Hey folks, I’ve got a confession to make: Just this month, I’ve finally caught biber fever.
Not that one, though. I have no interest in twenty-tens pop stars, catchy as they may be, since that’s neither my genre nor my era.
No, I’m a 90s punk rock kid at my core, with a love of chiptune and rap metal on the side. The biber that I’ve fallen for isn’t a singer but the turkish for chilli. More specifically, the rich, vaguely paprika-like pul biber that I was recently introduced to by Rafi’s Spicebox.
So today, we’re going to be making up something equally middle eastern, adapted from a jewish friend’s home cooking.
For march’s main recipe, we’re going to be reworking the modern vegetarian classic that is shakshuka.
Now, for those of you who don’t know, Shakshuka is a simple dish, consisting of eggs poached in a spiced tomato sauce. There are numerous tricks and tips out there to improve it, so I’ve made this meal rather too often in the last week or two, just to see what did and didn’t work. Not that I regret doing so in the slightest.
Playing around with this recipe taught me a lot and, shakshuka being the rich, hearty, warming dish that it is, there were much worse meals that I could have been having multiple times a day. In fact, that ability to enjoy it at any time of day or night is one of its greatest selling points.
Yet, despite all sorts of interesting additions from pizza herbs to mushrooms and even an assortment of meats, I quickly discovered that nothing would save a bad base recipe. Shakshuka lives or dies on two points and both seem somewhat overlooked online.
To make a good shakshuka, what you need is a strong, simple, well-balanced blend of spices and to only cook the whites of your eggs. That rich, full-bodied, paprika-laden sauce with the yolk oozing into it is what really sells the dish.
So here’s what you’ll need to get it:
1 large sweet pepper (or 1½ bells)
1 large onion
3 cloves garlic
2 tins of tomatoes
1tbsp mild smoked paprika
1.5tbsp pul biber powder
Peppercorns to taste
And, while you’ll see a red onion in the picture, it doesn’t make all that much difference to the taste. I honestly just picked it for looks.
So let’s get started by chopping the onion, garlic and pepper(s).
Then, for the actual, cooking, heat some olive oil on a medium to high flame in a deep frying pan with a lid. A glass one, if possible, since the ability to see in and observe the process will prove quite useful later. If not, though, we can work around that when the time comes. After all, I only had a glass lid for my smaller pan, used for single portion test batches (this recipe makes enough for 2).
Once the oil is good and hot, toss in the onion and garlic with the lid off and fry until they both start to change colour a tad.
Then follow up with the pepper(s), cooking for three to four minutes more before stirring through the spices and ensuring an even mix.
After the spices have been sizzling for a minute or so, chuck in the tinned tomatoes and stir everything together. If you’ve not used pre-chopped tomatoes like I have, you’ll have to either break them apart with your spoon against the side or get a knife involved but, either way, having the whole fruit is not a hard problem to fix.
Next, once you’ve made certain that no spices are stuck on the bottom or sides of the pan to burn, bring the contents of your pan up to a boil and simmer for twenty-five minutes, in order to thicken them.
By the time that this is done, you should be able to make wells in the sauce that you’ve created and have them hold their shape for a short while. At least long enough to take a picture:
So, now that you can, you’re going to. Turn the heat right down and make all the wells that you can fit, spacing them roughly evenly and filling each with a whole, unbeaten egg.
If you feel like seasoning them, crack over your choice of peppercorns now. I like grains of paradise but I’m also more than happy with this dish without any.
Then pop on the lid and let the eggs gently poach in your shakshuka’s aromatic steam. I find that it takes somewhere between seven and ten minutes for the whites to cook but, if you do have a glass lid, you can see for yourself exactly what is going on.
Either way, though, you want to catch them quickly, once the whites do solidify, in order to keep that runny yolk. So, when the eggs are to your liking, remove from the heat, garnish and serve immediately. Just be sure to blow on each bite because it’s going to be quite physically hot.
For garnish, herbs are traditional – Usually coriander or parsley – but I actually really like mine with shredded olives.
As for the main meal, though, its rich and peppery tomato base is only further enhanced by the subtle undertones of smoke in the equally peppery paprika. The cumin adds warming spiced notes, while the chilli adds both its own warmth and an extra layer of flavour. One which adds a touch of bright, sweet, somewhat caramel-like overtones but also offsets both that and the sweet paprika with the same kind of dry, almost bitter quality found in hot paprika.
And it all contrasts wonderfully with the mild-flavoured egg white and its delicious, runny yolk.
In most instances, I would use the pul biber as a paprika substitute, since it does have many similar qualities, but those caramel overtones, its subtle, raisiny hints and the slight salty quality to it make it distinct enough that, in this dish at least, it is also fully capable of working alongside that spice.
I have no idea whether or not it’s the traditional turkish pepper for this dish but it’s the right one for me, either way. Especially with its delightful
that really warms me up on a cold morning. Though you might find that other sources of the powder make a hotter shakshuka. Rafi’s Spicebox do, after all, make theirs from deseeded chillies.
And hey, maybe that’s what you want. Maybe you’re eating this for dinner and would like it hotter. You can always swap a little of the pul biber for ghost pepper powder but I wouldn’t cut it completely.
It’s too integral to the taste of this dish.