North African Brunch

If you have even an ounce of culinary curiosity in you, chances are very good you have encountered something like today’s dish along the way. There are a variety of cultures, especially in the Mediterranean region of the world, that each have their own version of baked eggs over a bed of sautéed vegetables. I have, for example, both Greek and Italian cookbooks that include some form of this recipe, but you can also find it in Lebanon and much of the Middle East. This particular adaptation is called Shakshouka, and is common in North Africa as a breakfast or light lunch.

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Here are your ingredients to serve 4 people:

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 2 red onions, sliced into thin crescents
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ tsp. red chili powder (cayenne or Kashmiri chili)
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 red bell peppers, thinly sliced
  • 3 medium tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 tsp. za’atar spice
  • Toasted bread/crostini for dipping

Preheat the oven to 350. In a large cast iron skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and cook for 1-2 minutes until they become aromatic. Toss in the onions, garlic, chili powder and salt, and sauté until the onions are tender, which will take 5-10 minutes. Next add the peppers and sauté them for a few minutes, then reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet and let the mixture cook for about 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

When the pepper/onion mixture is very tender, add the tomatoes plus a generous pinch each of kosher salt and black pepper. Continue cooking for another 5-10 minutes, then use a spoon to make four holes in the mixture, and crack an egg into each one. Sprinkle with the za-atar spice and another pinch of black pepper, then pop the skillet into the oven to bake until the eggs are set – about 10 minutes. Be careful not to overbake the eggs, because you will want the yolks to stay runny for optimal dipping pleasure.

A quick note about za’atar spice: it sounds exotic but it really isn’t. It’s just a name for a blend of commonly available dried herbs and spices like thyme, oregano, sesame seeds and sumac. You can find it at some stores, or just look it up online and make your own.

Anyway, here’s what you get when your skillet comes out of the oven. Dip some crunchy crostini or thick toast into the runny eggs and munch it down with a big happy grin on your face. Until next time: happy brunching, and eat well, my friends!

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Dave’s Chicken Marsala

For years I have been on a quest for the perfect Marsala sauce.  Often it is my test dish to evaluate any new Italian restaurant – although admittedly I go to precious few of those anymore because frankly I like my own stuff better.  Anyway, to borrow from the old U2 song, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.  Once about 7 or 8 years ago I thought I had it, or at least close enough, but I was never able to recreate that sauce afterward – like a dumb [bleep] I was so enraptured with my own handiwork that I didn’t think to write the recipe down at the time.  So, perfection continues to elude me, although tonight’s dish is a worthwhile stab at it.

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What follows is my own concoction, born of years of searching and experimenting. No perfect by any stretch but I think you’ll like it, and it’s pretty simple to make. Here are your ingredients to make a lovely dinner for two:

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 boneless chicken breasts, pounded to ½” thickness
  • Kosher salt
  • All-purpose flour for dredging
  • 2 tbsp. whole butter, divided
  • 1 cup cremini or portabella mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup beef stock
  • ¾ cup Marsala wine
  • Chiffonade of fresh basil for garnish

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium flame. While the oil is heating up, season the chicken breasts with kosher salt and dredge them in flour – this will keep them moist when you pan fry them. Place the floured breasts in the skillet, top side down, and cook to a light golden brown, which should take about 5 minutes, maybe a tad more.  Turn them and cook for a similar amount of time on the other side, then remove them to a plate and cover with aluminum foil.

Next add 1 tbsp. of the butter and saute the mushrooms until they are well browned and most of the water in them has released and cooked off. Add the shallot and cook until tender, about two minutes, then add the garlic and continue sautéing about 30 more seconds. Deglaze the skillet with the beef stock, using a wooden spoon to scrape all the fond (the brown, tasty crunchy bits) off the bottom – that’s pure flavor that is not to be wasted. Next add the Marsala and simmer until the liquid has reduced by half. Turn off the heat and finish the sauce by swirling in the other 1 tbsp. of butter.  Return the chicken to the skillet to reheat.

With that, you’re done and ready to plate it up.  Make sure you pour the sauce and shrooms over the top, and garnish with the fresh basil.  We served with a side of capellini pasta and oven-roasted asparagus. The result was delicious and we munched it down with a big happy grin on our faces. This may not be the perfect Marsala sauce (if such a mythical creature actually exists), but I think you’ll be pleased nonetheless. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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Thai Night Redux

So Lolly’s naturopathic doctor put her on a rather annoying elimination diet aimed at determining whether she is allergic to dairy, gluten or any number of other nefarious substances.  She brought home a list of all the things that she has to avoid eating for 30 days.  Holy mackerel!  My initial response when I read the list was “How in the world do you expect me to cook around that?”  (For the record, Lolly can eat mackerel, holy or otherwise – it wasn’t on the list).  Being the ever-dutiful hubby that I am, I started combing through cookbooks looking for suitable options to accommodate my sweetie for 30 long, dark, dreary, culinarily-stunted days.

It didn’t take me long to conclude that Thai food actually lines up pretty well with her dietary restrictions, in part because instead of dairy products it makes liberal use coconut milk in soups and curries.  If, like us, you spend any amount of time in Thai restaurants, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve sampled tonight’s dish, Massamun curry chicken. It’s a long-time favorite of ours.

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This is actually a supremely quick and easy option, as long as you can lay hands on a few off-the-beaten-path ingredients that are most likely available at your local Asian market. Luckily, we denizens of the Cincinnati metro area have access to Jungle Jim’s International Market, so I can find pretty much any weird thing you can think of (including fresh emu eggs at $45 a pop, if that’s your thing).  Anyway, here are your ingredients to make 4 hearty servings.

  • 3 tbsp. coconut oil
  • ½ cup Massamun curry paste
  • 3 cups coconut milk
  • 1 lb. boneless chicken breast, thinly sliced across the grain
  • 12 oz. potato, cut into ½” cubes
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • ½ cup roasted, unsalted cashews
  • 1 cup water or chicken stock
  • 3 tbsp. tamarind paste
  • 2 tbsp. sugar or agave nectar
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • Fresh Thai basil for garnish
  • Cooked jasmine rice

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In a deep skillet, heat the coconut oil over medium flame, and stir in the curry paste. Whisk in the coconut milk until the paste is completed blended.  Add the chicken slices and bring the mixture up to a boil, then back it down to a simmer.  Stir in the potato cubes, onion, cashews and water/stock, and simmer until the potatoes are tender, which should only take about 15 minutes.  Finish the dish by stirring in the tamarind and the sugar/agave, and adjust the seasoning with Kosher salt.

Now you’re ready to plate up with some cooked jasmine rice (or wicked, nasty, foul, heinous brown rice for people on annoying elimination diets – just sayin’).  Either way, sprinkled some chopped fresh Thai basil on top, and do what we came here to do – munch it down with a big happy grin on your face.  This recipe has a pleasant blend of sweet and spicy, with enough chunky goodness to satisfy.  By all means give it a try – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Until next we meet: Eat well, my friends!

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