1 part chaos, 2 parts calm
By Mary Ann Ebner
A free-verse poem that one of my sons composed at school a few years ago hangs over my desk. He described me as someone “who loves to cook and go to other countries and study them” and “likes a clean house, but has a mess for two boys and a destructive dog.”
He shared his perspective candidly and I can’t dispute the details. I can make my way around the mess to find the kitchen most of the time, and appreciate the nourishment that comes from exploring the cuisine and cultures of other countries.
My favorite explorations are personal treks, but when I can’t take a journey from here to there, I rely on the chronicles of friends, family and illuminating writers to help discover the next culinary treasure.
The December 2014 issue of Smithsonian, featuring a cover story of the boy king Tutankhamun and the world of Egyptology, recently arrived in my inbox. The article revisits the mystery of the young pharaoh and his death more than 3,000 years ago. The Egyptian people and the country’s historical wonder won me over when I made a trek to Egypt with my husband over a decade ago, but returning to Egypt today poses challenges. Unrest in the region since 2011 and the current security situation have made a profound impact on the tourism industry, an important economic driver for the country. I would relish a return to the Valley of the Kings, the site of Tut’s tomb, as well as the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, so full of antiquities that it would take countless visits to appreciate the full collection.
For now my return to Egypt prevails through the dining table. I can’t imagine trying to replicate a stroll through a traditional Egyptian spice market searching for fresh packets of cumin, coriander and cardamom here in the Hudson Valley, but the convenience of ordering just about any spice and having it delivered to the doorstep within days makes it possible to flavor foods with the perfect spice blends. And with the right ingredients on hand, making great multicultural food just gets better. As for Egyptian cooking, my husband favors ful medamis, simmered beans (small broad beans), a national staple that he came to love while living in Egypt, while I’m charmed by a one-dish meal and an epicurean day-starter like few others, shakshouka.
Try to say this three times fast: shakshouka, shakshouka, shakshouka. Shakshouka is essentially a batch of eggs poached in a spicy tomato bath.
A friend inspired us with his Egyptian family’s take on the mixture. And this variation just happens to be “Sharif’s Shakshouka.” Sharif’s simple but fit-for-a-pharaoh, Middle Eastern–North African dish is simplified for the contemporary kitchen, yet retains its miracle-meal status as an age-old poaching option for eggs.
Brunch with Sharif and his wife can feel like a welcome respite from the demands of a noisy routine. He’s a modern-day man who can hold his toddler on his hip while stirring a spicy tomato sauce and baking crusty bread all with a casual approach. Regardless of his main menu, count on bread. And the crusty bread is the thing. Sure, there’s always flat bread, but Sharif serves shakshouka with a crusty bread, dense and absorbent. The dish drips with wet flavor, and the crusty bread makes a nice bed for a tasting of runny egg, or a worthy slice to soak up the spicy broth that may be remaining in your bowl once you’ve worked your way through the final spoonful of the seasoned tomatoes, peppers and onion.
Poaching eggs remains uncomplicated, along with Sharif’s recipe, but his shakshouka makes basic poached eggs look lonely. And presentation most definitely stands as part of Sharif’s family tradition. If you own a decent-sized deep frying pan, skillet or Dutch oven, break it out for a brunch gathering and serve this flavorful dish in its cookware.
It’s a simple and savory way to start the day that even the boy king may have found satisfying.
Serves 4 to 6
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 cups (mild to medium) green chili peppers, stemmed, seeded and chopped
6 cups tomatoes, diced
(Fresh tomatoes are best when available; canned will work as a substitute but require a reduction of liquid.)
3 cups water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
8 to 10 eggs
2 cups flat parsley, finely chopped
Using a deep frying pan or Dutch oven, heat olive oil. Sauté onion in olive oil. Add chili peppers and cook through. Add tomatoes, stirring constantly, and cook over medium heat 5 minutes.
Add water, salt and pepper. Stir and bring to a low boil. Lower heat and simmer uncovered 15 minutes.
Gently crack eggs into simmering mixture. Do not stir. Cover and poach eggs over medium heat 5 minutes. Cook an additional 5 to 10 minutes to your liking if you prefer egg yolk firmness. Remove from heat. Finish dish by covering surface of shakshouka mixture with parsley. Ladle shakshouka into bowls and serve immediately with crusty bread.
Photos by M.A. Ebner