Shakshuka: A Template for Breakfast, Dinner, and Every Meal in Between

20160926-shakshuka-16.jpg

Is it just me, or is shakshuka everywhere these days? It's a toss-up as to whether it's more fun to say "shakshuka" or the name of its Turkish counterpart, menemen, but both are incredibly tasty, straightforward dishes that should be in your arsenal of staples. Though it's North African in origin, these days shakshuka is popular throughout the Middle East (particularly in Israel, where it may as well be one of the national dishes) and in hip neighborhood diners all over the coastal US. Given its versatility, it's easy to see why. It's quick; it's simple; it's easy to scale up or down; it works for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, or a midnight snack; and it's so primal that it barely needs a recipe. Before I started testing for this one, I'd never used a printed recipe as more than just a basic guideline. Shakshuka is almost built for riffing.

3:37

Of course, it helps that it's also downright delicious. Like pizza, shakshuka is one of those dishes that are still pretty darn good even at their worst.

But there's delicious, and then there's delicious. When I make mine, I want the full-on italicized version, so I decided to test out all of the variables and come up with a more formal outline for how I'll make it in the future.

The Vegetables

The origin of the word shakshuka is debated, but most likely it comes from the Arabic for "mixture," and the dish itself probably got its start as just that: a mixture of odds and ends cooked in a pan, or a tagine with eggs. Like many dishes with catchall origins—minestrone, gazpacho, and hundreds of others—shakshuka nowadays has been tamed to the point where it's typically made with a defined set of ingredients. Onions and tomatoes are a given, as are peppers, but the types of peppers and their ratio are up for debate.

The shakshuka in Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty uses a ton of peppers, cut into big, chunky strips. The finished dish almost resembles an Italian peperonata, with a sweetness to match. Michael Solomonov's version, from his book, Zahav, uses half as many bell peppers. David Lebovitz's, which he says was inspired by both Ottolenghi's and Sami Tamimi's, takes a different tack: no bell peppers at all, only hot chilies to spice the tomatoes.

I tried several combinations of sweet and hot peppers and found that I preferred the pepper-as-supporting-character approach, limiting myself to a single ripe bell pepper (red, orange, or yellow; it doesn't matter), along with a hot chili. (I tried serranos, jalapeños, and Fresnos, and all were delicious.)

How to cook the onions and peppers is another key question. Some folks insist on no color at all. I find shakshuka made this way to be a little... boring. On the other hand, slowly caramelizing them over moderate heat leads to a cloyingly sweet sauce as sugars develop. I prefer to sauté my vegetables over high heat, in a way that would have gotten me yelled at back in my restaurant days.

20160926-shakshuka-03.jpg

I can hear them now. Kenji! You're burning the f#&king onions! Oui, chef. Sorry, chef.

#sorrynotsorry

They taste good this way. They tenderize and get sweet, but also have a hint of charred bitterness to balance them out. The trick is to be lazy about it: Don't stir too often, and let the onions and peppers cook a little bit unevenly. It's okay if some are charred and others are barely softened. It all works out in the end.

Once the onions and peppers are nicely softened and charred, I add a few cloves of sliced garlic, which I cook just until they're soft and beginning to brown. (Unlike onions and peppers, garlic becomes very bitter if taken to the charred stage.)

The Spices

20160926-shakshuka-01-composite.jpg

Spicing in shakshuka can vary wildly, but most recipes start with paprika and cumin and build from there, often with coriander, caraway, and turmeric, or even saffron. When I posted the other day about one of the approaches I was trying out, some folks told me that shakshuka "needs no spices." This was surprising to me, as every single recipe I've ever seen contains at least some form of spicing. I tried out a spice-free version and wasn't too thrilled with the results (it reminded me more of Italian-style eggs in purgatory than shakshuka), but there was something nice about the simplicity.

In the end, I split the difference, going with just the most basic of spicing: a combination of paprika—I tried it with both sweet Hungarian and smoked Spanish paprika, and both were great—and cumin. To maximize their flavor, I added them to the pan and bloomed them in the oil before adding any liquid. Heat helps trigger chemical reactions that create new, complex flavors, while also allowing fat-soluble flavor compounds to dissolve in the oil and work their way more efficiently around the finished dish.

The Tomatoes

The biggest question about the tomatoes was whether to use fresh or canned. Fresh Roma tomatoes can cook down into a nice, thick sauce, but it takes a long time, and that's assuming you can even get good ripe tomatoes, period. Most of the year, that's easier said than done. I decided to stick with canned tomatoes, and opted for whole peeled over the other choices.

Whole peeled tomatoes typically work better for sauces than diced tomatoes. Diced tomatoes are packed with extra calcium chloride, which helps them keep their diced shape even after extended cooking. Whole peeled tomatoes, on the other hand, break down more naturally. I also like that whole peeled tomatoes allow you to adjust the texture to suit your needs. For the shakshuka, that means either squeezing the tomatoes through my fingers in a bowl to get irregular chunks, or—my current favorite method—using a pastry blender to cut the tomatoes directly in the pan.

Instead of adding tomato paste, as some recipes call for, I prefer to just simmer down my sauce a bit to intensify its flavor. One less ingredient to worry about, and brighter flavor, too.

At this stage, if you'd like, you can add any number of optional ingredients. Slivered olives are wonderful (try using intense oil-cured olives), as is a bit of crumbled feta cheese gently folded in. If you can get your hands on some sujuk—a heavily spiced beef sausage that, like chorizo, comes in many, many regional variants—it's delicious cubed, fried, and folded into the sauce along with its fat (but even some diced pepperoni would be great here). Artichoke hearts are a classic Tunisian addition. A handful of greens, like kale or even lettuce, is good, or, if you want to make the dish even more substantial, some big fat cooked beans (favas or gigantes are my favorites) and cubed potato are all possibilities.

Remember: Shakshuka literally means "mixed." It invites invention and kitchen-sink-iness. If you can put it in an omelette, you can put it in shakshuka.

The Eggs

20160926-shakshuka-08-composite.jpg

At this point, you've got yourself a wonderful sauce that can be made well in advance, or even frozen for later. To turn that sauce into a meal, all you need is a few eggs. That gives you a couple more choices to make.

Turkish menemen, a close cousin of shakshuka, is typically made with the eggs folded and scrambled into the sauce. I've seen versions of shakshuka that use this technique as well. But, at least these days, keeping the eggs intact so that you can stir in the runny yolks seems to be the norm, and it's my favorite way of serving the dish anyway.

To do it, make a few shallow indentations in the sauce with a spoon or spatula, then break eggs directly into them. Spoon a little bit of the sauce around the whites of the eggs to help them set just a touch faster than the yolks, cover the pan, and let it simmer and steam just until the whites are barely set and the yolks are still golden and soft.

Shakshuka is so filling that I generally plan on only a single egg per person (with a couple of extras just in case), but if you want to serve two eggs per person, I'd suggest putting two eggs into each slightly enlarged well, rather than trying to fit twice as many individual eggs into separate wells.

What About the Broiler?

Some shakshuka recipes recommend finishing the dish under the broiler or in the oven. I treat ovens like trips to the dentist: Other than when it's time for my annual appointment, I'm loath to turn it on unless I absolutely have to. (Dentist in April; oven during the holidays.) I always figured that these types of recipes were written by restaurant chefs who, by default, have ovens on all the time and so think nothing of using them for even quick tasks. But a friend of mine insisted that the oven gave the eggs a nicer texture, so I gave it a shot.

They definitely do come out with a different texture, and if you can finagle your broiler just right, you can manage to get some crispy bits around the edges of the pan. But the risk of overcooking the yolk runs high, and the potential advantages aren't enough for me to switch from my lid-and-stovetop method.

If you really want to give your shakshuka some additional texture, try this wacky technique I tested late, late one night: shakshuka brûlée. I got the idea after watching a video that Bon Appétit made with Alvin Cailan of LA's Eggslut, in which Cailan sprinkles soft-boiled eggs with sugar and torches them, crème brûlée–style. I tried combining some brown sugar with a big pinch of cumin and smoked paprika, sprinkling it on top of the cooked shakshuka, then hitting it with a brûlée torch. Breaking through a crisp shell into an oozing egg yolk is intensely satisfying, and the flavors, with the toasted spices and sugar on top, are odd but insanely delicious. I plan on keeping the technique in my back pocket for whenever the mood strikes. (You can see a quick-and-dirty, work-in-progress video I made that night here.)

Serving

20160926-shakshuka-18.jpg

Whether you brûlée, broil, or finish on the stovetop is up to you, but there's one thing that's not up for debate: Shakshuka must be served with bread for sopping up all the flavorful sauce. A wide, squat, crusty loaf is traditional, but nobody will bat an eye if you prefer pita, ciabatta, a French baguette, or even a sourdough. So long as there's something there, you're good. Heck, I've eaten shakshuka with bagels and tortillas in the past!

20160926-shakshuka-17.jpg

The greatest thing about shakshuka is that it's made completely out of pantry staples (with the exception of the fresh peppers), which means you're pretty much always a half hour away from a pretty fantastic meal.