shakshuka | beata't tdamata

eggs and tomatoes

Last month, my husband and I were getting ready for a big move. While I've always been a little on the fence about minimalism, we took this as an opportunity to dramatically pare down our belongings to just the essentials, and just things we really love.

It turns out, I really only need 4 pairs of jeans, 30 shirts, 3 skirts, 6 dresses, 5 jackets, and 5 pairs of shoes (hah! only...). It's not exactly a capsule wardrobe, but it comes out to just a couple boxes, and it makes choosing outfits absolutely effortless. We've donated our CDs, DVDs, old paperbacks, old furniture, and so much more. But the one thing I just cannot part with is every single thing in our kitchen. Literally half the moving boxes are full of kitchen things.

eggs

I've always aspired to have the kind of kitchen that is a no-nonsense, well-stocked, practical and efficient, yet aesthetic space. But these boxes are seriously questioning whether I actually practice this ideal in my daily life, and I'm not entirely ready to admit that this is a problem.

Yesterday, we finally finished moving (now, just to unpack), but right before the move, we were stuck in limbo, since most of our stuff was packed in boxes, ready to be loaded on the moving truck, with nowhere to go for a couple more days. But at this point, I started to remember how silly and unnecessary most kitchen equipment is when you're cooking really simple, delicious food. For instance, to make eggs and tomatoes, "beata't tdamata" in Assyrian, all you need is a knife, a cutting board, a skillet, and a wooden spoon.

eggs and tomatoes

Beata't tdamata is the Assyrian name for shakshuka, a delicious North African and Levantine dish that many Americans know about through Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. There are many different ways to make eggs and tomatoes, bur according to Tamimi, the crucial factor is that you cook the eggs in the tomatoes instead of frying them on the side. But everything else varies from dish to dish. My take on beata't tdamata has you fry the eggs in a thin layer of chunky tomato sauce, so that there is nothing left over after serving. But eggs and tomatoes—whether poached in a bucket of tomato sauce or fried on a thin layer of tomato chunks, whether tempered with spices or sizzled with garlic and onion, whether braised with greens or simmered with little meatballs—are always a perfect match.

For more shakshuka, visit my recipe for succotash shakshuka.

eggs and tomatoes

shakshuka | Beata't Tdamata

Yield: 3 eggs *

1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 teaspoon Lebanese spice blend (or equal parts black pepper, paprika, and cumin) + 1 pinch for garnish
1 1/2 cups diced tomatoes
Salt to taste
3 eggs
1 1/2 tablespoons crumbled feta
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped parsley
Serve with bread (your bread of choice, or samoonpita, or lawasha)

  • Pre-heat a 10-inch frying pan over medium-low heat for two minutes.

  • Add the tablespoon of oil, swirl it around in the pan, and add the spice blend. Cook, stirring frequently for 2 minutes.

  • Add the chopped tomatoes and some salt to taste.

  • Turn the heat to medium-high and stir the tomatoes around for about 4 minutes until they start to break down and turn into a chunky sauce.

  • Spread the chunky sauce into one even layer (about 1/2 inch) and lower the heat to medium. Crack the eggs directly onto the tomatoes, sprinkle them with some salt, don't disturb them, and immediately cover the frying pan with a lid.

  • Set a timer for 4 minutes if you prefer very runny egg yolks, or 5 minutes if you prefer slightly runny, custardy egg yolks.

  • Check the eggs by poking the white near the yolk with a knife and gently poking the yolk with your finger. If the whites do not ooze and the yolk still feels jiggly, they should be perfect. Once they are done, remove from the pan immediately. If the whites are not set, continue cooking them covered, checking every 45 seconds to see if they are done.

  • Garnish with feta, parsley, and a pinch of spices.

* You can easily make more or less, but make sure to use a wider or smaller pan accordingly. It should be just wide enough that the cooked tomatoes will cover the bottom by about a half inch. Here are the proportions for a single egg:

1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon spice blend
1/2 cup diced tomatoes
1 egg
1/2 tablespoon crumbled feta
1/2 teaspoon chopped parsley

eggs and tomatoes

buried cheese | gubta mtumarta

buried cheese on toast

My grandmother and I recently went about solving a cheese mystery. On her family's farm in north-eastern Syria, they would make a homemade cheese that they would bury under ground in clay pots. They called the cheese gubta mtumarta, which means "buried cheese" in Assyrian. The name tells you more about the way it's stored, rather than giving any hint of the kinds of cheeses used, which didn't help us much in backwards engineering her family's recipe. But luckily, we had some information to go on, and we headed over to the Whole Foods cheese section to try to get to the bottom of things.

We knew that her family's gubta mtumarta involved caraway seeds and some combination of three cheeses crumbled together. She remembered the method of preparation really well and remembered lots of details about the cheeses they would use, but it's really difficult to figure out what cheeses to buy at a supermarket cheese counter in order to best emulate the flavors and textures of farm-made, unnamed Syrian cheeses.

caraway seeds

Here was the information we had: The first cheese tasted like feta, but without the brine. It was a not-too-salty, medium-soft cheese that added a creamy texture to the mix, but without adding too much moisture. It bound the crumbly, hard cheeses together. The second cheese was a lot like parmesan--very salty, dry, and crumbly. The third cheese was similarly crumbly, but not quite as salty or hard, with a subtler flavor. The two harder cheeses would get ground up into little pieces and mixed together with the creamier cheese to form a crumbly paste. The harder cheeses would add enough salt to help preserve the softer one and the whole paste would get mixed together with caraway seeds to add a really lovely, distinct flavor that most Americans associate with rye bread.

manouri cheese
parmesan cheese
provolone piccante

We chose three Mediterranean cheeses for our recipe for gubta mtumarta. For the first, soft cheese, we chose manouri cheese, which is similar to feta, but without the brine and strong feta flavor. The second cheese was easy, since parmesan was the obvious choice. For the third cheese, we found a hard, aged provolone piccante with a little less salt than parmesan and a slightly higher moisture content.

We minced the cheeses finely and combined them with the caraway, and when she tried the finished product she said that she couldn't wait to deliver some to her brother, Badel, because it was exactly like the gubta mtumarta that she remembered. While I never tried the gubta from their farm, I can confirm that this recipe is beyond delicious spread on toast, melted on a burger, sprinkled on biryani, or added to tabbouleh. On Easter, Yemmah Sourma would put a little cheese in the center of one of the samooneh before baking the rolls, and whichever kid got the cheesy samoon got an extra little gift for Easter. But if you ask me, getting the only samoon full of gubta mtumarta is a gift in itself.

buried cheese
buried cheese

Gubta Mtumarta

2.5 ounces parmigiano reggiano (or another hard, salty cheese, like pecorino romano)
4 ounces provolone piccante (or another sharp, somewhat salty cheese, like an aged asiago)
5 ounces manouri (or another soft, mild, crumbly cheese, like ricotta salata or a mild feta)
1 tablespoon caraway seeds

  • Mince the parmigiano reggiano and the provolone piccante (or other cheeses, if using) by hand or with a food processor. Don't over-process the hard cheeses--there should be some crumbles that are the size of grains of rice and some the size of grains of sand.

  • Once the hard cheeses have been ground up, crumble in the manouri (or other cheese, if using) and combine just until everything comes together into a coarse paste.

  • Stir in the caraway seeds and store the cheese in a jar in the refrigerator. The length of time you can store the gubta will vary, depending on the kind of cheese you're using, but with the three listed above, you can count on at least a week.

If you'd like to buy a commercial gubta mtumarta, Buried Cheese of Chicago sells their own family recipe.
If you're looking for related recipes, try my
mac and gubta mtumarta and gubta mtumarta monkey bread.

buried cheese