RECIPE: Poached eggs in tomato basil sauce, Libyan grub … who knew?
FOOD DIARY: In search of shakshuka’s origins.
We are off to Edward Levesque’s Kitchen for brunch on a Saturday not long ago. I had a yearning for a favourite tomato and poached egg dish, which I knew from past experiences I could enjoy there, and was feeling too lazy to cook myself. Actually hung-over would be more accurate, having been trying out far too many Scotch-based cocktail recipes at The Oxley the night before, where mixologist Josh is looking for a perfect recipe to name “Gentleman’s Portion.” We drive down to far Queen Street East, topless of course as the day is bright and sunny, though still early spring cool. We don’t have long to wait and get a fine table at the back.
We both order our favourite poached eggs in a tomato basil sauce. I ask our server what the dish is called. “Poached eggs in tomato basil sauce,” she replies. The name and origin of this Mediterranean-style dish is on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t quite recall it. Too many little gray cells damaged the night before, I suppose. After we’ve enjoyed the un-named dish, I chat with Chef Edward Levesque on the way out. I ask him the same question. Same answer. He tells me that he got the idea when he was working for Michael Carlevale at Black and Blue, though the dish was never on the menu of that long-gone steak spot. When he opened Kitchen, it was one of the dishes he wanted to cook. It’s still name-less.
He mentions a similar preparation is in Yotam Ottolenghi‘s cookbook, Jerusalem, which gets me on the right track. Ottolenghi is one of the bold new breed of London-based chef’s who opened his first eponymous spot in Notting Hill for take-out food only. Now he’s a star with four restaurants, books and television appearances galore. In the sixties I lived in a mews cottage nearby, just off the famous Portobello Road, so I know the area well. In those days there were only pubs, and the grub was uniformly dreadful, but since then the whole neighbourhood has been thoroughly gentrified. Yotam is Israeli-born to an Italian father, and mixes up Mediterranean fare with his own unique flavours. I read on. Ah ha, the dish is named shakshuka. Mystery solved.
I believe I first had shakshuka in Benghazi, capital of the eastern province of Libya, one of the odd places I lived in as a child, following my dad’s career wanderings around Africa. Not a fun place to visit at the moment, apparently. It turns out this dish indeed has Libyan origins. A well-travelled friend tells me it’s also served in many varieties at Dr. Shakshouka (sic), a quirky restaurant in old Tel-Aviv, which serves Kosher Libyan fare.
Edward Levesque offers his version of this dish (in addition to the tomato and basil sauce base) with a delicious spicy Italian sausage, marvellous home fries and chunky corn bread.
The traditional recipe calls for the addition of chopped green bell peppers and a lot more spices, served piping hot at the table in a cast iron skillet for you to serve yourself. When the kids were growing up, this was a dish we were often served for Sunday brunch at the in-laws. My late father-in-law David Scott-Atkinson had done war-time service in Egypt and what was then Palestine and had probably picked it up there. We made it at home on request in a much milder version. Some recipes call for yellow or red bell peppers, or spinach, or other seasonal vegetables. It’s best made when glorious scented fresh plum tomatoes are available, the riper the better. Some call for different spices: chili pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, cumin, coriander, parsley or cilantro. A French version just has a piperade of onion, fresh tomatoes and bell peppers as a base, but then they make a big mess by scrambling in the eggs. Mexico offers huevos rancheros with different spices and a fried egg topping.
The recipe I like best of all the ones I’ve cooked has tender baby zucchini in the sauce, and that’s the version I’ll offer here for your weekend brunch pleasure. As a special Brit treat, add bangers and crusty homemade toasted and buttered brown bread on the side. Of course, you can use a different sausage, or none at all if you are cooking Kosher or vegetarian, but the juices add their own unique flavour to the dish.
by Nigel Napier-Andrews
- 1 28 fl oz (796ml) can peeled plum tomatoes, or equivalent fresh ripe plum tomatoes blanched and peeled
- 1 5.5 oz (156ml) can tomato paste
- 1 large yellow onion
- 2 small zucchini
- 1/2 yellow bell pepper, 1/2 red or orange bell pepper, washed and chopped
- 2-4 finely chopped garlic cloves
- 1 cup roughly chopped basil, washed and stemmed (a whole 40 g package)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 4-8 fresh free-run farm eggs
- Tobasco, chilli sauce or spicy salsa to taste
- (optional side) 4 English bangers, or sausages of your choice
- (as needed) small (156ml) can of tomato or V8 juice
- salt and pepper
- Prick the bangers with a fork to prevent bursting and fry in a heavy skillet. When thoroughly brown on all sides, remove from the pan and reserve in a warm oven. Leave the fat behind and add a little olive oil.
- Peel and chop the onion finely and sauté until tender and translucent, but before it browns. Lower the heat and add the washed, topped and tailed, but not peeled, coarsely chopped zucchini. Add the chopped peppers. Cook slowly until the zucchini and peppers are starting to become tender, about 8 min. Stir frequently to prevent sticking and burning.
- Add the whole can of tomatoes, including all the juices. Smash up the tomatoes with your wooden spoon until they are a mush. Add the finely chopped garlic. Strip the basil leaves from the stems, wash and dry, then chop roughly. Stir in. Add small can of tomato paste and stir in. Add 6 drops of Tobasco sauce, or more if you are brave. Or you can add a couple of tbsp spicy salsa. Cook another 10 minutes, check the seasoning and add more spice or salt to taste. Add up to 1/2 cup of water if the sauce gets too thick.
- Make four dents in the sauce with the back of the spoon. Break a room temperature fresh egg into each depression and poach for about 5 min. If there’s not enough juice in the pan to cook the eggs, add a small can of tomato or V8 juice and stir in. TIP: If you prefer your eggs less runny, simply cover the pan with a lid while they cook.
- Grind black pepper over the eggs (optional) and serve steaming at the table in the hot skillet.
Present the bangers hot in a side dish, or drop them around the edge of the skillet.
For a variation, serve in individual baking dishes. In this case poach the eggs separately in hot salted water and scoop onto the top before serving.
Accompany with toasted and buttered crusty fresh brown bread (check my brown bread recipe).
The only thing to drink with this is a Bloody Mary, well spiced and doubled up on the vodka.
PS: This article was originally posted on April 29, 2013 and reposted in October 2014 when Ottolenghi released his new book “Plenty More.”
Categories: Simply food