shakshuka nopalitos

May 30th, 2006

Shakshuka is one of my favorite middle eastern breakfast foods. It’s a simple dish, usually made with garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and eggs. Garlic and chili peppers are sauted in olive oil, along with bell peppers and lots of fresh tomatoes, forming a chunky vegetable stew. The eggs–nestled into little indentations–are poached in the stew itself. The dish is typically eaten with a thick slice of cheap, fresh crusty white bread, perfect for mopping up the tomatoey juices. Shakshuka and bread make a great breakfast, but if you’re still hungry, add a small Arab style salad–cucumbers, tomatoes, and parsley micro-chopped and dressed with s&p, half a lemon, and good olive oil.

Shakshuka Nopalitos is a Mexican twist on a middle eastern favorite, using chopped nopales or nopalitos, cleaned chopped cactus leaves that taste of green pepper and lime. “Mexican-Israeli?” you may ask, eyebrow raised. Shakshuka Nopalitos is a bit of a leap, but it’s a far cry from the chipotle sun-dried tomato hummous you find at highfalutin’ supermarkets. (If there is a hummous god, then verily, chipotle sun-dried tomato hummous must be an abomination unto Him).

For the record, though, tampering with the traditional classics of Israeli cuisine is risky. Israelis are very passionate about their multi-faceted cuisine. They love to argue about the authenticity of the regional dishes they love most, usually those their mothers or grandmothers prepared at home.

The “correct” preparation of shakshuka, for example, is a subject of much contention on Israeli food forums. Some add onions, while others are horrified by the very thought of an onion appearing in shakshuka. Some insist that peppers are the only vegetables used in the dish, while others add okra or zucchini.

Ironically, shakshuka isn’t Israeli at all, rather it is a North African dish that probably originated in Turkey and migrated to Israel along with the displaced Jews of those regions. Many versions abound, each one most likely evolved as a result of regional differences. The “correct” version that any given Israeli enjoyed at his grandmother’s table is probably a variation on the local version from grandma’s tiny Algerian village.

Is the shakshuka prepared by a weathered matriarch hailing from an obscure Algerian hamlet superior to that prepared by her compatriot from the equally obscure Morrocan boondocks? Which painting is better, an oil or a gouache? It’s an endless argument. As in many versions of traditional Israeli dishes, all and none are correct. And so, in the spirit of deconstruction, here is Shakshuka Nopalitos.

Shakshuka Nopalitos

1/2 red onion, coarsely chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1/2 lb cleaned, chopped nopalitos

1-2 TBS butter
1/2 red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
6 small tomatillos, halved and chopped
2 fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 can whole peeled tomatoes, chopped, drained (or save the juice for another use)
salt and pepper to taste
hot paprika to taste
1-2 tsp fresh oregano, chopped
2-4 eggs, or 1-2 eggs per person

  • Fill a small pot with water, add salt, and boil. When boiling, add the nopales, onion, and garlic.
  • Simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes, then drain.
  • Melt the butter in a large pan over a medium flame. Add the onion and garlic and saute.
  • When the onion and garlic are transluscent, add the tomatillos and tomatoes. Stir and cook for a few minutes.
  • Add the canned tomatoes without the juice. Stir and cook for a few minutes.
  • Mix in the nopalitos and season to taste with salt, pepper, hot paprika, and fresh oregano.
  • For each egg you want to cook, make an indentation in the vegetable mixture. Crack the eggs into their indentations and season each egg with a little salt and pepper.
  • When the whites start to become opaque, cover the pan and cook until the eggs have just set.
  • Serve with thick slices of simple, fresh bread and perhaps an Arab style salad on the side.

Serves 2-3

Thanks to Rancho Gordo for tips on cooking nopales. Rancho Gordo is a local grower of delicious heirloom bean varieties, and other goodies.

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