Normally I will run a million miles from anything that smacks of a new trend, fad or fashion, which while explaining a great deal about my general appearance and wardrobe, does not explain my new found obsession with Shakshuka. Five years ago, the mention of this Tunisian classic would be more likely to raise eyebrows than glasses – sounding more like a dubious gambling game played furtively out of view of the authorities. The truth is, you would have struggled to find this simple, but perfect platter of spiced tomato and eggs anywhere but the most authentic of Middle Eastern and North African eateries. These days, venture down to your aspirational neighbourhood Sunday brunch spot and you are more likely to find the single estate Lattes accompanying just-cooked eggs nestling into the shallow recesses of a rich, smokey and delicately spiced gooey tomato base, than a great British fry up.
I cooked this dish for the first time, at home a couple of weeks ago, for exactly that occasion – brunch for a small gathering of good friends who’d stayed over the night before. Breaking my golden rule of never cooking a new dish for the first time for anyone other than oneself and most loved one, I soldiered forth and delivered the finished dish, centre-table, in all its vibrant, bubbling glory. Now, when it comes to any kind of cooking for anyone but myself, my default routine on serving up is to ignore all protocol and dive in for a first taste of reassurance – before sitting back with, hopefully, a barely disguised sigh of relief before gesticulating to the assembled to dig in and enjoy. The breaking of the aforementioned rule gave me a heightened sense of anticipation and nervousness as first fork-full homed in on target: a squint of the eyes, smack of the lips and sharp exhale and then I felt like the goal-scorer having to hold it in after banging one in against the club he’d supported as a boy, and played for as star player. I wanted to throw back my chair, leap up punching the air in frenzied celebration. Instead, I opted for quiet reflection and gracefully acknowledged the Mmmmms and Arrrrrrrs of satisfied friends.
The thing is, this dish is unbelievably easy – for anyone; seasoned pro or rank amateur. I would never have broken that golden rule for anything that wasn’t stone-wall simple. But its exotic flavour, luxury duvet on a winters day-style comfort and great eating occasion suitability defy the basic cooking procedure. And then came my moment of revelation and clarity: sometimes there’s a reason why things gain main-stream popularity with the exponential pace of a steam locomotive. They simply deserve to. No point in running and hiding from this bad boy. All aboard now.
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 red pepper, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbsp tomato puree
400g tin chopped tomatoes
400g cherry vine tomatoes, halved
Pinch of sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Small handful of parsley, chopped
Heat the olive oil in a cast iron skillet or heavy-based frying pan (approx 25-30cm diameter). Fry gently, without colouring for three or four minutes until starting to soften. Add the red peppers and continue to cook for a further three or four minutes. Add the garlic and dry spices and cook for another minute stirring to combine. Add the tomato puree and continue gentle frying for another couple of minutes, stirring constantly. Add the tinned tomatoes, stir well to combine and cook for ten minutes at a gently simmer. Add the halved cherry tomatoes and cook for a further ten minutes continuing at a gentle simmer until most of the liquid has disappeared, but the mixture is not too dry. Make six indentations in the mixture by pressing down with the back of a ladle or similar shaped implement. Carefully break the eggs into each recess. TIP: Break the eggs into a small cup before tipping gently into the pan. Once all the eggs are in, cover the pan with a lid or another upturned frying pan and continue to cook on a low heat until the egg white has just set and the yolks are still runny. Turn off the heat, sprinkle with the chopped parsley and serve immediately.