Sometimes a great meal is made by writing a careful list, driving to the store, loading up the cart with all manner of esoteric and single-use items, bringing in so.many.bags, tying on an apron, flicking on the radio and getting busy in the kitchen. Some hours later – and a teetering pile of dirty pots and pans to show for your effort – you, your friends and loved ones will then sit down to a fabulous meal amidst pressed linen napkins, fragrant flowers, and a crystal maze of wine glasses. The conversation will sparkle – in direct proportion to the amount of expensive wine drunk – and heels will be kicked off to do a little dancing as 8 pm turns to 1 am. Or so I imagine.
It has been some time since I have had such a dinner, either in my home or someone else’s.
My “great” meals these days, as I get older and lacking the energy to do the culinary gymnastics usually required of chef-written recipes, can often be measured not in how much effort (and wallet-emptying) is made, but how little.
Basic ingredients and recipes that give and give are my preferred way of eating most days. Sure, it is wonderful to pull out all of the stops occasionally – Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hasanah, Eid-al Fitr. But isn’t it wonderful to have great meals at one’s fingertips, to be eaten just because? To celebrate getting though another day? Start your day with a smile instead of a sigh?
Eggs and tomatoes are my hero foods in this respect, and the easy but stunning North African dish, shakshuka, is my hero recipe. I have a rather fancy but easy one that is perfect for weekending guests or lazy weekends for two, while this green one eschews the tomato base for – as expected – a mulchy pile of gently spiced greens. All topped with eggs that poach gently to your liking under a steamy lid, or whacked into a screaming-hot oven. But this one is just for me – and you: a single-serving skillet of head-clearing tomato sauce and perfectly poached egg.
Eggs In Purgatory is the name British journalist and TV cook Nigella Lawson gave her stripped-back shakshuka way back in the “Nigellisima” stage of her eating and writing career. I can’t say I had actually heard of her moniker for spicy tomato and eggs until someone popped a pic of their version onto Instagram, but I thought it an apt name. Hers is just the simple but stunning combination of garlic, oil, chilli flakes, tinned tomatoes and eggs.
Looking at this clip, I know Nigella made it as a hangover cure of sorts, saying, “eggs in purgatory is absolute heaven when you are feeling like hell.” I can quite agree that it would be the case, but I have only ever had it as a cure for not enough sleep. This and a near-pint of cold matcha tea and I am ready for the day.
In this third version of my favourite breakfast-brunch dish I have included modest pinches of some pretty potent players – tongue-tingling Sichuan peppercorns (not true peppers of course), hot chilli flakes; even some fragrant cardamom and nippy-sweet rice vinegar for balance and to extend the Sichuan credentials. But perhaps the real deviation is where a little raw grated beetroot is added as the necessary note of sweet that sets off the tomatoes so well. If you don’t have beetroot – and ready-prepared is completely fine but not as sweet – just taste and add a squiggle of honey or date syrup, or even a dash of brown sugar. If you use all fresh tomatoes then you can skip the beetroot, but I think it makes the sauce even more vibrant and enticing, and adds a little earthy note without being “beetrooty”.
Thinking about it, why wait until breakfast to eat this? Enjoy as a solo supper, or indeed post-fancy dinner party, after you’ve
got rid of waved goodbye to your last guest, and drained the last mouthful from that bottle of red. Hosts never really eat at their own parties, right? So grab a skillet, kick off your shoes, and have a party of your own in the kitchen.
What is your go-to simple recipe for a solo breakfast or supper?
Sichuan-Style Eggs In Purgatory
You can make this “skinny” and suitable for a fasting day – indeed that’s what I first made this for – by leaving out the oil. This recipe is very easily doubled, tripled, etc. Go as big as your pan allows! Important note: the images are for a larger version for two (I was having to share on the day I took photos!), but the ingredients are for one. I have included an Instagram image of the dish as for one.
2 tsp good quality olive oil or rapeseed oil
1 small leek, 3 shallots (shown), a small onion or 5 spring onions – finely chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
1/4 tsp minced ginger root, or use a dried and ground ginger (different taste though)
Pinch of salt to taste
1/2 – 1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, lightly toasted then crushed
1/8 tsp ground cardamom (seeds from 2-3 green pods, well-ground in a pestle in mortar)
1/2 tsp chilli flakes
1 x 400g (14 oz) jar or tin of whole tomatoes, cut up (I use scissors)
Good handful of cherry or grape tomatoes
100g (3.5 oz) small, sweet beetroot – raw or cooked, finely grated
1 & 1/2 tsp rice vinegar
1-2 organic eggs
Special equipment: very small, single-serving heavy skillet or non-stick pan. I use a cast-iron pan. Scale up the ingredients if you have a larger pan.
1. Heat the oil in the skillet over a low-medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, ginger and salt; sauté until soft, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle in the crushed Sichuan peppercorns and chilli flakes; stir.
2. Add in the chopped tomatoes with all of their juices, fresh tomatoes and grated beetroot, along with the rice vinegar and a good pinch of salt. Turn up the heat until it is bubbling and let cook as it is for about 10 minutes. You want the sauce to be thickened but still loose enough to shake around in the pan.
3. Press a shallow dip(s) into the sauce and crack in the egg(s). Cover the pan with a lid or even some foil and let the eggs poach under cover for up to eight minutes. The ideal is a cooked and mingled white with an enticingly runny yolk.
Serve with bread, rice, or quinoa, plus some kind of greens. I used beet leaves, their stems and some garden kale that the bugs managed to miss!
Note: There is almost no way to achieve a perfectly centred egg here, with the white perfectly white, and the egg cradled but unmarked by the sauce. If you are after that “look” poach or even fry the eggs separately and serve on top of the sauce. I do hope you aren’t that fussy though because, unlike a messy house, a messy skillet is A Good Thing.