It is a truth universally acknowledged that “It is a truth universally acknowledged” is one of the best starting lines in literature (Pride and Prejudice, people). It consequently is one of the most stolen and over-used. So I make apologies for noting that my use of it in this context is hackneyed, trite and boring.
BUT it is SO a truth universally acknowledged that dinners you weren’t quite prepared for are the most terrifying thing to try and get your head round when you have approximately 2 hours to prepare for them. PARTICULARLY when your lovely mate The Director has told his new girlfriend that you’re a really great cook and is bringing her around and you’re all “shit, I really can’t get away with just getting a pizza in, can I?” I had only myself to blame for this – a night on a sauce with colleagues the night before was not the best way to make magic happen in the kitchen.
But improvisation under pressure is when sometimes really good things happen. Not always, naturally. I mean, I figure that’s the only explanation for things like The Jump, this absolutely terrifying British TV show where celebrities are made to do extreme winter sports. I really want to go back in time to the moment where a producer went “yeah, so, you know how winter sports are PROPERLY dangerous and loads of people die and you need crazy insurance for it? Well, I figured we’d get Lulu to do the luge and see if she puts herself in a coma.” Loads of them have ended up really badly hurt, and I figure its genesis was a bit like that scene in Alan Partridge where he just puts words together while trying to pitch a tv show to a producer.
That, or some bright spark at Channel 4 is trying to thin the reality TV herd at award shows by killing them off in hideous accidents. Which is probably also part of the motivation.
Anyway, back to the problem at hand – I needed a dinner, and fast. I had puff pastry in the freezer which seemed like a good start, and a load of eggs to eat up. I was thinking quiche but it seemed a bit boring. Then it hit me: breakfast food. Like Lesley Knope, we all know that breakfast food is the best. And my current favourite breakfast is Shakshouka – the delicious dish of braised eggs in spicy pepper sauce which allegedly is Berber/Tunisian in origin but which has antecedents all over europe, from Piperade in Spain to Menemen in Turkey. Why not make them into a tart? It would mean cutting some corners and perhaps short-routing some of the more traditional techniques, but I figured it would be pretty tasty. I’m not too humble to say that it was pretty much one of my finest off-the-cuff creations. BOOM.
Served alongside roasted cauliflower with my all time favourite tahini dressing, this was done in under 90 minutes and looked well good.
Shakshouka Tart with Roast Cauliflower and Tahini Sauce
For the tart:
1 x pre-rolled puff pastry
2 x peppers, deseeded and sliced into strips – red and yellow are my jam
1 x red onion – thinly sliced
1 x yellow onion – thinly slice
2 x cloves garlic – finely chopped
3 x nice ripe fat tomatoes, deseeded and cut into strips
3 x tbsp harrissa paste
thyme, about 2 tbsp leaves
4 x medium free-range eggs
1 x tsp cumin seeds
2 x tsp coriander
2 x tsp turmeric
1 x tsp hot smoked paprika
For the cauliflower:
oil for roasting
1 x cauliflower, broken into bite-size florets
1 small handful of fresh coriander leaves, chopped
For the sauce:
2 tbsp tahini
3 tbsp pomegranate molasses
juice of 1/2 lemon
150g plain yoghurt
Preheat the oven to 180C.
First, make your spice mix. Toast the dry spices in a frying pan over a low heat until they smell good. Don’t add any oil etc to the pan, this will be a terrible idea. When they smell good, tip into a little bowl and wipe out the pan.
Then, take your onions and fry in a good slug of olive oil for about 5 minutes over a medium heat, until soft and beginning to go golden. I used a mixture of yellow and red so that the onions were super-sweet and looked attractive once cooked. The smell, naturally, was HEAVENLY. Add the peppers, garlic, 2 tbsp harrissa, the thyme leaves and half of the spice mix, mix well and let the mixture cook gently, covered for about 10 min or until softened. Turn off the heat and let cool slightly, and check if it needs seasoning. I always add a shit-ton of pepper and it needed a little salt, but shouldn’t need any sugar as the onions will be naturally sweet if they’ve been given time to colour. I deliberately didn’t add the tomatoes at this stage as I needed the mixture to stay relatively dry and I didn’t want them disintegrating into a sauce, which would cause SOGGY BOTTOM DISASTER. They can be mixed in shortly before the lot goes in the oven.
Meanwhile, take the other half of the spice mix, mix with about 3 tbsp olive oil and toss with the cauliflower, then spread over a baking tray and pop in the oven for about 15 min, turning regularly until tender, caught here and there with slightly charred edges. Mmmm.
Now you’re ready to roll out your pastry. Simply take a large baking tray and roll it out to fit roughly, making sure you grease that sucker first. Spread with the remaining harissa. Prick a few times with a fork, add the tomatoes to the pepper mix (they’ll cook through in the oven, don’t worry) and pile onto the pasty relatively hodgepodge, leaving a little space around the sides for a crust to pop up.
It will already look pretty yummy.
Here’s the clever bit. Pop your tart into the hot oven for about 15 min, until it starts looking relatively puffed and lovely. Take it out and make 4 little spaces in amongst the veg on top, then take your eggs and crack them directly into the spaces. The veg need to be hot so that the egg doesn’t spread EVERYWHERE. By putting them onto a hot tart they sort of start cooking immediately. Return to the oven for another 10-15 min or until the egg whites look cooked through and the pastry is a red-gold around the edge. The yolks should stay soft, just give them a little touch every so often to make sure they aren’t going chalky.
I like to serve this warm rather than blistering hot. So when it’s ready, take it out of the oven to cool slightly and return your pre-cooked cauli to heat through if needed, and stir together the sauce ingredients (adjusting the quantities to taste – I’m obsessed by pomegranate molasses).
Serve the tart in large wedges, accompanied by your cauliflower piled into a bowl with coriander on top, with the sauce in a jug to spoon over the veg.
Et voila – you have a dinner party in under 90 min.
NB – if you want to make a banging Shakshouka which is real and not incredibly cheaty, check out Helen Graves’ version which looks damn fine, if I do say so myself. Although I’d still add peppers innit.