As the days lengthen – oh hallelujah! – my thoughts turn to eggs.
I’ve kept chickens on several occasions over the years, and I know that hens need longer days to lay well. While the birds can be spurred into laying with supplemental electric light — chickens need about 14 hours of light a day to lay consistently — I always allowed my hens to follow their own schedule, rather than pushing them to lay. Here in Tucson, that pivotal day will be May 24 this year.
Still, like everyone else, I eat eggs all year ‘round. And I think of eggs as the default for meals when inspiration sags.
As regular readers of this column know, I’ve become intrigued with translating classic international dishes into ones that suit our Southwestern palates. This week’s recipe is a good example of that.
I love shakshuka, the Israeli dish with North African origins that features eggs poached in an herb-enhanced tomato-pepper-onion sauce. It’s nutritious and inexpensive to prepare, and it’s a regular in my recipe rota.
Last week, however, I decided to give shakshuka a Sonoran spin, and I was pleased with the results. I hope you will be, too.
Although this dish is similar to a Mexican classic called huevos ahogados – eggs “drowned” in salsa – it’s not quite the same. Poaching the eggs in a tomato-onion-chile sauce rather than salsa gives them a different flavor, and that sauce is meant to be scooped up with tortillas or bread.
I use eggs from pastured poultry in my kitchen, because I believe their bright orange yolks give a hint to their superior nutrition. I’m not alone in this thinking.
We studied egg nutritional profiles during my time at Mother Earth News magazine, where I saw firsthand the difference between pasture-raised eggs and conventional ones.
“Compared to eggs of the commercial hens, eggs from pastured hens had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fats, more than double the total omega-3 fatty acids, and less than half the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids,” said Heather Karsten, associate professor of crop production ecology at Penn State University, in discussing her 2010 study. “Vitamin A concentration was 38% higher in the pastured hens’ eggs than in the commercial hens’ eggs, but total vitamin A per egg did not differ.”
The importance of the omega-3 fats, and their ratio to omega-6 fats in our diets, is complicated, but it’s no overstatement to say that most Americans eat far too much omega-6 fat.
That’s because our diets include so much seed and vegetable oil, such as canola oil (made from rapeseed), corn oil and soybean oil — the kinds commonly used in processed foods.
Scientists link such high omega-6 consumption to increased inflammation in the body, which in turn contributes to heart disease and other ailments.
While an ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats may be 4:1, scientists say, the average American’s diet is somewhat closer to 14:1.
That’s why I go out of my way to pick up my eggs from farmers market vendors such as Dee Ann and Gilbert Zamudio, whose Elfrida-based Diamond Z Ranch chickens are free to roam pasture and paddock, enjoying the sun and seeking out bugs during the course of their day.
It is these practices that make pasture-raised hens produce eggs that echo Heather Karsten’s findings.
But whatever your source of eggs, this easy, economical dish will satisfy your need for a quick meal that tastes of our unique culture and our spectacular surroundings.
Makes 2 to 4 servings
Economical, satisfying and easy to prepare, the Israeli favorite Shakshuka shows up for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Here, a Southwestern take on the dish twists it just a bit to suit a desert-dweller’s palate. Choose mild or hot chiles for this dish as your palate demands, and serve warm tortillas or sturdy bread for sopping up the sauce.
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 poblano chiles, seeded and cut into long strips
1 medium onion, halved and cut into half-moons
4 cloves garlic, minced
6 large tomatoes, cored, seeded and diced, or 2 10-ounce cans tomatoes with chiles (such as Rotel or Muir Glen)
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon hot chile powder
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 large eggs
2 limes, halved
Chopped cilantro, for garnish
Sliced green onions, for garnish
Cotija cheese, for garnish
Warm tortillas or bread, for serving
Salsa, for serving
Sour cream, for garnish
Sliced avocado, optional, for garnish
In a heavy 10-inch skillet with a close-fitting lid, heat the olive oil over medium heat until fragrant.
Stir in the chile strips and onion; cook, stirring, until the onions soften and become translucent, about 10 minutes. Stir in the minced garlic and cook a minute longer, or until the garlic becomes fragrant.
Stir in the tomatoes, cumin, chile powder, salt and pepper and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring from time to time, until the tomatoes begin to “melt,” about five minutes.
Use a large spoon to make four depressions in the sauce.
Crack an egg into each depression.
Reduce heat to simmer, cover, and cook until the whites are firm and the yolks are still runny, about five to eight minutes.
Squeeze the lime juice over the eggs and scatter the chopped cilantro, green onion and cotija cheese over all. Serve with warm tortillas or bread, salsa and sour cream.
Robin Mather is a longtime food journalist and the author of “The Feast Nearby.” Follow her blog as she writes her third book, “The Feast of the Dove,” at thefeastofthedove.com.