Claude has taught me to make some of my favorite dishes (Afghan meatballs! Marengo cavour! ), so when she said we were having chakchouka for lunch and I had no idea what it was, I suspected I would once again be reaching for a recipe card.
Boy, was I right.
As I learned by nosing my way into the kitchen before our meal, chakchouka (also often called shakshouka) is a sort of tomato ratatouille cooked in a cast iron skillet with onions, bell peppers, garlic and cumin. Once that simple mixture is cooked down, you make little nests in it, crack a few eggs, and cover the pan to poach them.
Some fresh crusty bread is the traditional companion to mop up the savory goodness.
Claude tells me her mom often made chakchouka for breakfast when she was growing up but that it’s also widely eaten for both lunch and dinner in Mediterranean countries, either as a main dish itself or as a side to grilled meat.
Turns out that there are endless versions of chakchouka not only in Algeria but in neighboring Morocco, Tunisia and Libya, and it’s become a staple in Israel as well. Turkey has a dish called menemen that sounds suspiciously similar, and the tried and true Mexican hangover cure known as huevos rancheros is also a recognizable cousin.
Besides tasting absolutely fantastic any time of day, one of the best things about chakchouka is that it is entirely flexible, both ingredient-wise and cooking-wise.
Tomatoes, onions, olive oil and cumin are all you really need for the most basic chakchouka, and from there the other ingredients — like bell peppers and garlic — just give it more personality. You can make chakchouka in as little as fifteen minutes or let it slowly stew and reduce for an hour or more.
You can poach eggs in the sauce or scramble them in, skip the eggs entirely, or add spicy sausage or roasted chicken instead. If you prefer veggies, add zucchini, eggplant, chickpeas, spinach or whatever else suits your fancy. Some versions of chakchouka even include goat cheese or feta.
Here is the recipe that Claude gave me. It’s a great starting point for experimenting to find your own favorite combination:
Chakchouka — makes 4 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/3 cups chopped onion
1 cup chopped bell peppers, any color
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 hot chili pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1. In a cast iron skillet, sautee the onion, bell pepper and garlic in olive oil until the vegetables soften and the onion turns translucent, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the tomatoes, cumin, paprika, salt and chili pepper. Simmer uncovered until the tomato juices have cooked off, about 10 minutes. Add a little water if needed to prevent scorching before the veggies are cooked to your liking.
3. Make four indentations in the tomato mixture and crack the eggs into them. Cover the skillet and let the eggs cook until the whites are firm, about 5 minutes.
4. Serve with fresh crusty bread (Arizmendi’s demi-baguette is perfect)
Since chakchouka is made from common ingredients that are frequently kept on hand, it’s the perfect fast and simple answer to the eternal question of what to have for breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner.