Simply food

HEARTY MIDDLE EASTERN FARE

When I first wrote about shakshuka in the spring of 2013, almost no one knew what it was, let alone the name, but now there are plenty of spots in Toronto which serve this hearty Middle Eastern eggs and tomato dish.

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Shakshuka garnished with chopped basil and sprinkled with paprika, sides of bangers and fresh baguette

This was fare I’d eaten for years without knowing its name. I’d first had it in Benghazi, Libya, where my family languished in the late 50s. Not surprisingly, that’s where it originated. Libyan Jews took the dish with them to Israel, where it has become a popular breakfast meal. Shakshuka comes from the Arabic, meaning haphazard. Yemen and Tunisia also lay claim to its origination, but I like Libya’s claim better. After all, they don’t have much else going for them.

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Israel’s Dr. Shakshuka stirs in the egg white without breaking the yolks

Wherever you eat this, you will be offered variations. Even in Toronto, where I’ve tried shakshuka at restaurants such as Edward Levesque’s Kitchen, sadly now closed, to Fat Pasha, closer to home on the Dupont Street Strip. Aroma, an espresso chain from Israel, opened here in 2007 and has expanded to more than three dozen outlets. I’m not a fan of their version, which is topped with fried eggs.

More recently, another Israeli chain has opened as Café Landwer, with a suburban location complemented by a new downtown location and two more to open soon.  Their halloumi shakshuka is one of several varieties available, with the eggs baked in a tomato sauce studded with big hunks of cheese and spinach. I lean toward the version served with merguez sausages.

It’s also served in many varieties at Dr. Shakshuka, a quirky restaurant in old Tel-Aviv, which offers Kosher Libyan fare. The good doctor adds paprika and stirs the egg white into the tomatoes, without breaking the yolk.

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Chef Ottolenghi serves shakshuka with a coriander (cilantro) garnish in his London restos

Further validation can be found in Yotam Ottolenghi‘s cookbook, Jerusalem. Ottolenghi is the London-based chef, Israeli-born to an Italian father, and a go-to favourite of mine for vegetarian recipes. When in London, I enjoy dining at one of his six restaurants, since visiting his first in Notting Hill, my old stamping grounds, more than 20 years ago. Chef Ottolenghi swears by coriander (cilantro), although I prefer basil, ever since I tried Chef Levesque’s version. Now, in England as in Toronto, shakshuka has become ubiquitous.

Every chef and every regional variation suggests different vegetables and spices, but all start with ripe tomatoes. If tomatoes are out of season and watery, then by all means use canned. Then it’s up to you if you add green, red, orange or yellow peppers; paprika, cayenne or Tabasco; onions, or garlic or both; basil, spinach or the Tunisian variation of zucchini (courgettes); and garnish with coriander, basil, parsley, paprika, cayenne or a combination of some or all.

Sausages are often presented alongside, although in Kosher and Muslim countries they are likely to be merguez, spicy lamb sausage. As a Brit, I favour pork bangers, but it is really your choice.

Finally, bread is critical for mopping up. Sometimes, I serve thick hot buttered whole wheat toast. Other times I prefer a long French baguette, cut into chunks at the table, or toasted. Just make sure there’s plenty for all and enjoy this outstanding Middle Eastern comfort food.

SHAKSHUKA

Shopping list

  • 1 28 fl oz (796 ml) can peeled crushed or chopped plum tomatoes, or equivalent fresh very ripe plum tomatoes blanched and peeled
  • 1 5.5 oz (156 ml) can tomato paste
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 small zucchini, chopped
  • 1/2 yellow bell pepper, 1/2 red or orange bell pepper, washed, de-seeded and chopped
  • 2-4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 cup basil (a whole 40 g package), washed, stemmed and roughly chopped
  • 2 TBSP EVOO (extra virgin olive oil)
  • 4-8 fresh free-run farm eggs
  • Tabasco, chilli sauce, paprika or spicy salsa to taste
  • 4 English bangers, or sausages of your choice, such as merguez (optional side)
  • small (156 ml) can of tomato or V8 juice, (as needed)
  • salt and pepper
  • bread, fresh or toasted

Garnish

  • Chopped basil or parsley, or both
  • Paprika or cayenne

Preparation and cooking

  1. Peel and chop the onion finely and sauté in EVOO 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 washed, de-seeded, chopped peppers. Add the finely chopped garlic. Cook slowly until the zucchini and peppers are starting to become tender, about 8 min. Stir frequently to prevent sticking and burning.
  2. Add the whole can of tomatoes, including all the juices. If necessary, smash up the tomatoes with your wooden spoon until they are a mush. 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 Tabasco 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, or a small can of tomato or V8 juice and stir in.
  3. Allowing one or two eggs per person, make four to eight dents in the hot bubbling sauce with the back of the spoon. Break a room temperature fresh egg into each depression and poach for about 5 mins. TIP: If you prefer your eggs less runny, simply cover the pan with a lid while they cook. Or bake in a pre-heated oven at 190°C / 375°F for 5 mins.
  4. Grind black pepper or sprinkle paprika over the eggs (optional). Garnish with chopped parsley OR more chopped basil. Serve steaming at the table in the hot skillet. TIP: If you’re serving straight from a hot cast iron pan, don’t forget to protect the table surface with a cork mat.
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Featured image: Shakshuka garnished with parsley and paprika and toast for mopping up.

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This is Nigel’s 267th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. The link to Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook is now live, well priced at $9.99 or £9.99.

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