Starting my day with pancakes always put me in a moody, sugar-laden stupor. And I never could get behind a bowl of cold cereal for breakfast. Even when I was very young, I was partial to cold pizza, with any plate of leftovers a close second.
It did not take my parents long to realize I was most joyful when reeled from bed by the wafting smell of simmering tomatoes. Shakshuka for brunch was a staple in our household. My father, born and raised in Tel Aviv, introduced my New Yorker mother to it when they met in the ’90s.
Shakshuka is a North African and Middle Eastern tomato-sauce-and-egg extravaganza, and its variations could be found in the restaurants of my childhood. The Hummus Place, a below-ground Manhattan joint that describes its cuisine as Israeli-meets-Greek-meets-Lebanese, serves its shakshuka with spinach. Cafe Mogador, a Moroccan spot, calls its variation Moroccan eggs. It’s served with za’atar-spangled pita. There, adding merguez is optional. The shakshuka at Anoush’ella, a Lebanese restaurant in Boston, is topped with labneh, a tangy, doubly-strained yogurt that veers towards soft cheese. Halloumi and feta are add-ons found on many menus.
My dad tells me he spent his youth dillydallying over steaming pans of shakshuka, hanging out with his friends, he says, as they waited for the tomatoes to thicken. From this he learned: if you lose track of time and the tomatoes overthicken, you can redeem the concoction by stirring in a few tablespoons of water. The eggs get added later, into wells made once the sauce has reached the perfect consistency.
My mother, who resists the constraints of both recipes and tradition, has experimented with many modifications to the dish. Before I learned to revere eggs, she would stir chickpeas into the sauce a few minutes before the eggs were cracked to add starch and extra protein. I’d mine the communal shakshuka pan for those. She always added feta, too, at the same time as the eggs, making her version extravagantly creamy and salty.
Whether I choose to add chickpeas or feta just depends on the day. My mom says, “Why choose?” My dad, a shakshuka purist, scorns both embellishments.
What my parents agree on: herbs and spices can guide the dish in different directions. Here, I’ve added a little smoked paprika and crushed red pepper for spice. Oregano can give the dish a Greek tinge. Za’atar or coriander are excellent, too.
I’m writing from a visit home in New Jersey, so my dad has given this recipe a once-over. He would like to add that cleanup is a very important part of cooking.
Shakshuka With Chickpeas
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 14.5-oz. can tomatoes (peeled or crushed)
Pinch of salt
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of crushed red pepper to taste
¼ tsp. smoked paprika
8 oz. chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Cilantro, as a garnish (optional)
- Heat the olive oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 4-5 minutes until translucent and tender. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.
- Add the can of tomatoes and decrease heat to low. If using peeled whole tomatoes, break the tomatoes down with a wooden spoon. Add a pinch of salt and a grind or two of black pepper. Cover with a well-fitting lid and let simmer over low heat for 10 minutes.
- Stir in the crushed red pepper flakes and paprika. Re-cover the pan and let simmer another 10 minutes or until the tomatoes have broken down and sauce is very thick. Add chickpeas, stir, and let sit for 2 minutes.
- Make two wells in the sauce — one for each egg. Crack the eggs into the wells and cover the pan with its lid for 5-7 minutes, until the egg whites are cooked and the yolks are still medium-soft.
- Remove shakshuka from heat and garnish with cilantro and a shake of red pepper flakes.