Food: love it.
Cooking: love it too.
I read cookbooks for fun (especially those homespun Our Favorite Recipes compilations that were all the go with 1950s women’s groups). I take tremendous pleasure in spending uninterrupted hours in the kitchen, “turning ingredients into culture” by making food from scratch.
Slavish adherence isn’t really my thing, so I don’t follow recipes. When I get the urge to prepare something I haven’t made before, I either wing it or read a handful of recipes to get the basic concept, then mix and match ingredients and techniques to come up with a version that works for me. I rarely make a dish the same way twice.
Shakshouka is a great fit for my style in the kitchen. It lends itself to infinite variation and is difficult to ruin. The Arabic name translates roughly to “mixed up” or “a mixture,” a clue that we aren’t dealing with precise measurements or fussy techniques. For those who are not familiar with the dish, think of it as Middle Eastern huevos rancheros. Seriously. You make an easy sauce by sautéing chopped peppers, onions and garlic, seasoned with paprika and cumin. When those are soft, add canned diced or crushed tomatoes (I use a 14 ounce can of each.). Bring the sauce to a simmer. If you’re making it ahead to refrigerate, this is the best stopping point. Bring it back to a simmer when you are ready to serve it. To finish the dish, gently crack your eggs over the sauce, spacing them out so they don’t run together. Cover the pan, and let the eggs cook until the yolks are set but still runny. To serve, put a portion of sauce and an egg or two in each person’s bowl. Top with flat-leaf parsley and feta cheese, and serve with warm pita bread. Couldn’t be easier or more delicious.
If you like more direction, Smitten Kitchen has a great basic recipe (and photographs that are way food-pornier than anything I could take). If you do a Google search, poll your taste buds, or take a census of your refrigerator, you’ll come up with any number of other ingredients or substitutions to use, including spinach, artichoke hearts, beans or chickpeas, potatoes, and caraway seeds. Add and subtract according to your taste.
I have two suggestions: first, if you opt to use Anaheim peppers (as the Smitten Kitchen recipe suggests), purchase a fresh jalapeño as well. I’ve been burned (pun intended) by Anaheims that turned out to be too mild. A spare jalapeño would have given that batch the kick it needed. Second, crumbled feta cheese on top is great, but for a truly decadent dish, substitute fresh goat cheese. Your palate will sing with pleasure. Trust.
Still not sold? Consider some of shakshouka’s other great qualities:[hr]
It’s Effortlessly Meatless.
I’m a reformed vegetarian, and I still enjoy eating no-meat meals. My husband, not so much. This dish is bold and hearty enough to be man-pleasing even though it doesn’t moo when you poke it with a fork.[hr]
It Doesn’t Leave You with Odd-Lot Ingredients.
For me, the single biggest challenge of cooking for our little four-top of a family is purchasing ingredients in the quantities I need. I have a thing about wasting food, so I am driven batty by recipes that call for quantities that don’t correspond to the weights or volumes of items sold in packages. If I make a dish that calls for just one chipotle pepper (which always seems to be the case), rest assured that we’ll be eating chipotle-laced dinners for the rest of the week as I try to use up the contents of that little 44 cent can. With shakshouka, I can just relax. It calls for ingredients that are sold in bulk or that are used in quantities that match the packages on your grocery store shelf. And, it’s forgiving enough that you can use more or less of anything to suit your needs.[hr]
It’s a Great Addition to Your Help-a-Mama-Out Repertoire.
Let’s be honest, girls. When taking dinner to a sick friend or new mama, we San Antonians lean pret-ty hard on King Ranch Chicken. Get the cream-of-mushroom monkey off your back and send a dish with a more exciting flavor profile.
The last thing a brand new mother needs to worry about is getting her pre-baby body back right away, but there’s no reason to sabotage her efforts. Shakshouka is almost entirely vegetables, with the only real fat coming from eggs (one per serving) and a mere sprinkle of high-flavor cheese. It’s full of vitamins, protein, and fiber and is relatively easy on the waist.
When I take it to friends, I put the sauce in a plastic container with instructions on how to finish the dish. I send along a package of whole wheat pita bread (5 pieces), a half-dozen carton of eggs, an 8 ounce package of cheese, and a few sprigs of flat-leaf parsley. Also, cookies. Those quantities work well for my demographic, in which most parents are on their first or second child and don’t have more than a handful of diners to feed. Double (or triple!) if you are feeding a crowd. For funsies, I always hand the cooking instructions to the new father when I make shakshouka after a baby’s birth. The new mother needs her rest and likely is busy with the baby, and it’s fun to make men poach things.[hr]
The Techniques Will Interest Your “Helpers.”
As my co-contributor, Alvina, points out, it’s important to get your children into the kitchen with you. Depending on your child’s age and ability, you can give him tasks ranging from easy (adding ingredients to the skillet; stirring) to more difficult (chopping; cracking eggs the over sauce). If your children are comfortable in the kitchen and familiar with the technique of poaching in water, broth, or (if you’re richer and more decadent than I) butter, it might pique their interest to see the eggs poached in a thick sauce. Most importantly, shakshouka is a no-fail dish, so you can concentrate on teaching and enjoying your children, not on making sure you follow an exacting process.[hr]
If shakshouka is not in your meal rotation, I hope you will give it a try. If you have a favorite add-in or secret ingredient, tell me about it in the comments below!
Special thanks to domestic (and darkroom) goddess KGJ, who inspired me to bring shakshouka in-house and takes way better photos than I ever could. Love her so. [hr]
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