Saturday, 1 March 2014

And Even More Cheap Chow

Today, March first, is my birthday. It's St David's Day, which is why I'm called Steven. There will be no celebration, partly because I'm a miserable bugger and see no call for jubilation in being 55, and partly because I'm trying to economise. Those who know me will incline to skepticism here, but I am - honest I am. Really. I only bought one book and one CD last month, and resisted all temptation to switch on the lights and heating on even the greyest of February afternoons. I've realised belatedly how wasteful I am, buying food on impulse and shoving it in the darkness of the fridge instead of looking in the fridge first and making a shopping list informed by what I've got in already. This inevitably leads to my chucking out quantities of furry tomatoes, bendy carrots, and plastic bags of greenish slime that might have been parsley or coriander or frogspawn. I buy wholemeal bread from an excellent local bakery. It's good stuff but it doesn't keep: after a day or two, little communities of green and white things start to form and there's nothing for it but to pitch it. I've noticed that whilst I can chuck out manky veg without a daunt, slinging out bread induces a kind of atavistic guilt, as does spilling salt or wine. So now I'm more careful to cop each loaf just before the green meanies move in, and dry it in a very slow oven to make rusks. This probably costs more in fuel than throwing away the mouldering loaf and getting another, but the feeling of virtue it occasions is considerable.

I did actually look at what I had in the other day before going up to town. Peppers, a few lemons, two eggs, a reasonably youthful courgette, some middle-aged potatoes and a geriatric lime, hard as a golf ball. With a little inexpensive supplementation, this would make chakchouka, an admirable North African dish that's delicious, colourful, healthy and cheap. (The lime's still in the bowl. It's been so long, we're really rather attached.) To make chakchouka you need at the very least eggs, peppers, an onion, a can of tomatoes and some chillis. You can play with the colours of the peppers, add potatoes and courgettes if you like, and merguez sausage if you can find any. In the Arab world there is probably much tedious argy-bargy about which country has the most authentic recipe, and streets named for the date true chakchouka was first prepared there, but sod that. Once you've decided what you're going to make your chakchouka with, proceed in this manner:

Chop the peppers and whatever other veg you may wish to include into fairly uniform pieces. Chop the chillis. A brief digression here. In the Plaka district of Athens there is a popular restaurant called Scholarcheio, and there in the nineties they would bring to your table a little spirit burner so that you could roast chunks of sausage on a fork. The waiter would always warn you not to put the fork in your mouth straight from the burner, and you'd think, bloody hell, what sort of a pillock does he take me for? Even so, nobody left Scholarcheio without a burnt tongue or lip. So here's the thing: they always tell you in cookery books to wear rubber gloves when chopping chillis, and I get impatient with this nannying. However, I invariably end up wiping away onion tears with a finger incandescent with chilli oil, so I'll pass on the advice and also warn you that if you are the proud possessor of a penis, you shouldn't go for a pee before you have scrubbed your hands assiduously. Slice the onion and don't wipe your bloody eyes, what have I just told you, for Christ's... Fry the onion in olive oil until it is soft. Throw in the chillies, a level teaspoon or so of cumin and a little more of smoked paprika, then add the tomatoes, and if using, the potatoes to give them a head start. Chuck in some salt. Add the rest of the vegetables when the potatoes have had time to soften a little.

When all the vegetables are tender and the tomatoes are getting just a little jammy, make indentations in the mixture and crack an egg into each one. Cook until the whites are set, but don't allow the yolks to coagulate. Some recipes suggest you then stir the eggs through the ragout, but I don't like that idea: I think they look more pleasing left whole, but suit yourself. Before serving, tart up with chopped parley or coriander. This will be excellent with good bread and a glass or three or four of red wine - we might be economising, but as my grandma used to put it, 'there's shiteing, and there's riving your arse'.

March 7th. A young man recently arrived from Iraq told me today he was living alone in town and had to keep talking to his mum on skype to find out how to cook all the dishes he'd taken for granted back home. I thought this was quite touching, and showed the group this photo, to show that being domestically helpless is not a prerequisite for true manhood. 'That's not chakchouka!' one of the Saudi women said. 'You don't put potatoes in it. And the egg should be like an omelette.' Yawn. 


CJB said...

Thank god for your granny. I shall drink wine today. Being jobless means economising is with me always, but with your granny's word stinging in my ears, fuck it, wine being poured.

Vilges Suola said...

I use the word 'economise' very inadvisedly. I don't really know what it means.

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday. Thank you for the recipe. Take care.

Vilges Suola said...

Thank you!

Deiniol said...

Heureux anniversaire, le gâteau est par terre and all that. Shakshouka as a glorious dish, one of my standbys when, like you, I've been over-optimistic in my weekly shop and end up with a load of just about to turn veg. I always bung in a spoonful of harissa paste, if I've got a jar lurking at the back of the fridge. Totally inauthentic, of course, but adds something.

Vilges Suola said...

Merci! Yes, harissa wd be a good addition, but I can only get the Sainsbury's own round here, and it's insipid stuff. Once upon a time in Cambridge I used to buy it in a tube, and it was the real thing, all Arabic on the label. It made its presence decisively felt at both ends of the alimentary canal.


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