Learning to cook will, for me, always be bound up with two other things: grieving for my mother, and my relationship with Sam. One death, one birth, both preceding my first foray into the kitchen by such a small margin that I struggle to unpick the different strands of my own narrative.
It was around this time of year, and it seems appropriate that, as I celebrate one and remember the other, I cook a dish that connotes limbo. Sadness and joy. Patience, and quiet triumphs. That dish is Shakshuka.
Shakshuka seems to be everywhere at the moment: achingly trendy, found on almost every respectable breakfast menu in London. Shakshuka is a dish claimed by Morocco, Israel, Libya, Egypt and Yemen (and you can see why).
It’s sometimes called ‘eggs in purgatory’. I like this. White and golden orbs, sitting on top of a fiery lava of tomato and peppers, which gently cooks them: half way between heaven and hell. This is where this dish has squarely fallen for me.
My mother died shortly before Valentine’s Day. The funeral was shortly after Valentine’s Day. In the intervening period, I travelled to my family home in Newcastle, to deal with death, and back to London, to deal with life. I sat on trains, one hand on my laptop to clients, another on the phone to the undertakers.
A strange, bright white spot in that week was a long-postponed date with Sam. It was only our fourth date. On our third, I’d received the phone call from my father telling me my mother was dead.
It was very much the early days of our relationship. We barely knew each other. We were a lifetime away from bad habits, from decorating schemes and joint accounts. We were still taking faltering steps, circling one another, scoping out whether we could actually bear one another’s company, whether we liked the same books and hated the same people. As I sat on the Victoria line wending its way from North to South London, I felt wildly guilty for the small feeling of excitement in the pit of my stomach at the prospect of the date.
We had previously decided that to celebrate Valentine’s Day after three dates was silly, but that we would spend Pancake Day together instead. Pancake Day came and went, as I sat in Newcastle and chose hymns and drafted eulogies. But Valentine’s Day still loomed large. We decided we would reverse our decision: we would celebrate Pancake Day on Valentines Day.
So we ate pancakes. And I smiled for the first time in a week. And was quietly, deeply impressed by Sam’s ability to throw together pancakes, to nonchalantly transform eggs and milk and flour into something hot and golden and delicious. And I realised that I wanted to be able to do that. Not to make pancakes, particularly, but to be able to feel assured around ingredients, to feel confident cooking. Five days after my Mummy died, five days after I had lost control of my life as I knew it, I decided I needed to learn to cook.
I diligently worked my way through the egg canon. Boiling, poaching, scrambling, baking. I threw them into cakes without thinking about it. I curdled custard without realising that that’s what I’d done. Slowly, I became more confident. Slowly, I learned to bake and cook and take joy in both. Eggs became part of the rhythm of our life, and as Sam watched and encouraged and understatedly offered help and advice, they bound us together as much as they bound my cakes. They were quiet, gentle markers of success, of progress, of milestones.
And quietly, gently, I celebrated. I celebrated me. I celebrated us. I celebrated eggs. I made breakfasts as an act of love, a quiet, gentle declaration of gratitude and triumph.
I find myself turning to this as a dish of comfort in strange times of happiness and sadness and limbo. We ate it on the day our mortgage was agreed in principle, and the day we found a house on which we wanted to make an offer. Days where I wanted to telephone my mother. Days where the celebrations would not have been possible had she not died. Days which I give thanks for and wish I could undo. So now we sit in our house, and we eat Shakshuka. A house that we have named after my mother. A house brought to life by cooking. A house that I sentimentally think that eggs built. Because it wasn’t declarations of love, or even the first tentative steps that made this house our home. It was dancing in the kitchen. It was eating pancakes. It was crying over smashed eggs, and comforting over unrisen cakes. It was patiently showing me for the twentieth time how to poach a damn egg. It was making breakfasts for each other. This is the house that eggs built.
This dish is what you need, whenever you need it. It is comforting. It is exciting. It is spicy and rich but also grounded by the earthy cumin. The yolks of the eggs break into glorious golden pools. It will celebrate with you, or stay by your side whilst your mourn.
Shakshuka is, in truth, like everything I make, deceptively simple. If you have the ingredients, a knife, and a pan, you have the ability to make it.
It goes like this:
This is the House that Eggs Built Shakshuka
Makes: a generous breakfast for 2-3 people
Takes: 10 minutes
Bakes: 20 minutes (on the stove)
4-6 eggs depending on how many breakfasters are present, and how much they love eggs
1 heaped teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1-2 red peppers
2 tins of tomatoes
A fat handful of coriander
1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves or a scant teapsoon of dried thyme
1 red or green chilli, fixed as finely as your can bear 1 tablespoon dark muscovado sugar
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1. Put your cumin in a dry pan and allow the pan to heat up to a medium heat until you can smell the cumin. Now add the oil and allow to fry for a further two minutes.
2. Meanwhile, take your onions. Dice one as finely as you can be bothered, and slice the other, creating thin half moons and crescent moons, and add them to the pan. Allow them to sit and gently fry for another few minutes until they are translucent and soft.
3. Chop the peppers into long elegant strips. Add them along with the sugar and thyme and leave on the same heat for three minutes until the peppers are beginning to soften.
4. Now add the cayenne, chopped chilli pepper and tomatoes. I use plum tomatoes and squish them messily in my hands before they reach the pan. I think the flavour’s better, but wear an apron if you’re doing this because the splatter is ridiculous. Turn down the heat a little and cook for fifteen minutes by which time the tomatoes should have reduced, but not be dry.
5. Eggs! Crack your first egg into a small cup, and then make a little divot in your tomato mixture with the back of your spoon. Hold your mug close to this divot and tip the egg into the space. Repeat for as many eggs as you’re using, spacing as evenly as you can. Cover the pan ideally with a lid, but if you find yourself once again at this stage having used the only pan in the house which doesn’t have a lid, cover with a plate or a tightly fitted sheet of tin foil.
6. This is the time to organise yourself and your table. Gather your accoutrements: toast your bread, brew your coffee or tea, pour your juice, and slice any cheese or avocado (see below). Neglecting these small obligations now will only result in jammy egg yolks in a few moments.
7. Call people to the table now. They can occupy themselves with pouring coffee or buttering toast. But the tomatoes will continue to cook the eggs even once the pan has been take off the heat. so for runny yolks, you require attentive and enthusiastic guests. And if they are not attentive and enthusiastic, they don’t deserve this pan of bounty in any event.
8. Take sneaky peeks beneath the lid: as soon as the whites of the egg are white rather than translucent, you’re there. Sprinkle liberally with chopped coriander. Deliver the pan to the table with quiet aplomb. Serve immediately from the pan.
Icing on the Cake
We eat this with feta sprinkled on top (inauthentic but completely delicious) alongside piles of buttered sourdough and, if we have it, a whole avocado.
[This recipe is adapted with wild abandon from the Breakfast Bible by Malcolm Eggs, which is a clever, funny book, and my copy is as dog-eared and yolk-smudged as you would hope from a book with that title.]