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 chili 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.
Eggs in purgatory
Yield: Makes 3 to 4 servings
Total time: 30 minutes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more for drizzling on toast
2 large cloves garlic, 1 thinly sliced and 1 halved
3 anchovy fillets, minced (optional)
Pinch of red-pepper flakes, more to taste and for serving
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, more to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 large sprig fresh basil or rosemary, or a pinch of dried rosemary
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan, more for serving
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, more to taste
Sliced crusty bread, for serving
Small handful chopped basil or parsley, for garnish
1. In a large skillet with a lid, heat oil over medium heat. Add the sliced garlic, anchovies and red-pepper flakes and cook just until the garlic turns golden brown at the edges, about 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes, salt, pepper and basil sprig, and turn the heat to medium-low.
2. Simmer, squashing tomato pieces with a wooden spoon or a potato masher, until the tomatoes break down and thicken into a sauce, 20 to 25 minutes. Stir in Parmesan, butter, salt and red-pepper flakes to taste.
3. Using the back of a spoon, make 6 divots into the tomato sauce, then crack an egg into each divot. Cover the pan and let cook until the eggs are set to taste, about 2 to 3 minutes for runny yolks. (If the pan is not covered, the eggs won’t cook through, so don’t skip that step.)
4. While the eggs are cooking, toast bread in a toaster or under the broiler. Rub warm toast with the cut garlic clove, drizzle with oil, and sprinkle with salt.
5. To serve, sprinkle eggs with more Parmesan and chopped herbs, then spoon onto plates or into shallow bowls. Serve with garlic toast and pass pepper flakes at the table.