’d think I wouldn’t be so surprised by now.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t fiddle with it every time.
Fresh tomatoes vs. canned, roasted red peppers vs. fresh, maybe some Aleppo pepper or sumac, feta (yes, please), parsley or cilantro (coriander) or both, za’atar, paprika, or even a bit of cinnamon. And it’s not uncommon at all to find bits of meat or other vegetables, like eggplant for example, cooked into the stew as well.
There is a variation of this dish in Italy known as Uova in Purgatorio (eggs in purgatory) which I suspect came up through Africa into Sicily and then kept moving inland. It typically adds Parmesan cheese and uses common Italian herbs.
And how different really are Mexican huevos rancheros or huevos ahogados?
Before I could authentically make Ottolenghi’s recipe, I needed harissa. It’s basically a hot chili pepper sauce extremely common in North Africa and thereabouts.
Sure, I could probably make it myself, but why? The Mediterranean market near the house sells it by the jar at a reasonable price, imported from Turkey, and it is out of this world.
Like I could eat this straight from the jar with a spoon level of goodness.
Time to Cook
I’ve told you about my favorite tomatoes before. And I mentioned the harissa above. The rest of the ingredients are fairly easy to come by.
I like to use my cast-iron pan for this dish. I know, acidic tomatoes in cast-iron, how could you? It’s okay. It’s well-seasoned and I don’t let it sit too long before I wipe it out.
Anywho, I use a ten-inch pan for two of us or a twelve-inch pan for four of us. Today it’s the four of us. (If you want to make it for two, cut everything in half.)
Heat the pan over medium heat, then add the oil, wait a minute, then add the harissa, tomato paste, cumin, and a pinch of salt and let it all toast and blend and cook for a minute.
In go all the peppers and, stirring occasionally, let those soften up for about 10 minutes.
If you’re using fresh tomatoes, you can peel them if you really want — I don’t. I do, however, seed them.
Today, I’ve got good canned tomatoes. I pour the tomatoes into a small bowl first. Then, I gently pop them with my fingers, still in the bowl, and gently squeeze out the juices. Be careful, it will squirt you if you’re not. And then I stack the deflated tomatoes on a cutting board. Once they’re all there, I run a quick chopping knife through them and discard any hard cores if needed. (I also discard the basil leaf, your brand may or may not have one.) Then, back into the bowl while I wait for the peppers to finish softening up.
I do this same routine when I make most red sauces, like a bolognese, because I prefer the texture and small chunks of tomato to a puree.
In go the tomatoes and juices. Let that simmer another 10-15 minutes or until it thickens up a fair amount. It also, and maybe more importantly, allows the raw tomato taste to cook out.
You’ll know it’s ready when you can make an indent with the back of a spoon in the surface of your shakshuka and it holds its shape for a few seconds. Once you’re there, make an indent and crack an egg into it. Do this with four of your eggs.
Then, do it again but with four yolks only. Save the whites for something else later.
Finally, using a fork, gently drag the egg white like a spiderweb through the mix and spread it out a bit. This will both help it cook faster than the yolks and distribute it throughout the dish more.
Once the whites are set — and the yolks are still runny (unless you absolutely hate that, then go ahead and let them cook up a bit, you do you) — I like to dot the pan with some crumbled feta and chopped parsley or cilantro from the garden out back.
Oh, and always serve it with some good bread to scoop it up. It’s so good that way!
You can make the recipe up until the part where you add the eggs and set that back covered up in the refrigerator. Then, once your guests arrive — or your family finally all wake up and wander downstairs — reheat the mix and then finish the recipe. Ten minutes to a breakfast like this will make you look like a magician in the kitchen.
Alright, Mr. Demille, I’m ready for my close-up.
Makes me hungry just to look at it.
Remember, the sauce is hot so the eggs will continue to cook a bit as it sits. Translation: don’t wait until the eggs are fully-cooked to pull it off the fire.
Shakshuka, from Ottolenghi's Jerusalem cookbook, is a hearty breakfast, lunch, or suppertime dish of eggs poached in a spicy tomato stew.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon harissa or more, if you want more heat
- 2 teaspoons tomato paste
- 2 large red peppers, diced into 1/4 inch pieces
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 5 cups chopped tomatoes or a 28 oz. can
- 4 large eggs
- 4 egg yolks
- 1 good-sized pinch kosher salt to taste
- some feta and chopped parsley or cilantro for garnish as desired
In a hot pan over medium heat, add the oil, then the tomato paste, harissa, cumin, and salt. Let cook and blend for a minute.
Add the red peppers and let cook until starting to soften, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the chopped tomatoes and let cook another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Taste and adjust your seasonings if needed.
Now that the mixture has thickened, make indents spaced around the surface with a spoon and crack the eggs and egg yolks into these.
Using a fork, gently drag the eggs whites around the pan so they're more evenly distributed.
Cook until the whites are just set and the yolks are still soft.
Sprinkle with feta and chopped parsley or cilantro if desired. Serve with good bread.