Friday, July 22, 2011

A Brief History with Vegetables

Like most children vegetables weren’t exactly my favorite food growing up. I spent the majority of my adolescent years on a boat in a remote part of Alaska. The “town” if you could call it that was Alitak, a small fishing cannery on the south end of Kodiak Island in a bay that faced the Bering Sea. In the summer the place was booming, lots of fishermen, cannery workers and families. When I say booming though I should mention again this was a cannery, there was no movie theaters or bars or restaurants. There was an office where you could buy stamps and send mail, there was a store where you could buy canned goods, frozen food and on the off chance that the weather was good enough for the planes to fly you might find a wilted head of lettuce that could be procured for an astronomical price. In the winter the cannery was shut down, and a single family was hired to wait out the winter and make sure the place didn’t fall into the ground during the off season.

To say fresh fruits and vegetables were scarce during these times is an understatement. And much to my chagrin the vegetables that graced my plate were either canned or frozen.  It only took so many meals of slurming down canned green beans to realize that I didn’t like vegetables and quickly decided the only tomatoes that were ever going to enter my body would be those on the pizza crust hiding under a pile of cheese.

It took a lot of years to change my mind, there was the hideous creamed cauliflower incident of thanksgiving thanks in part to a potatoe allergy that runs rampant in my biological fathers side of the family. The salad bar hiccup in my college cafeteria that served watery colorless tomatoes and slimy mushrooms. And then one year for no reason I started eating tomato soup and grilled sandwiches. The veggies that came as sides on date nights started to become really appealing, and I realized I don’t hate vegetables, I hate bad vegetables. At 23 years old, I finally started cooking fresh veggies as the main dish in my meals and I was loving every minute of it. Thinking back though, I don’t think I was being all that ridiculous about my vegg revulsion. Vegetables can be quite horrible if not cooked properly, and for the most part cooking shows, recipe books and restaurants teach us that veggies are a side dish, a must eat for a balanced diet. But they are very rarely highlighted as the shining star of a delicious meal that they really are.

The point here being don’t wait 23 years to try vegetarian dishes. The majority of the cultures in the world base their meals around vegetables, as long as you have sunlight, soil and water (and seeds obviously) a person can create food. And given the long history these cultures have with their veggies, the meals are normally quite brilliant. Last night I made a traditional Shankshouka which is a dish that originated from the Maghreb of Tunisian origins. It is mostly a dish of stewed tomatoes and spices with eggs poached into it, served with a bread of some sort. Shankshouka is now a staple of Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, Algerian, and Moroccan diets but is also fast becoming more popular in Israel.  Because of its long history and varied cultural eaters there are many varieties. The recipe I used was from my favorite food mecca a site you should exlpore in great revered detail Smitten Kitchen. The site owner Deb is pretty much my idol and she makes food look like art. 

 Though because I am incapable of ever following a recipe exactly (and a recent run in with some overly hot jalapenos) I made a few personal adjustments. Deb's recepie can be found here.


Olive oil
3 Anaheim Chilies (very mild, for extra heat try jalapenos or seranos)
2 Shallots
1 Garlic ( I love garlic and used the whole bulb but it’s not necessary)
1 table spoon paprika
1 teaspoon taco seasoning (I ran out of cumin)
1 28-ounce can of mashed tomatoes
2 Romano tomatoes
6 eggs
Feta cheese
Green onions
Bread (I used a French garlic bread, because the store was out of pita)

Heat oil in a soup pot, add chopped shallots, peppers and tomatoes. Heat for 5 minutes add ½ cup water and let the veggies cook down some, adding water as needed. Once veggies have cooked down to an appropriate “chunk size” (it’s a personal preference, I don’t like big chunks), add the garlic and canned tomatoes. Let simmer for 5 minutes, then add  spices. Let cook about 15 minutes stirring frequently to keep from sticking. Once the sauce is on the verge of a light boil crack eggs into sauce and let cook. Be careful not to break yokes, but you will have to do some light stirring to keep the whole thing from cooking to the pan as the sauce should be quite thick by now. Once the eggs are poached to your liking, serve with sprinkled green onions and feta cheese. The side of bread with help you scoop up all the amazing tomato sauce. Enjoy!

*And yes I realize Shankshouka is spelled different ways in this post as is it spelled many different ways depending on which culture the particular recepie was pulled from.

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