On my kitchen’s bookshelf sits a cookbook called PLENTY. If you opened it and turned to page 87, you would find a well-traveled page, a page thick with splatterings of cumin-infused olive oil, smudged with evidence of being turned hastily in a cloud of onions, torn in places worn thin from heavy use, loved the way all cookbook pages dream of being loved. This three page spread tells the story of shakshuka, a North African dish that’s become a favorite throughout Israel and the Middle East. At its simplest, shakshuka is a dish of slow-cooked tomatoes, onions, and spices topped with poached eggs. But to me, it is a divine dish worthy of culinary pursuit.
Shakshuka at home
I adore shakshuka and have cooked it innumerable times since coming across the recipe in Ottolengi’s PLENTY in 2014. If you follow my instagram, you know what I’m talking about: skillets of varying sizes, bold reds and yellows of bell peppers, stately egg yolks, green splashes of cilantro and parsley, side dishes of olives, hummus, cucumbers, cheeses, and of course, loaves of bread for dipping. The aesthetic potential is overwhelmingly vast, not just in the food itself, but in the opportunities available while setting the table for a gathering.
Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born British chef and author of four cookbooks, didn’t invent the original recipe, but by including it in his cookbook he played a major part in bringing shakshuka to kitchens across the globe. His recipe shares similarities with others, using a base of cumin, onions, and tomatoes, but adds highlighted focus on the strips of bell peppers and the addition of saffron. Before shakshuka, Lussekatter, the traditional Christmas buns eaten in Sweden, provided my only encounter with saffron. But now I am a saffron fanatic even despite its high cost. Grown in only a few regions of the world, workers harvest saffron threads by hand from the inside of a flower called the saffron crocus. Each flower holds just three threads of saffron, and it takes 10,000 flowers to harvest one ounce. Any spice worthy of such delicate treatment is one worth buying.
Discovering shakshuka boldly altered my cooking style. It empowered me to feel capable experimenting with new ingredients – andouille sausage, salsa verde, kale, spinach, chicken, roasted red peppers, chili oil, green tomatoes – all shakshuka successes. Shakshuka became my go-to dish, the dish I cooked for long meals with old friends, the dish I cooked to impress guys I was dating, the dish I cooked when visiting my friends around the world. Once I even brought it to a potluck in a crock pot, though this was my least favorite version. Watching the ingredients cook in an open skillet is so captivating, the aromas filling your entire living space while dear friends sit at your kitchen table chatting and waiting.
Gatherings around food fill me with deep comfort. With people by my side and a warm bowl of food in my hands, gratitude seems to flow more freely. I often think of these words when gathering around a table for shakshuka, grateful for the simple moments shared in conversation and presence:
Shakshuka around the globe
In addition to cooking it, I also enjoy sampling shakshuka at other places. While in Oakland this June, a fellow food appreciator told me to go to Beauty’s Bagel Shop. When I saw shakshuka on their menu, I was sold.
I walked miles across Copenhagen this summer to sample the shakshuka at Atelier September, a local favorite for Danes and foreigners alike.
And my favorite shakshuka experience of all time happened in the fall of 2015 while on a six hour layover in London. Determined to eat the real shakshuka at one of Ottolenghi’s restaurants, I set off in haste from my airplane. After clearing customs and boarding the Heathrow Express, I hopped on the tube at Paddington Station, got off at Piccadilly Circus, and walked to NOPI.
“I’m here for the shakshuka,” I told the waitress. After a few minutes spent savoring the wait, savoring the extraordinary place and time I found myself in, my shakshuka arrived in a copper skillet, still sizzling, and topped with a smoky crème fraîche that I will spend the rest of my days thinking about. Alongside the shakshuka, the bread appeared warm on a wooden tray. To top it all off, I saw Yotam Ottolenghi himself. My morning at NOPI provided nothing short of a blue ribbon feast, a crowning moment in the portfolio of culinary experiences I’ve acquired over my short lifetime.
To you – readers, fellow cooks, diners, photographers, friends: find some vegetables, eggs, and saffron, grab a skillet, and get to work. Shakshuka awaits.
Shakshuka with Basil & Fried Halloumi
I most often cook this for myself – so the recipe serves one. Just multiply for additional servings.
4 Tbsp of olive oil
4 strips of sliced halloumi
½ sweet onion, peeled and sliced
3 heavy shakes of ground roasted red pepper
3 heavy shakes of ground smoked cumin
1 bell pepper (red, orange or yellow), sliced
1 bay leaf
handful of parsley, chopped
handful of cilantro, chopped
handful of basil, chopped
1 big, ripe tomato or ¾ cup halved cherry tomatoes
Pinch of saffron – if you have it (which you should!)
Salt & pepper to taste (about 8 heavy shakes)
Dash of Smoked paprika ground
2 Tbsp Plain Yogurt
handful of cilantro
- First, heat 2 Tbsp of olive oil in a small skillet for frying the halloumi. Once sizzling, lay the four strips of halloumi in the pan. Fry until lightly browned and crispy on one side, then flip. Once both sides are cooked, remove from heat with a spatula on a paper towel to soak up the oil.
- Combine the leftover oil with 2 additional Tbsp of olive oil in a medium saucepan on medium-low heat.
- Once warm, add the sliced onions and sauté for 2 minutes.
- Add in the roasted red pepper and smoked cumin.
- Add the bell pepper slices, the bay leaf, parsley, cilantro, and basil. Cook for five minutes.
- Turn to low heat and add the tomato, saffron, and salt and pepper. Remove the bay leaf. Cook for about 7 minutes or until the tomatoes start to juice. Add water in tsp increments if needed to get the sauce a bit runnier.
- Using a spatula, make two divots in the tomato mixture for the eggs.
- Crack an egg into each hole, salt, and simmer on low heat, covered, until the whites solidify but keep the yolks runny! (This took me years to perfect, it differs based on type of stovetop. Check every 30 seconds after they’ve cooked for about four minutes.)
- Once the eggs are done, remove from heat immediately. Top with a dollop of plain yogurt sprinkled with the smoked paprika, a handful of cilantro, and the fried halloumi.
- Enjoy with bread for dipping, cucumbers, cheese, hummus, olives, and lemons!