It's November, and the days have turned from being pleasantly brisk to bitterly cold. I've decided that autumn in New England has claws, and they come out right around the time when it starts getting dark at four in the afternoon. This is the time of year when I start wishing I could hibernate. Unfortunately, I haven't yet worked out the details, and so I do my best to console myself with warm, stewy things instead.
As much as I love slow-braised meat, or bean stews that cook for hours on the stove at a bare simmer, I don't always have the time or patience to wait that long for dinner. My favorite quick stews are tomato-based, with eggs added for protein.
During the semester I spent in Rome, I monitored in the photo lab and would often be one of the last students in the building when security came to lock up for the night.* I'd arrive home with my stomach growling, so exhausted I could barely think straight, and head straight for the kitchen. I'd make "poached eggs puttanesca" - canned Roma tomatoes stewed with garlic, anchovies, olives, and capers, and an egg or two cracked in and cooked until barely set - and eat it with grissini, because I'd inevitably be out of bread on those nights.
The following recipe is the same idea, but better. Chachouka (also shakshouka; it has multiple variant spellings) is a spicy mess of onions, peppers and tomatoes with whole eggs cooked in it at the very end. It's found all over Northern Africa, but particularly common in Tunisia and Morocco. The onions, peppers and tomatoes are the essentials, but spicing varies dramatically depending on the region.
Though you can make an attempt at authenticity and serve it over couscous with grilled merguez on the side, if you're like me, it'll be something you'll cook when you haven't had time to go grocery shopping and you're down to the very last odds and ends in your crisper drawer.
(Serves one, with possible leftovers)
First, do an ingredient check. Assuming you have eggs, at the very least, you'll also need a can of whole or diced tomatoes, two or three cloves of garlic, an onion that hasn't sprouted, and those slightly wrinkly red or green bell peppers that have been languishing in the crisper drawer for a very long time. If you don't hit all the points on the list, consider making an omelette instead.
If you have everything, proceed to the chopping stage. Dice the onion, mince the garlic, and cut your bell peppers into strips. Dice the tomatoes too, if they're whole. Heat olive oil in a a shallow, heavy-bottomed pan, and sauté the onion and garlic. When the onions are soft, add the bell peppers.
Now it's time to raid your spice cabinet. Red chili flakes add kick, paprika adds sweetness, and cumin or turmeric will add interesting depth. Use your judgement; season to taste.
When the vegetables have been seasoned and start to smell good, add your tomatoes and turn up the heat. Stir. Keep stirring. Once the tomatoes have cooked down a little, turn the heat down to a simmer. Crack your egg(s) into the stew (I recommend doing only as many as you'll want to eat in one sitting - add fresh ones if you have leftover stew), and put a lid on the pan. Cook for just a few minutes, until the white is set but the yolk is still soft. Serve with leftover rice, slightly stale bread, or any other starch you may have on hand. (No saltines unless you're truly desperate, please.)
You can eat this straight out of the pan. I promise I won't tell.
*I majored in Fine Arts with a primary concentration in art history and a secondary concentration in black-and-white film photography. This is why it's such a joke that I can't operate a digital camera. I still maintain that they're two completely different beasts.