It used to be that whenever I craved a bowl of runny-yolked eggs poached in red sauce, I’d whip up some shakshuka. I first tasted this North African dish, made from stewed tomatoes, onions, sweet peppers and plenty of spices, on a trip to Israel, where it’s extremely popular, and have been hooked ever since.
Lately though, I’ve widened my eggs-and-red-sauce circle to include the evocatively named Italian version: uova in purgatorio, or eggs in purgatory. (It may be named for the boiling tomato sauce the eggs are poached in, or the fiery red-pepper flakes the sauce is spiked with.)
Both recipes feature a piquant tomato sauce and softly cooked eggs, but the difference is in the seasonings. While heady spices like turmeric, cumin and coriander scent the North African dish, the Italian incarnation is all about the pungency of good olive oil and garlic, a little basil or rosemary and the pleasurable burn of crushed red-pepper flakes. It can be a mildly or intensely spicy combination, purportedly good for hangovers with all that chile smacking any residual fog from your brain. Crunchy, fragrant garlic-rubbed toast makes it a complete meal.
Eggs in purgatory is exquisitely easy to make — even simpler than shakshuka because there are no onions or peppers to slice and sauté. The only ingredients you’ll need to cut up are a garlic clove (or two), to be browned in olive oil along with the red-pepper flakes, and some anchovies before you stir in the canned tomatoes.
A word to anchovy avoiders: Yes, you can certainly leave them out; they aren’t even traditionally found in this kind of purgatory. But, if you’re at all open to them (or possibly obsessed with them, like I am), they’ll add an umami flavor that works nicely with the acidity of the canned tomatoes.
Stirring a few anchovies into the pan is also a flavor-enhancing trick I use when making marinara sauce (which is what this red sauce essentially is before you crack in the eggs). So if you happen to have any good marinara on hand, you can use it here to poach the eggs. Just be sure to get it simmering hot all over so the eggs cook evenly. Otherwise, you could end up with undercooked whites and overcooked yolks — a combination no one adores.
Like shakshuka, eggs in purgatory can be served for breakfast, brunch or a light supper, whether you’re hung over, or just in a hurry to get a satisfying, full-flavored dish on the table quickly.
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