Poached eggs the Mediterranean way

...or as they say in these parts: ‘Shakshuka.’

Poached eggs are an American breakfast and brunch favorite.
In fact, the commonly used “egg poacher” actually steams the eggs. Knowing the traditional technique for poaching eggs in water is useful if you want to prepare such classics as hollandaise-sauced eggs Benedict or cheese-coated eggs Florentine with spinach, or even plain poached eggs on buttered toast.
To poach eggs, you carefully break very fresh eggs into a saute pan of simmering water acidulated with a little vinegar, and swirl the water around each egg to encourage it to hold together. Once the eggs are poached, you gently remove them with a slotted spoon. The poached eggs are fragile, and you need to be careful not to break the yolks, or they will be lost in the water. Next you drain them so they won’t make the sauce watery. At cooking school our chefs even trimmed the little “tails” of egg whites that formed during poaching to give the eggs a neat round shape.
But there’s another, much easier way to poach eggs – the Mediterranean method. You simply poach the eggs in a savory sauce or stew, and serve them right in the sauce. A colorful pan of such eggs was a highlight at my friend Nancy Eisman’s lunch party. Nancy poached the eggs Moroccan style in a delicious sauce of tomatoes and roasted sweet peppers, and served them with crusty country bread.
Different versions of sauce-poached eggs are popular around the Mediterranean. I first became familiar with them when I moved to Israel, where some call eggs poached in tomato sauce shakshuka, although this name is also used for eggs scrambled with tomatoes.
Mohamed Kouki, author of Cuisine et Patisserie Tunisiennes, makes shakshuka by poaching eggs in a thick, spicy tomato sauce with sauteed onions and sweet and hot peppers, seasoned with harissa (North African hot pepper paste). He varies the flavorings of the sauce with garlic and pounded caraway seeds or adds spicy merguez sausage chunks.
Moroccans poach eggs in a stew of fresh peas with garlic, turmeric and paprika, wrote Rivka Levy-Mellul in Moroccan Cooking (in Hebrew). To make eggs and potatoes, she poaches eggs sprinkled with hot or sweet paprika in a medley of sauteed potato dice, garlic and parsley.
Jews of Greek origin are also fond of eggs poached with sauteed potatoes. Theirs are browned in olive oil with spring onions, wrote Nicholas Stavroulakis, author of Cookbook of the Jews of Greece. For eggs in cumin-spiced tomato green pepper sauce, popular in Athens and Izmir, Stavroulakis recommends an accompaniment of chilled yogurt.
A variety of these easy egg dishes have been developed by cooks in Turkey. Spinach cooked with sauteed onions and grated cheese makes a good base for poaching eggs, wrote Neset Eren in The Art of Turkish Cooking. For a different take on pastrami with eggs, Turks cook their similar garlicky pastirma with sauteed onions and tomato juice, and cook eggs in the medley.
Typical Italian flavors accent a Neapolitan dish called “eggs in purgatory,” wrote cookbook author Erica de Mane in The Flavors of Southern Italy. The eggs are slipped into a tomato sauce flavored with chopped anchovies, sauteed garlic and marjoram and sprinkled with pecorino cheese, then served garnished with basil.
To make it easier to add eggs to a simmering sauce or stew, break each egg into a cup first, and then slide it into the sauce.
Poach the eggs to the degree of doneness that you like. Some prefer poached eggs with soft yolks, for which very fresh eggs are essential because these eggs are undercooked; others like their eggs firmer.
MOROCCAN POACHED EGGS IN SPICY TOMATO SAUCE You can saute sweet peppers with the tomatoes, as in this recipe, or add roasted peeled peppers.
For extra pungency, add 1 or 2 chopped fresh hot peppers along with the garlic.
about 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil 1 medium onion, halved and sliced 1 large sweet pepper, red, green or yellow, diced 3 large garlic cloves, minced (optional) 700 gr. to 900 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or an 800-gr. can tomatoes, drained and diced 1⁄2 tsp. paprika, plus a little for sprinkling 1⁄2 tsp. dried oregano Salt and freshly ground pepper Harissa (hot pepper paste) or hot sauce to taste 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh coriander or parsley (optional) 4 large eggs Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large heavy skillet.
Add onion and sweet pepper and saute over medium heat for 7 minutes or until onion is golden. Add garlic and cook over low heat for 1⁄2 minute. Add tomatoes, 1⁄2 teaspoon paprika, oregano, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until mixture is thick. Add harissa and fresh coriander. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Shortly before serving, reheat sauce and make four hollows in it, each large enough to hold 1 egg. Add 1 whole egg to each hollow and sprinkle each egg lightly with oil, salt, pepper and paprika. Cover and cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until eggs are done to taste. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.
EGGS WITH SALAMI AND EGGPLANT In this Mediterranean twist on the American deli standard, salami and eggs, the spicy meat flavors a pan of lightly stewed vegetables, which serves as a base for poaching the eggs. Serve it with plenty of crusty bread or fresh pita.
1 or 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 2 to 4 slices salami, cut in small dice 1 small eggplant (about 225 gr.), cut in small dice 2 small white squash (kishuim), cut in small dice 2 medium tomatoes, cut in small dice 1⁄4 cup chopped green onion 1⁄2 tsp. dried oregano salt and freshly ground pepper 4 eggs pinch of hot paprika or cayenne pepper Heat oil in a large skillet. Add salami and saute until lightly browned. Add eggplant, cover and cook for 8 to 10 minutes. Add squash and cook for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, green onion, oregano and a small pinch of salt and pepper, and cook for 5 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Shortly before serving, reheat vegetable-salami mixture and make four hollows in it with a spoon. Add 1 whole egg to each hollow and sprinkle each egg lightly with salt, pepper and hot paprika. Cover and cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until eggs are done to taste. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.
POACHED EGGS IN EASY TOMATO MUSHROOM SAUCE This quick dish is good for a casual supper after Shabbat. You can vary the vegetables to your taste. If you have some leftover cooked green beans, cauliflower or potatoes, dice them and heat them in the sauce before adding the eggs. If you like, sprinkle the eggs with grated cheese when you add them to the pan.
1 to 11⁄2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 1 small onion, chopped 100 gr. to 110 gr. mushrooms, diced 2 small zucchini or white squash (kishuim), cut in small dice a 400-gr. can tomatoes, drained and chopped salt and freshly ground pepper 1⁄4 tsp. cumin or paprika, or to taste 2 eggs 2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan or other firm cheese (optional) Buttered toast or fresh crusty bread (for serving) Heat oil in a heavy, medium-sized skillet. Add onion and saute over medium heat, stirring often, for 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and zucchini and saute for 3 minutes or until vegetables begin to soften. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper and cumin. Bring to a boil, cover and cook for 5 minutes or until thickened.
Carefully break each whole egg into a cup, and then slide it into sauce. Sprinkle eggs with cheese. Cover and cook over low heat for 3 minutes or until eggs have set or are done to your taste. Serve with toast.
Makes 2 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.