Tips for Making a Better Shakshuka

A handful of top tips - and some interesting variations - on everyone's favorite egg-and-tomato-based dish.

Limor Laniado Tiroche
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ShakshukaCredit: Limor Laniado Tiroche
Limor Laniado Tiroche

Green garlic arrived in the markets earlier than usual this year, apparently thanks to the plentiful rainfall. The garlic bulb is slender, pinkish-white in color, and its stalks are long and pale green. Green garlic, or baby garlic, is pulled from the damp soil before it matures and separates into cloves. Its taste is more delicate than that of mature garlic, and its fragrance is intoxicating.

When fresh garlic shows up in the markets I am reminded of goti - that was the name of a shakshuka dish I ate years ago in a little village in eastern Turkey. It was a thick shakshuka of sweet tomatoes, seasoned generously with green garlic. Browsing through Levantine culinary books, I came across an ancient recipe by the same name, probably from the days of the Ottoman Empire. The original shakshuka was a dish of vegetables seasoned with fresh garlic, goat meat and hard-boiled eggs. Over the years the meat gave way to tomatoes and peppers. Possibly because of its beauty, a good shakshuka causes diners to purr with pleasure. Or perhaps the secret of its charm lies in wiping up the thick sauce with challah, pita or a good baguette.

Below are two shakshuka recipes that are suitable for a proper breakfast, Shabbat brunch, or a light and nourishing family supper. But, before getting down to it, there are a few rules that should be followed:

Vegetables: Use ripe tomatoes that are rich in lycopene (the pigment that gives tomatoes their color - look for ones that are deep red ), which taste sweet even when eaten raw. If it's not prime tomato season, it is preferable to use high-quality canned tomatoes from Italy. A good tomato sauce will be seasoned with aromatic olive oil, green garlic and fresh spices. The name of the game is minimalism - no onions, peppers, celery or carrots. Red peppers may be added to shakshuka alongside the eggs, but not as part of the sauce. If green garlic season is over, substitute regular garlic at a ratio of half a clove per stalk of fresh garlic.

Spices: Add all of the spices at the beginning of cooking, except for salt, which gets added at the end. It is important that the spices be as fresh as possible. Fry them in olive oil before adding the liquids to release their flavor and fragrance. The perfect seasoning for red shakshuka is cumin, caraway, paprika, black pepper and a little salt.

Liquids: If the sauce exudes a lot of liquid, cook it until most of the liquid has evaporated. By the time you add the eggs there should be no more than two tablespoons of liquid left in the pan. When adding the eggs, raise the heat slightly to maintain the temperature of the sauce and to sear it slightly, which upgrades it.

Eggs: Use fresh eggs. Take them out of the fridge ahead of time and add them to the dish at room temperature. A cold egg lowers the temperature of the sauce and cooks unevenly. Cooking the eggs is a stressful and problematic task because the whites take longer to cook than the yolks. Covering the pan so that heat from above speeds up the egg whites' cooking is only a partial solution - the yolks might get overcooked and become covered by a white membrane.

Precise cooking can be achieved by separating the eggs. First add the whites, cover the pan for three minutes or until the whites have set, and then add the yolks. Cook uncovered for 30 seconds and serve immediately. Another solution is to use only the yolks, in which case the cooking time will be very short, with no need to cover the pan. If you are short on time and separating eggs is out of the question, after adding the eggs to the dish use the back of a spoon to gently flatten and spread the whites collected around the yolks toward the edges of each egg. Cover the pan for a minute or two, while keeping a close eye on it to make sure the yolks don't set.

Extras: It is best to use only extras that enrich the texture and array of flavors. Add them when the tomato sauce is almost done, before adding the eggs or at the same time. Options include a merguez sausage that has been lightly fried and sliced into rings; cubes of roasted or fried eggplant; white cheeses like feta, mozzarella, ricotta, soft or hard goat cheese, Iraqi buffalo or thick labneh; chopped herbs such as basil, fresh za'atar (hyssop ), parsley and cilantro.

Serving: Shakshuka should be served in the pan it was cooked in, along with lemony tehina, scallions and radishes, and fresh bread, challah or baguette.

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