‘Twas definitely a shakshuka type of day. The days following a New Year are very limbo-like around here. Not “How low can you go,” limbo, but “Wait. What day is it again?” limbo. We’re all walking around the house confused; the air is thick with anxiety and tension. Shakshuka is the cure-all…ok, not really. Shakshuka is more like the indulgence that allows you to forget about your worries, at least that’s what I think.
Any military spouse (especially a wife) will tell you, the days before a separation- especially a lengthy one- are fraught with stressors that you had no idea even existed. When’s the last time you spazzed out over an expired passport for your eleven-year-old? I ask you. Bet you can’t remember. Guess when was the last time I spazzed out over an eleven-year-old’s expired passport? Tuesday. It was Tuesday. Why was I spazzing out? I don’t have tickets booked to Macchu Pichu that will be forfeited because of said passport. No, I just need to have an unexpired passport for my eleven-year-old. Like, now.
There are so many “to-do’s” that need to get done before my Soldier goes away on a mission, and I tend to want to get it all done now. When it dawns on me that I can’t, in fact, get everything done all at once; I start to whirl into this tailspin of despair, believing that nothing will get done before he leaves; then I’ll be stuck dealing with single-parenthood, loneliness, angst, and outright depression. It becomes a daily chore to focus on what can feasibly be done in the time I have left, and I have to try to avoid becoming consumed with the electives in life. Just typing this causes my anxiety to rise, but what can you do?
This lifestyle- the military spouse deal- has never been something I thought I would be doing. Like, ever. I grew up in a very strict military environment. Some children, albeit less children from the States nowadays, grew up in military boarding schools. The boarding school I attended was run by Mami and Dad. There’s something to be said about being raised in a dual-military household. Something I haven’t quite figured out yet, but something nonetheless. There’s even more to be said when both of your parents were Vietnam Vets. One of them a Vietnam Vet with three combat tours under his belt. Something to be said indeed. So, no, military family member was not something that I wanted to be addressed as. Let alone, “Military Spouse.”
And yet, here I am on the cusp of yet another “Military Spouse thing”. THE military spouse “thing”. The “thing” none of us cares to do, but that all of us must do at one time or another. The “thing” that sits at the dining room table with us mocking me while I relish the family time. It whispers to me, “Don’t savor it too much. In a month he’ll be gone.” It’s the same “thing” that turns a rogue sock-on-the-floor into a three hour argument about how he doesn’t appreciate a damned thing I do around here!! That “thing” that beckons you to your child’s door, only to hear them sniffling deep beneath their quilt willing themselves to, “Just be brave and not let them hear you cry.” That stupid “thing”. That “thing” pisses me off. But, it’s the “thing” I agreed to deal with when I agreed to him. So I deal.
Dealing isn’t always pretty, though, and it isn’t always grace-filled. Dealing is, at least for me, trudging through the days of the countdown with a determined look on my face and sheer agony in my heart. It sometimes lashes out in anger, more often than not cries silently in the bathroom with the exhaust fan on so that the same kids who hide their tears, in their own attempts to be brave, don’t hear Mommy cry as she attempts the same. How easy it would be if we weren’t all trying to be strong for one another.
Comfort food, at least to me, has an uncanny ability to make you circumvent pain, sadness, depression…
That’s why it can cause such an obstacle for those who struggle with eating disorders. It genuinely brings a comfort to your soul that, seemingly, helps you to forget about the state of your affairs- present issues included. In fact, I’ve know deploying Soldiers to request “Last meals” from their loved ones. Not in the macabre sense of a “last meal”, but in the, “I’m not going to get to taste this for x-amount of months,” meal. My Soldier is no exception. I indulge him shamelessly. Even the normal, “You can’t eat all that! You have PT!” rule gets chucked out of the window. He’ll be in the desert. He’ll lose the weight. Too much weight, and then I’ll feel like a horrible wife and over-feed him when he gets back. It balances itself out. So, I feed him. In the meantime, I feed myself as well.
Shakshuka is that comfort food. It’s actually a very healthy comfort food, so indulging in it isn’t as guilt-ridden as say, my hot chocolate, but it’s a warm hug from Bubbe. No, I’m not Jewish, but if I was Jewish, my Bubbe would be who’d this hug would come from. Shakshuka, I found in my research, is actually a North African dish. One reader on my Facebook page told me it was originally from Tunisia. I told her, “Well, I’m going to thank God for Tunisia right now!” It’s a gift, shakshuka is. But, I found the origins much later than the recipe itself. I, for one, thought it was an Israeli dish, as the woman who taught me how to make it was originally from Haifa. Regardless of its birthplace, I now consider shakshuka a part of the family, and as such it must accompany me on emotional journeys and bring comfort to us when we need it. So, shakshuka was made this week.
The first time I tried shakshuka, I fell in love. I, also, find that to be the reaction of everyone who subsequently tastes it when I make it. My children ask for it by name, which is odd to me. Odd, but understandable.
Traditionally, shakshuka is spicy, served for breakfast and prepared sans bread. You would normally scoop the mixture onto your accompanying bread and enjoy it as an indulgent “dip” for lack of a better word. My situation called for a little bit more “stank on it”, if you catch my drift. I needed something truly decadent to match the emotional state I was in. Breaking with the kosher norms of the shakshuka I was taught, I added a flaky pie dough to the recipe to create a shakshuka crostata. Indulgent, indeed.
Shakshuka is the “hangover cure” for many a Middle Easterner/North African. Rightfully so. It’s filling without being heavy. Well, mine was heavy for me, but that’s because I damn near ate a quarter of it by myself. Sadness, y’all. I was sad. But normal people’s consumption of shakshuka shouldn’t be heavy at all. Spice level is well within your control as well. I don’t make mine very spicy because the Twinks have delicate (read: wimpy) palates. If you can’t take the heat…just don’t add any cayenne. You can also opt out of the crostata all together and serve it the traditional way. Slice up a crusty loaf of bread and top it with a spoonful of the tomato and egg mixture. I like this rye with shakshuka, personally.
Shakshuka is the perfect solution to the “things” in your life. My “thing” is coming fast and mercilessly, but I’m ready to face it. Happy about facing it? No, not so much, but face it, I shall.
Tell, me, what’s your favorite comfort food? You know, the ones who help you deal with your “things”? Share in the comments below.
Shakshuka in Crostata
For the traditional shakshuka, omit the crostata dough, but life is so much richer with the flaky crust.
1 portion flaky pie dough (recipe follows)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup white onion, diced
1/2 cup green bell pepper, diced
1/2 cup red bell pepper, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 14oz can petite diced tomatoes
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp Middle Eastern Spice Blend
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp sweet paprika
dash cayenne pepper
kosher salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
cornmeal for dusting
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp cold water
6 large eggs
1 tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped
2 tsp fresh mint, chopped
Flaky Pie Dough (makes 4 portions)
1lb 9 oz bread flour (about 7 cups)
2 tsp kosher salt
5 oz cold vegetable shortening
1lb cold, unsalted butter, diced
2/3 cup ice cold water
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour and salt.
- Cut the shortening and butter into the flour with a pastry blender or your fingers, until the fats are the size of peas.
- Add the water and mix just until the dough is moistened and comes together in a ball.
- Divide the dough into four equal parts and flatten into discs.
- Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use (you can also wrap them again and freeze for up to two months).
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over med-high heat until the oil begins to shimmer in the pan.
Sauté the onions, peppers, and garlic for 3-4 minutes or until the onion appears translucent.
Add the tomatoes, tomato paste and the spices (including the salt and pepper to taste).
Cook the tomato mixture for an additional ten minutes, or until the tomatoes release their juices and the juices have begun to evaporate and the mixture thickens.
Remove from heat and set aside to cool slightly.
Preheat your oven to 450°F.
On a lightly floured surface, using a rolling pin, roll out 1 portion of pie dough into a 16" circle (it doesn't need to be perfectly round).
Carefully transfer the rolled dough to a pizza pan (or sheet pan) that has been dusted with cornmeal. Place the center of the circle on your pan, allowing for an overhang of dough for forming the crust after filling. Pierce the center of the circle in various places with the tines of the fork. This will allow for even baking of the crust.
*I set my pizza pan on top of an inverted sheet pan, to make it easier to remove from the oven. This is totally optional*
Carefully, fill the dough with the tomato filling leaving a 3" border along the outside of the circle for later folding.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk and cold water to make an egg wash. Create dimples in six places of the filling using the back of a spoon. If you like your eggs cooked hard, carefully, break the eggs into each of the dimples you've formed in the filling. If you prefer your eggs runny, you'll add them after baking the shakshuka for ten minutes.
Brush the egg wash along the border of the dough and, carefully, fold the dough up and pinch together to create an enveloping crust. The idea is to have the crust rest on top of the filling and not under it.
Brush the crust once more with the egg wash, and bake for 10-15 min, or until the crust is a deep, golden brown color. If you like your egg yolk runny, remove the shakshuka from the oven and break the eggs into the dimples after baking for 10 minutes. Return to the oven and bake for an additional 5 minutes or until the egg whites are opaque.
Remove the shakshuka from the oven and sprinkle with cilantro and mint. Serve immediately as the eggs will continue to cook after being removed from the oven.
The traditional shakshuka is baked in a cast iron skillet without any dough at all. If you would like this version, simply omit the pasty dough and follow the recipe as directed. Serve with a crusty loaf of rye or a slice of a French baguette.
Cuisine Middle East/North Africa