Cheap Eats:
(Mediterranean Egg and Vegetable Dish)

In most aspects of life, one finds that a standard has been established or recognized, something against which other things are measured. In the world of food, when it comes to judging and classifying substances as complete and assimilable, the standard is the egg. It possesses all the amino acids needed for growth, and is rated as having the highest biological value of all common foods (96 on a scale of 100). A hen's egg also supplies all the essential vitamins except vitamin C, and most of the essential minerals in sufficient amounts to affect metabolism. Consume two eggs, and you have met half of your daily requirement for proteins and vitamins. Toss in a piece of fruit and some whole-grain bread, and you pretty much have a perfect meal.

That eggs are worthy of admiration has been recounted by many of the great chefs and gastronomes of the last few centuries. The sixteenth-century historian Benedetto Varchi wrote a treatise on boiled eggs, while the renowned seventeenth-century French cook Pierre François de la Varenne produced a cookbook that contained sixty different recipes for eggs. In his masterwork, Le Guide Culinaire (1903), the legendary Auguste Escoffier wrote that "Of all the products put to use by the art of cookery, not one is so fruitful of variety, so universally liked, and so complete in itself as the egg." He then went on to detail nearly 150 recipes for eggs. So the humble hen's egg is no culinary slouch. In fact, it is said by some that the number of pleats in the traditional chef's toque corresponds to the repertoire of egg dishes he or she has mastered.

While brown eggs vs. white eggs makes little difference, nutritionally, standard mass-produced eggs (the usual, inexpensive ones piled high in your grocery store) do differ from the costlier "vegetarian-fed" (as opposed to those fed fish meal or other animal-protein diets) or "free range" eggs. The lower-priced eggs have the advantage of being cheap and abundant. However, the higher-priced eggs have greater nutritive value, taste better, have less cholesterol, and possess a good dose of beneficial Omega 3 fatty acids. (This is less important, of course, if the eggs are being used to make cheese-filled dainties or a rich, gooey dessert of some sort.)

Interestingly, the egg yolk (from the Old English geolu, which meant, and is also the root of, "yellow") and albumen (egg white, from the Latin albus, "white") are such complicated materials that food science has still not been able to fully explain their composition and behavior. However, it is known that eggs become more alkaline after they are laid, and continue to increase in alkalinity over time (and actually, albumin is one of only two alkaline ingredients to be found in the kitchen, the other being baking soda). That's why eggs are better fresh. It's also why you never want to wash an egg before storing it, because washing will remove the protective coating, added by egg farmers, that slows the "breathing" that is responsible for this change in pH. Other than that, most of what is known about eggs is related to how they react in cooking and food preparation. But fortunately, you don't have to understand eggs to enjoy them. (Though if you want to know more, including how eggs form in the chicken's body, I recommend Harold McGee's fascinating book On Food and Cooking.)

Though some ancient peoples have traditionally viewed eggs as too valuable to eat—an egg might produce another chicken, which would feed more people than the egg would—most cultures have numerous recipes that employ these dandy little nutrient bundles. The egg recipe below is actually old enough to predate some of North Africa's current political boundaries. It is indigenous to a region called the Maghreb (or Magrib). This Arabic word means the West, and refers to the region of North Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Once known to the ancients as "Africa Minor," and long including Moorish holdings in Spain, the Maghreb now comprises essentially the Atlas Massif and coastal plain of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

(Mediterranean Egg Dish)

4 large onions, sliced

3 Tbs. olive oil

3 large sweet green pepper, cut in strips

4 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped

¼ tsp. cayenne

½ tsp. cumin

1 Tbs. vinegar

1½ tsp. salt

6 eggs

Sauté onions in oil in a large frying pan until golden brown. Add pepper strips and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomato, spices, vinegar, and salt and blend well with onions and pepper. Simmer until the vegetables are quite soft, about 30 minutes.

Make six indentations (the back of a ladle may make this easier) in the vegetables. Carefully break an egg into each indentation. Cover the frying pan and cook over low heat until eggs are well set, about 10 minutes.

Serves 6.


When I cook this for myself, I just break one or two eggs in a corner of the simmering vegetable base. Then I refrigerate the rest of the veggies and simply reheat a portion of them when I'm hungry, adding the eggs as veggies begin to bubble.

In the Maghreb, this might be served with spicy sausage on the side, and bread or rice would certainly be a reasonable accompaniment.

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