Right now may not seem like the time for a Comfort Dish. For the kind of stuff that, between about November and March, I bust out once per week at a minimum. In the time-honored tradition of Putting an Egg On It, this dish is really just a standard bowl of stuff that tastes good already, with a poached/fried/coddled egg on top for good measure and added legitimacy as something that is somehow real-er.
I’m talking about eggs in purgatory.
A couple of years ago, on a whirlwind brewery tour through St. Louis, Kristy and I were a) probably a little drunk and b) in the backset of the Davismobile, talking about — wait for it — food. Specifically, we were coasting along the edge of autumn and sharing our favorite no-frills, sit-down-shut-up kinds of recipes to prepare each other for the coming time of hibernation. One thing we both hit upon: eggs in purgatory. It was part of her current repertoire, and I realized it was something I had not made in ages.
And folks, because it has been quite the last couple of weeks, I am going to cut to the chase. First, I’m going to admit to you (and shock exactly zero people) that I throw my hands up and enjoy me some eggs in purgatory — or some close cousin thereof — about twice a month, sometimes more in colder months. Next, I am going to apologize for taking two weeks off, unannounced, no less. As I said, it’s been a whirlwind and I’m glad to be back in the kitchen.
And finally, I’m going to tell you what the hell eggs in purgatory actually is. As you might suspect, the dish, delightfully Dante-esque in its description, involves eggs in some sort of dicey situation, maybe one that involves extreme heat and/or the color red. You’d be right on both counts. It’s really just a shallow pan of marinara (or other tomato-based sauce, which I’ll expand upon in a minute), with a few eggs cracked into it, and cooked to your liking. If you’re me, you usually slide those eggs & that sauce out over a bed of polenta — either just-cooked or leftover, pushed into some sort of disk, and crisped in a pan quickly with a shot of heat and some oil.
It’s also permissible to toast up a thick slice of bread — but in a pinch (which is, say, 50% of the time), any old bread should do it — rub with some garlic and a shower of pepper, then slide the contents of your pan over top, adding some parmigiano if you’re going to get romantic. Which you can. I have been known to make a pretty damn jazzy eggs in purgatory over very good bread, with gorgeous eggs, and celebrate the glories of the end of a long day, comfort food, and Breakfast for Dinner with a glass of red wine on the side.
Speaking of romance, recently I was seduced by a nice little bottle of spices, calling to me from their rack at the store. Lo, it was a spice blend specifically for shakshouka. I had read a recipe for it on Food52 way back during the winter, and had meant to try it. Much like every culture seems to have their bracciole/rouladen/beef-rolled-around-stuff, I found that eggs in purgatory is something with relatives all over the world. Shakshouka hails from some Israeli friends, and in place of the decidedly Italian herbs and spices in my marinara, this has delightful things like cumin, red pepper, chilies, garlic and onion. If I didn’t hate the word “zesty,” I would use it here. Maybe. Maybe not.
So anyway, somehow, even during what seemed like the dreariest, most drawn-out transition from winter to spring, I hadn’t gotten around to it. Now, with the seasonings close at hand and a few weeks of work-tornado before me, the idea of a new, exotic version of eggs in purgatory appealed to me.
I still put it over some sort of starch, though you’ll notice the recipe linked above suggests bread on the side. I have not used yogurt yet, but I’m a sucker for a creamy, tangy sauce, so I’m totally down. I take the dorky shortcut and use the spice blend, and will high-five you from afar in support and goodwill if you do the same. I’m not saying not to do it fully from-scratch — I think you should, and I plan to as well sometime. But in the middle of summer, with parties and babies and road trips and work trips and backyard grilling and schoolnight cocktailing, there has simply been too much fun to be had outside the kitchen.
A couple of notes: I adapted this from a few sets of directions — one from the back of the bottle of shakshouka spices, which I found at Whole Foods, and the other set from the Food52 recipe. In the spirit of breakfast-for-dinner and the pantry-clean-out nature of this dish, I recommend you bend the recipe to whatever you are in the mood for and the ingredients you have on hand. This recipe makes enough sauce for about 4 hungry people — so I put half in a jar to heat up for later.
- 4 teaspoon shakshouka spices
- 1/2 teaspoon harissa or red pepper flakes (optional — for extra heat)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- a 28-oz can of diced tomatoes
- some tomato paste (if you haven’t started buying it in squeeze-tube form, start.)
- half of the onion I know is lying around your fridge (as it was in mine), diced
- clove of garlic, minced
- fresh parsley, if you have it, chopped
- quick-cooking polenta, though you can also use quinoa, pasta, couscous, or, as I said, some toasted bread as your base starch
- as many eggs as people you are feeding. I usually find one egg is good, per person, with all the other stuff going on, but if you’re starving, you know what to do.
- salt & pepper
- parmigiano reggiano, or some pecorino, or feta — any strong cheese will do (though it’s totally optional)
Warm the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil is warm, add the spices and stir with a wooden spoon. This will allow the spices to open up a bit — and if you’re using red pepper flakes or harissa, you can add them here too. Stir the spices constantly until they’re extremely fragrant (but not burnt!), then add the onions, garlic and parsley. Reduce the heat to medium, and stir until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Then add the tomatoes, 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, and 1/4 cup of water. Simmer, covered, on low for as long as it takes you to make the polenta or quinoa or pasta or toast.
Make enough polenta for 4 people (or 2, if you are using the rest for leftovers). Leave in the pot, or divvy out into bowls to get ready for the sauce & eggs.
Go back to your shakshouka. Take off the lid, stir once, then make some little wells for as many eggs as you’re cooking. Crack the eggs into the wells, and cook over medium heat until the whites are set but the yolks are still jiggly. (Unless you like a cooked yolk, in which case, go to town.) Season the tops of the eggs with a bit of salt & pepper. When the eggs are done to your liking, spoon out an egg and a bit of sauce over the polenta, and top with cheese, parsley, and additional pepper if desired.