The Survivor

4 Oct

Do you remember way back in the balmy month of May, with much excitement, I announced the planting of my little fire escape container garden?

Happier Times

There were tomatoes and radishes and herbs and peppers and even strawberries, all tucked neatly into little containers, basking happily in the dappled Brooklyn sun.

Well, I hate to say it, but it’s been a dramatic summer and there were few survivors.

First there was summer’s refusal to get started. The plants wanted heat, but there wasn’t any. Then there was the tornado which uprooted a few and harmed many. Then there was the rain that kept beating my seedlings into pulp. And finally, there were the squirrels; those dumb, stupid baby squirrels who feel that my planters are the perfect place to hide all their bounty that I am positive they will never remember.

Tomatoes? Gone. The radishes and herbs? KOed by the weather. The strawberries managed to give me two really cute berries, and that was all. They were then hit by the double header of tornado and squirrels. As you can see, it wasn’t only this guy who had a rough summer of farming in Brooklyn!


But you’ll notice I haven’t said a thing about the peppers. Well, that’s because they survived! I feared for them. They were the hardest hit by the tornado. All six plants were torqued out by the wind into a very neat spiral and had many broken leaves and stems. So I gently gathered them up and tied them together and hoped that would be enough. It was. They kept growing, but wouldn’t flower.

Then we started making cheese. One of the recipes noted that leftover whey makes great plant food. So after our first cheesemaking foray I let the whey cool and then fed the peppers. I could almost hear them cheering! The next morning they looked so perky and happy, and then just a day or two later the first blossom bloomed. And then another day or two later, we had our first pepper, a Portugese hot.

Portugese Hot Pepper

This weekend, with prospects for at least another half-dozen peppers, the Boy and I decided it was time to harvest our first Brooklyn-grown produce. But it needed a proper end.

I recently bought Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, the follow up, decades in the making, to her first book, and possibly my favorite cook book of all time. It has many of the same recipes as the book from the ’70s, updated and adapted for the modern home cook, plus hundreds of new ones. In one meal Ms. Roden made me think of this book as essential. She is genius.*

Portugese Hot Pepper

Over a year ago the Boy had printed out a recipe for Shakshuka from the Times and brought it home to me. When he does this, I know he really wants to try whatever it is, and that it’s probably something I might not be so fond of. Something about that recipe rubbed me the wrong way. It was so fussy and long and complicated. I kept hiding it and hoping he’d forget about it. But no.

I had said I wanted to make something with tomatoes. Shakshuka he said! I whimpered something about not being in the mood. I wanted a place to properly use my one pepper. Shakshuka he said! I mumbled something about it being too complicated. I wanted to coddle the beautiful free range eggs I’d picked up earlier in the week. Shakshuka he said! I murmured something about the pepper getting lost in all those flavors.

And then, finally, we were at the greenmarket, my patience was wearing very, very thin and there, at one of the stands were the world’s largest bell peppers and I agreed. Shakshouka I sighed.


Something was niggling at the back of my head. Hadn’t I seen a recipe in The New Book for shakshouka that looked really simple and clean and easy? Yes, I had. And so, this is where our brave little pepper ended his life, in a warm, molten, silky, sweet and spicy tangle of tomatoes and eggs. A fitting end? Incredibly so.

I paired the shakshouka with a Tunisian salad, supposed to be served cold, of mashed potatoes, shatta and capers that I served warm, and pomegranate and curry lamb sausages.

The tiniest whisper of spice from the sausage melded perfectly with the rest of the meal. Both dishes, though intensely flavorful and at least a little spicy, were devoid of any high seasoning. The light cinnamon aroma was the element that transformed the disparate elements and elevated them into a meal. It was delightful.

Shakshouka, Mashed Potatoes with Capers & Pomegranate/Curry Lamb Sausages

And so we sat and munched and oohed and aahed and discussed next years garden. First, I’ll start the seedlings inside. Second, I’m going to make sure my plants and dirt come from organic sources. Third, I will buy containers that are too high for squirrels to clamber into. Fourth, chicken wire will go over everything. Fifth, pray to god there are no more tornadoes!

*As an aside, did everyone read the profile the New Yorker did on Ms. Roden in the food issue? They’ve only got an abstract, a sidebar and some recipes online now, so it’s worth trying to track it down. It made me, even more, want to fly to London and hang out with her. I cannot wait for her volume on Spain to be published!

Head below the jump for the recipes for Claudia Roden’s Shakshouka and Slatit Batata Marfusa.


prep time: 10 minutes ~ cooking time: 45 or so minutes

  • Olive Oil
  • 2 lbs of Bell Peppers, cut into strips
  • 4-6 cloves Garlic, roughly minced
  • 1 Onion, sliced
  • 2 lbs of Tomatoes, cut into chunks
  • 1 hot Chile
  • Salt & Pepper
  • 4 eggs

Add a healthy glug of olive oil to a deep saute pan set over medium-high heat. Add the peppers and cook a few minutes then add the onions and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently until everything is nice and soft then add the tomatoes and cook until they break down and then cook until reduced to a silky, thickened consistency.

The exact time it takes to get to a thickness you like will be determined by how much water your vegetables contain and how saucy you like your shakshouka. Mine was comparable to a nice thick marinara.

Turn the heat down and add the chile. Season with salt and pepper. Stir to incorporate.

Crack each egg, one at a time into a bowl, then make a little well for it in the sauce and gently tip the egg into the sauce. Repeat for each egg, season with a little salt and then place a lid on the pan and allow the eggs to cook a few minutes until set.

To serve: Scoop up an egg for each person and garnish with a little sauce. Enjoy!

P.S. – This saves very well and is even better the next day. The yolks of the eggs may get a strange, jellylike texture, but they’re still delicious, especially when mixed together with the leftover potatoes and capers!

Slatit Batata Marfusa (Mashed Potates with Capers)

prep time: 10 minutes ~ cooking time: 1 hour or so depending on your potatoes

  • 1 1/2 lbs Fingerling Potatoes, scrubbed and cut into chunks
  • 4-5 tbsps Olive Oil
  • 1 1/2 tsps Sherry Vinegar
  • 2 tsps Shatta or Harissa
  • 3 tbsps Capers, rinsed

Boil the potatoes in salted water until tender. Drain, return to pot, then mash them with the olive oil and vinegar. Add the shatta or harrisa and the capers. Mix to incorporate. Taste. Season with salt and pepper.

This is traditionally served cold, but is equally delicious warm. Enjoy!

Both recipes adapted from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.


16 Responses to “The Survivor”

  1. s'kat October 4, 2007 at 8:31 am #

    This is a fitting end, indeed! I make a similar dish that has a more Mediterranean slant- this looks quite good!

    Don’t feel bad about your garden, mine has SUCKED this year! The hot peppers were the only survivors.

  2. Lydia October 4, 2007 at 9:07 am #

    Your pepper gave its life for a wonderful dish! I love Claudia Roden’s books, and have many in my cookbook library. She sets everything in context, so that you get a sense of place as well as just the food.

  3. Jennifer Hess October 4, 2007 at 11:42 am #

    Our garden has suffered this year, too. Aside from The Sage That Will Take Over Brooklyn, very little has thrived. I’m glad your peppers are doing well though, and this dish sounds amazing!

  4. Susan in Italy October 4, 2007 at 2:58 pm #

    Wow! That shakshouka (sp?) looks fabulous, what a meal! I ‘d never heard that you can use whey as a plant food, great tip.

  5. maruda October 4, 2007 at 3:24 pm #


  6. radish October 4, 2007 at 4:23 pm #

    oh, what gorgeous pepper! Our garden fared eh as well. We managed to grow gourds instead of squash – can you eat those? We ate some tomatoes off our plant – yum, and have been using the herbs (note to self, basil is not that often used, plant dill next year), we had 4 hot peppers on our pepper bush, and now have a few beans hanging off our vine… And as fall really rears its head, the plants are slowly dying off.

  7. Kevin October 5, 2007 at 9:28 am #

    Well done! I can’t believe how many foodies I know who don’t garden. Quite surprising. So good on ya.

  8. Julie October 5, 2007 at 10:59 am #

    Squirrels seem like a predictable city garden problem, and late, chilly springs mess with gardeners everywhere but tornadoes? In Brooklyn? Go figure.

    Your little cheese whey-fed peppers went to a delicious looking dish. (And who knew plants liked whey? That’s wild.) The whole meal sounds fabulous.

  9. ann October 6, 2007 at 9:35 am #

    s’kat — Yeah, throw some capers in there and it’s sauce Verracruzano, throw some olives in and it’s Puttanesca. Tomatoes rule! Sorry your garden sucked too. Maybe we can both do better next year!

    Lydia — Hear hear! I couldn’t have said it better myself!

    Jen — I’d kill for some sage to take over my Brooklyn! I killed 3 different kinds this year. I feel awful.

    Susan — Isn’t that neat? It’s very biodynamic ;-)

    Maruda — thanks!

    Radish — I think you can eat the gourds as long as you do it early. But on the other hand, they’re far more useful uneaten. You can turn them into rattles, or birdhouses, or check out the instructions in Blueprint (they have it over on Apartment Therapy) for turning gourds into gorgeous centerpiece bowls! So versatile!
    Funny that you use dill more than basil… I bet there’s not many households that can say that. I on the other hand, salute you!

    Kevin — It’s so hard to be a gardener in NYC. If I hadn’t grown up in my mom’s garden Upstate I probably wouldn’t have the itch as badly as I do. I think gardening intimidates a lot of people.

    Julie — I know, hilarious, right? First one in 2 centuries or something like that. Stupid tornado, should have taken out the squirrels ;-)

  10. merrimerri October 6, 2007 at 8:44 pm #

    You had a bad summer too?
    It sounds as though it was universal..
    SO disappointing!
    We had hardly anything survive except for a few paltry lettuces and a few tomatoes.
    I love the look of that recipe!

  11. Christina October 7, 2007 at 12:04 pm #

    From your comments, it sounds like you’re struggling with sage: water infrequently and, since it rains abundantly in your area, make sure you have potted the plant in soil with very good drainage. Add sand or gravel if necessary. Picture where sage grows wild (rocky hillsides in Mediterranean climates) and try to emulate the soil conditions of that environment. I’m sorry the weather has been so mean to you.

    As for your pretty little pepper (aren’t peppers beautiful in a shiny, wrinkly way?), it seems to have found another lovely way to please people in this recipe. The dish looks yummy, healthy, and fun to make. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  12. Mary October 7, 2007 at 12:53 pm #

    Well, my fire escape garden here in Covington, KY didn’t fare so well either so chin up. Except for the mint. The mint has a spirit that will not die. Do you know how hard it is to kill mint?

  13. ann October 8, 2007 at 7:24 am #

    Merrimerri — I finally admitted defeat yesterday and pulled up the plants that died only to find that, voila, in fact I had managed to grow one tiny, green tomato, but it was too late, I had already uprooted the plant. *sigh*

    Christina — Damn that’s good advice! Thanks! I think you would loooooove shakshouka… Save it for a rainy, chilly day!

    Mary — Mint really is amazing. I had a plant take over and kill an entire windowbox once. It was zany.

  14. ~m. October 8, 2007 at 2:08 pm #

    you might not like the content of my journal (an alternative lifestyle journal) but i wanted you to know that this recipe looks wonderful, and that i used yoru photo and recipe and put a link back to your site.

    (the photo inspired a discussion between my Protector and myself that was too funny for me not to post about, and if i posted ThAT, i knew i’d have to put up the picture that spakrked, it, andi just COULDN’T put up the pic without the recipe, and i couldn’t do ANY of that without linking back to you.

    thank you!!


    oh.. what was the cinnamon in?

  15. ann October 8, 2007 at 8:20 pm #

    Hi m — No worries about the content, we all have our own “lifestyles.” I just really appreciate the mention and the fact that you and Sir got a chuckle out of it. I too thought that the shakshouka looked primordial or fractal or something else scientific, I never looked at in the way that Sir did. Everyone’s got their opinion ;-)
    The cinnamon was in the sausages, they were curry and pomegranate flavored and a nice foil to the gentle flavors in the stew. If you make it, I really hope you like it!

  16. Debra van Culiblog October 19, 2007 at 8:44 am #

    Looks amazing! Mouth watering.

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