The International language of egg and tomato sauce

by Ari LeVaux

Photos by Ari LeVaux
Photo by Ari LeVaux

Say, hypothetically, you find yourself hosting some Syrian or Mexican folk. No big deal, just a typical, impromptu mid-winter brunch in some sunny American kitchen. But suppose the pantry is running on empty, and all you have to cook are eggs, and some kind of tomato sauce. Just suppose. Now the gang must decide, should we have our tomatoes and eggs Mexican, Syrian or American-style?

 
Eggs, cooked with tomato sauce, or served with tomato sauce, is universal. The Portuguese version is called baked eggs on tomato sauce. Southern Italians call it Uova al Purgatorio, which literally means Purgatory eggs, and consists of eggs poached in marinera.
 
If the guests are especially hungry, the host won’t have time for complicated “ethnic” dishes. Scrambled eggs with ketchup will have to do, and some home fries with which to mop it up if one can scrounge up a potato. Some Tabasco sauce, ideally, and perhaps some cheese or mayo. You got this. Make sure there is plenty of hot grease in the pan-I like half and half XVOO and butter. Don’t over-stir; don’t overcook.

 
As I cook it, I hum that old John Prine song about the girl who likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs.
 
“She don’t like her eggs all runny/she thinks crossing her legs is funny//She likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs/swears like a sailor when she shaves her legs/she’s my baby, I’m her honey, never gonna let her go.”
 
The Mexicans, of course, have their huevos rancheros, which consist of fried eggs upon tortilla, with salsa. This dish is only a little more complicated to make than scrambled eggs with ketchup. Especially if you employ my gringo-tastic rancheros method technique.
 
First, fry an egg, preferably with a runny yolk and crispy bottom. Remove the egg from the pan, and set aside on a plate.
 
In a mixture of butter and olive oil, fry some minced garlic and onion. As soon as that becomes fragrant, throw in a few hands full of corn chips, and stir them around in the hot grease. Dump in some salsa, and stir it around some more.
 
(You can use flat corn tortillas if you want to be more authentic. But don’t stir those. Lay them flat).
 
When the salsa has heated up and is simmering, replace the egg (s) atop the chips, sprinkle the entire business with cheese, and put a lid on the pan, so the steam from the simmering salsa melts the cheese. Don’t overcook the egg though.
 
The corn chips will soak up the salsa, cheese, runny yolk, and whatever else you added; it’s a total pan-scraper of a dish.
 
But if you do an internet search for, say, “eggs tomato sauce,” about half the returns will be for shakshuka, a North African and Middle Eastern version the tomato egg combo that is popular across North Africa, from Morocco to Israel, Egypt to Iraq.
 
My friend Chef Abe Risho comes from a long line of distinguished Syrian cooks, and he served shakshuka for years to an adoring audience at Silk Road, his former restaurant (Risho and family run a mail-order spice and sauce business). Risho was kind enough to give me the shakshuka recipe that rocked Missoula.

 
The crushed Aleppo pepper he calls for can be purchased online. This is only slightly at odds with the fact that shakshuka is, at heart, a recipe you should be able to create from whatever sparse provisions are on hand, providing they include eggs and some form of tomato.
 
So, order some Aleppo pepper. But while you wait for it to arrive you can work on your shakshuka game by standing on Abe’s shoulders.
 
Shakshuka a la Abe Risho
 
ingredients
1/2 cup Extra virgin olive oil
1/2 onion, julienne
2 clove garlic, sliced thin
1 tbls Aleppo pepper
1 tbls tomato paste
1/4 cup white wine
3 cup whole peeled (san marzano) tomatoes, crushed in hand
2 each red bell pepper; roasted, peeled, seeded, julienne
2 tsp salt
2 tbls paprika, smoked (I have also used baharat, a turkish pepper blend)
6 each eggs
flat leaf parsley
 
Proceedure
1) Make an oven sauce, ideally in a shallow cast iron skillet by heating the pan in a hot oven 475F.  add oil, onion, garlic and Aleppo pepper and cook until starting to caramelize.
 
2) Add tomato paste and try to emulsify, cook until starting to brown.
 
3) Add wine and cook to reduce to a thick sauce. Add crushed tomatoes, peppers, and spices and simmer until thick and aromatic.
 
4) By this time the oil should be starting to separate on top of the sauce.  Make 6 wells in the sauce with the back of a spoon or ladle. Drop an egg into each well and return to the oven. Cook until egg white is cooked but the yolk is still runny (sunny side up).
 
5) Remove from oven, sprinkle on a good feta or farm cheese if using and top with torn parsley
 
In the Arabic of the North African region, shakshouka means “a mixture.” This is an appropriate name for a dish that moves freely across borders, hybridizing with the local flavors wherever it arrives. It was the Tunisian Jews that brought the dish to Israel, and it makes you wonder how many other cultures a pan of shakshuka could bind together, through the universal combination of tomatoes and eggs.