One of the many reasons I love cooking so much is that it can take us to faraway places. Places that we may have been to before or dream of one day traveling to in the future. Becoming adventurous with different recipes and ingredients and opening up our tastebuds to new flavours can take us to the spice filled streets of India; down a cobblestoned laneway to a bustling tapas bar in Spain or to the jaw-dropping cliffs that are dotted in a sea of white-washed buildings overlooking the Aegan Sea whilst enjoying fresh seafood and a view like no other. All this is possible in your very own kitchen, (although quite the imagination is needed for said views), with out even having to pack your bags and enter an airport!
There is a particular person who helped ignite this passion in me, a passion for trying new things. Not only through his cookbooks but through his television series too. I would hang of his every word and be in awe of the places he would visit, the people he would meet and the food he would enjoy.
I could listen to him talk for hours! I am sure some of you may have already guessed just who this extraordinary man is, but for those who haven't he is of course, Yotam Ottolenghi. Like many of us, I lose myself in his books often. (I may have just done so only moments ago) Each page a feast for the eyes, making my tummy rumble and wanting to cook just about everything. It was he who first introduced me to the incredible flavour of pomegranate molasses; the thick ground sesame paste known as tahini and to look at vegetables as the stars of the show and not merely as a side act.
I do recall there was one episode where the North African dish, Shakshuka was given the spotlight. The vibrant colours of the peppers and tomatoes combined in what was a thick, bubbly concoction had my mouth watering. Little burrows were made and in went the eggs, the translucent whites slowly beginning to cook through. It was quite mesmerising. Since then I have made this dish on many an occasion. Not only is it quick, easy and perfect for a mid-week meal, it can also be enjoyed for either breakfast, lunch or dinner. With or without the herby, cheesy cornbread, it does make quite the handy vessel for mopping up those lovely saucy bits.
Over time I have added my own little touches, tweaking here and there. But it wasn't until one very special ingredient found its way into the mix that it took off onto another level. I had not tasted anything quite like it before and the colour! well, that was something else. A deep rich red wine, chocolate outer and an almost burgundy inner. Which is how it came to bear the name "chocolate capsicum." I had to stop myself from eating it all just in its raw state, it was that good!
Of course, don't worry if you cant get your hands on this particular variety, I had not seen nor heard of them until we were lucky enough to pick one up at our local CSA - Transition Farm, a biodynamic, organic farm that is just down the road from where we live. Every Friday sees Beau and I take the drive down the long gravel driveway, passing the fruit trees and polytunnel which at this time of the year houses the multiple rows of tomatoes, down to the shed we go where we are met with the most wonderful display of freshly harvested vegetables that always sends me into creative overdrive!
The shakshuka will be perfectly fine with regular red capsicums but if you ever do come across those chocolate gems be sure to place a few, and then some into your basket.
Feeds 3-4 depending on how hungry you all are or 6 with a few other side dishes too as part of a breakfast feast!
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 brown onions, diced
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
2 capsicums/peppers either the lovely chocolate variety or red, sliced into long strips, as many of the seeds removed as you can.
1 tsp freshly ground cumin seeds, it really does make quite the difference to the flavour
1 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1 1/2 tsp harissa (depending on how hot your variety is you may like to reduce this amount, Rose harissa is also particularly good
two tins of crushed tomatoes, I love using the brand Mutti.
2tins of cannellini beans, or chickpeas, drained and rinsed well
a few sprigs of thyme
50g or two little cubes of marinated goats feta, Meredith dairy have a lovely one
4 free-range eggs (or 6 if you are serving more guests)
chilli flakes (optional)
In a large pan, heat the oil over a medium flame, scrape your onions off the chopping board and sprinkle in a little sea salt, give it a good stir and then allow to cook until softened, add in the garlic and the peppers/capsicums and then stir again and allow to cook over a medium/low heat for about 15-18 minutes. You want the capscicums to become really soft and luscious.
Next add your spices and the harissa and stir it all around so that everything is well coated and it starts to smell fragrant and smoky. Add in the tomatoes, filing each tin up 1/4 full of water and swishing it around to loosen any of the remaining tomato-ey bits. pour this in and cook on low for about 25 minutes, stirring every now and then. If its looking a little dry you can add a splash more water.
After this time, you want to add your beans or chickpeas to the mix, pour them in and give them a good stir. sprinkle over the thyme leaves reserving a few srpigs as a garnish. make 4 (or more) little burrows or indents and slip the cracked eggs in, then continue to cook them until they only have the slightest wobble. You can cover the pan with a lid which will speed up the process a little or simply use that time to clean up a tad.
crumble over the feta, drizzle with a glug of extra virgin olive oil and a good grinding of black pepper and scatter over a little more sea salt.
Take to the table so that everyone can help themselves. Serve with either beautiful crusty fresh bread and butter or herby, cheesy cornbread (recipe follows) and then sit back, relax and enjoy every single saucy mouthful.
Herby, cheesy cornbread
Makes one 10 x 20cm loaf
340g self-raising flour
pinch of salt
120g unsalted butter, melted
2 free range eggs, lightly whisked
dried chilli flakes
a sprig of rosemary, leaves chopped finely
a sprig of thyme, leaves picked off
a sprinkle of dried oregano
80g cheddar cheese
40g parmesan or pecorino (feta also works quite well too)
Plus extra, salt, chilli, thyme and parmesan to sprinkle over the top of the loaf
Preheat your oven to 180c. Grease your loaf tin with butter and then line the base and long sides with baking paper.
in a large bowl, combine the sifted flour, salt, polenta and give it a good mix with a whisk a couple of times over. Pour in the milk, melted butter, eggs, the chilli flakes, herbs and cheeses and mix well.
It is quite a stiff mixture so spoon it into the loaf tin and spread it out evenly, keeping the top a little rustic. Sprinkle and scatter over the salt, chilli flakes, thyme and parmesan and then pop it into the oven to bake for around 45 minutes, or until its looking golden and sending out that wonderful grilled cheese aroma. If you stick a cake tester into the middle it should come out fairly clean, if there is still a little gooey dough attached continue to bake until he's ready.
Allow to cool in the tin for about 10-15 minutes and then take him out and allow to cool completely on a wire rack. It will take you all your might not to want to slice that crusty end bit off to taste test, but please do wait until it is at least at room temperature, otherwise it will be quite difficult to slice. I always make this the day before and then simply wrap it up in a little baking paper that has been run under cold water and squeezed of any excess water, popped into the oven and heated through a little. Or you can simply slice when cold and toast in the toaster or under the grill. It also freezes beautifully. Sliced into portions and then wrapped individually.