This recipe is the primary reason that I started keeping preserved lemons and za’atar stocked in my kitchen at all times. Both ingredients get used for other things, but the discovery of this is what made them permanent fixtures of the household.
I found this recipe on The Guardian website, where Ottolenghi regularly publishes a column devoted to a single ingredient. This was an eggs column. (And I am still itching to try the Eggs with Chickpeas, Tomato, and Pernod from that column. I just need to get my hands on some Pernod.)
Now, I have made a few tweaks here and there and cut down on the size of the recipe. You can crack two eggs into it instead of one and feed two people (or one really hungry person). It comes together pretty quickly. Like many Ottolenghi recipes, there are steps that seem overly fussy on the first read. Do I really need to toast and crush my own cumin seeds? Is that really worth it? Yes. Yes, it is. Is there really a difference between preserved lemon and just a regular lemon? Good grief, yes, yes there is. Does it have to be za’atar? YES.
Preserved lemon seems like a weird thing to have in your kitchen until you have it in your kitchen and then you will always find dishes to throw it in. I have heard them described elsewhere as “lemon umami” and I think its the best definition for them. It dulls the bitter edge of the lemon without sacrificing any of the lemonness. Plus, you aren’t just squeezing some juice out of it. You are chopping up the flesh and the rind. You are getting every bit of that lemon. Preserved lemon is available in stores and it isn’t too pricey, but it is also wicked easy to make yourself. You really just need organic lemons, kosher salt and a jar. Different recipes add other variables. Some throw in a little sugar. Some add black peppercorns and bay leaves. The ones that I buy from the store (when I get too lazy to make them) have a chili pepper floating in there. There is no one way to do it, but for the first outing, buy some to see what I am talking about. You will never go back.
Za’atar is a middle eastern spice that can be used in a ton of different ways. It dazzles on flatbread with some caramelized onions. It works with chicken and fish. Add it to some tahini and oil for a great dressing. In this recipe, it is whisked with a little olive oil and drizzled over the top of the finished eggs. When you see it in stores, you might see both green and red varieties. The basic za’atar is green and is comprised of thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and salt. You might also see marjoram and oregano thrown in. Some people add cumin and that gives it the red color. However, if you are going to a store that stocks sumac, then odds are that it stocks za’atar. I made my own za’atar once. There was absolutely no improvement over the storebought blend.
The easiest shortcut in this recipe is to skip toasting and crushing the cumin seeds and just use ground cumin but I think the toasted cumin really sings here. I also love the excuse to use my mortar and pestle, which I really struggle to find uses for sometimes.
Also, can I just take a moment to wonder exactly how leeks are the single dirtiest vegetable ever. When you slice into them, almost every inner ring has dirt in it. All other vegetables are made to look supermarket pretty when we see them at stores, but not leeks. Leeks hold fast and firm, demanding that you see the earth that they came from. They will not be made pretty for you. (Okay, I may have gone a little around the bend with that thought. Let’s go back to the recipe.)
Ottolenghi recommends sauteing the leeks in butter and olive oil and I choose to omit the butter. He also does not use aleppo chile pepper but I always have that next to the stove so it tends to find its way into a lot of dishes that did not call for its presence. I like the flavor and I like the color it adds.
For the stock, you can easily substitute vegetable stock. And if you have no stock on hand, a half cup of water with a good chug of white wine vinegar will get the job done, but you will lose some flavor.
You want to have some good bread to eat this with. I ate this sitting in my backyard, which I include a picture of just because my backyard is really pretty. (I can claim no credit for that. Its a shared deck and my neighbor does all the pretty things. But boy do I enjoy the benefits of her labor.) Also, this photo highlights the mysterious speed bump on my back deck. Why are you there, speed bump?
Braised Eggs with Leeks and Spinach
(adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Guardian column)
1/4 tsp cumin seeds, toasted and crushed (or a 1/4 tsp ground cumin)
2 tbsp olive oil, separated (plus more as needed)
1 large leek (or 2-4 smaller leeks), trimmed and sliced
1/4 preserved lemon, seeds discarded, skin and flesh finely chopped
1/2 cup unsalted chicken stock
2 cups baby spinach leaves
1 tbsp crumbled feta
1/4 tsp aleppo chile pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp za’atar
In a small pan, toast the cumin seeds over medium heat until they are lightly browned, about three to five minutes. Then grind the toasted seeds in a mortar and pestle until they are finely ground. Set aside.
Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the leaks and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally, until leeks have softened, about five minutes. Then add the chopped lemon (juice, flesh and rind) and ground cumin and stir for a minute. Add the stock and simmer for five minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated.
Add the spinach and fold it in until the spinach has just wilted. Then make a hole in the center of the mixture (or two holes if doing two eggs) and crack your egg into the hole. (I usually add a splash of stock to the pan, around the edge of my pile of greens, just to keep them from sticking to the pan.) Sprinkle feta and aleppo over the top and cover. Cook for four to five minutes.
While the egg is cooking, take a small bowl and whisk together the za’atar and the remaining tablespoon of olive oil until well blended.
Remove the lid and look at the beautiful thing you have made. Scoop into a bowl (spatula is a handy tool for doing this without jeopardizing the integrity of the yolk) and then drizzle with the za’atar oil. Eat immediately with toasted bread.