A New Year’s brunch: Ottolenghi’s shakshuka

When I was a teenager there was one recurrent theme about Christmas: even though the house was full of snacks and free booze, by December 27th I was desperate, frantic even, to get out of the house and pay to drink alcohol and eat snacks somewhere else, with my friends. Even though it made no sense whatsoever to go and spend what little money we had on stuff that was already freely available to us, I just needed to mark a separation, a sense of my own self. These days, even though I no longer have that need to escape, and I love most of Christmas, I still, after days and weeks of parties and carols and delicious roasted food, feel that residual need for some kind of difference. And, nowadays, I find it in food. I want something far removed from fat and carbs, something spicy and fresh, something very un-English.

This shakshuka, for example, which is technically a breakfast dish, but would work for dinner too, fits all my requirements in the dog days between Christmas and New Year: carb- and wheat-free, unfussy unless, like me, you decide to make your own labneh (a sort of strained yogurt cheese; believe me it tastes nicer than it sounds), spicy, one-pot, storecupboard-friendly and, like all the best recipes from a restauranteur, it is simple enough to recreate without any special equipment or ingredients. And it’s adaptable: I first tried David Lebovitz’s recipe (with feta and without the greens) then, after trying it for my birthday treat in his restaurant Nopi, Ottolenghi’s (with and without the pepper). Yet another man, Mr Gordon, has a version with lamb in it. So fiddle with it to find what suits you. Now that I have had it in Nopi, I can safely say that my favourite is this version, with the effort of the labneh. But if you can’t be bothered to make the latter, thick Greek or Turkish yogurt (no, not low-fat versions) is good too, and I think a young soft goat’s cheese would make a perfect replacement. Apparently it’s a great hangover breakfast or brunch too, not that anyone is going to need that this week…Happy New Year everyone and see you in 2014!

Shakshuka (adapted from Jerusalem)

For two

For the labneh (you will have some left over)
thick Greek or Turkish yogurt (I used a 10% fat version), 450g
coarse salt, ¼ tsp
clean muslin cloth (or absolutely pristine or, better still, new tea-towel), large enough to wrap up and tie the yogurt
sieve and large bowl (you are draining the liquid out of the yogurt so you need enough space for it to drip through the sieve into the bowl)

How to
1. Put the sieve over the bowl and line it with the cloth, leaving the edges of the cloth hanging over the sieve.
2. Mix the yogurt and salt together then tip the mixture into the cloth. Fold the edges of the cloth over and tie the ends together to make a bundle (you know, Dick-Whittington-setting-off-on-his-adventures-style).
3. Now put the whole lot, bundle in sieve in bowl, into the fridge and leave it to drain for 24 hours or so (told you it was a faff but if I can do it in my fridge the size of a matchbox then anyone can). When you unwrap it you should have a mixture with a cream-cheese-esque consistency.

For the shakshuka you will need:

Cupboard (or things you may already have)
garlic cloves, 2
oil, 1 tbsp
tomato purée, 1 tsp
ground cumin, ½ tsp
salt, preferably freshly ground sea salt
tin of plum/chopped tomatoes, 400g
eggs, 4

Shopping list
red pepper, 1 (I use the long skinny ones, not sure what they are called)
harissa, 1 tbsp (though I have made it without this, adding a dried/fresh chilli, chopped up, instead)
Greek or Turkish yogurt (unless you have made labneh, as above), about 4 tbsp
nice bread, to serve (optional)

How to
1. Peel, top and tail and finely chop the garlic cloves.
2. Top and tail, deseed and finely chop (the smaller the better I’ve found) the red pepper.
3. Heat the oil in a frying pan big enough to hold four fried eggs (a lidded one, if you have one, helps with step 5), then add the garlic, tomato purée, ground cumin, red pepper, harissa and a large pinch of salt. Stir and cook together on a medium-ish heat (you want a slight, not furious, simmer) until the pepper is soft (about 8-10 minutes). If it seems to be sticking add a little more oil.
4. Add the tomatoes and stir in, then cook for another 1o minutes or so, until the sauce is quite thick. Season, if necessary, with a little more salt.
5. Make four dips in the sauce and break an egg into each one. Swirl the egg white into the sauce a bit, to help them cook, being careful not to break the yolks. Simmer until the eggs are done (runny yolks are what you’re after but, if you prefer, you can obviously cook them longer), covering with the pan lid if you want to speed this up. You can also, according to Lebovitz, bake them in the oven but I’ve not tried that yet.
6. Serve with a couple of spoonfuls of labneh/yogurt on top and some bread if you want. I quite like the carb-free purity of it without, which also leaves room for seconds…

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