By: Joe Lofranco
Taking the lead from his wife, Same Page food writer Joe Lofranco decided to review some of the best $25 and Under Jewish food in Toronto. His cultural research took him around the globe and brought him, finally, to the traditional Shakshuka dish.
Last time I took you guys back to my childhood in Little Italy and gave you a glimpse of my Italian-Canadian heritage by telling you about three great places me and my family have been eating at for at least half a century. Then I gave you my grandmother’s veal parm recipe (I tweaked a few things here and there, but it’s essentially the same), which my family’s been eating for just as long. So I thought maybe for this week we’d stick with the family theme and look at some places from my wife’s childhood in that mystical northern hamlet known as Thornhill. My wife is Jewish. Tony Soprano once said that Italians are simply Jews with better food, but through my wife’s family I’ve come to realize that Jewish food is full of delicacies.
Some Jews are from Russia, some from Spain, some from Israel, some from France. From people so geographically spread, you can imagine how varied their cuisine might be, but when I think Jewish food, I usually think deli. When I was a kid, I’d spend most Saturday’s driving around in the dump truck with my Dad. Maybe we’d check in on a few of the job sites, maybe take some fill to a dump, but we’d always, always get food somewhere. I loved it. I was a dumb little kid back then, so I always kept my fingers crossed for some Mickey D’s, but my Dad was always trying to push other stuff on me. I guess when you drive a truck, you figure out where the good grub is. He definitely took me to a few deli’s, although Katz’s is the only one I remember. They have that big moustachioed head on their sign. The guy looks like one of those British Explorers from the late 19th century trekking through India or Africa or some other “undiscovered” country. I remember enjoying the corned beef on a kaiser I got. But really, that was my only experience with “Jewish” food other than some matzo we had in grade school that Isaac Zelunka brought in during Passover in Grade 3.
So when I started having to trek up to Thornhill on a semi-regular basis, I figured most of the restaurants would be delis or Kelsey’s. I’m actually not too far off, but there are some mom and pop shops that are churning out some great, authentic, Jewish food that is not smoked meat! And there’s also been quite a few new places opening up in recent years, most of which I haven’t sampled yet. When I get to them, I’ll let you know.
Now I know what you’re saying: Thornhill is fucking far, man. And it kinda is, but kinda isn’t either. If you’re driving north on Bathurst on a Friday after 3pm, yeah, Thornhill is far. It’ll take you 17 hours to get from Eglinton to Lawrence. But most other times, it’s a quick ride, and worth it. Kiva’s isn’t the greatest restaurant in the world, but it’s just what I like: a simple, local spot with decent food. I’m sure the debate over who has the best bagels in the city will rage for many more decades, but I don’t really care. Kiva’s makes a great bagel. Maybe it’s not number 1, but it’s still good. They’ve got the regular, then the Tel-Aviv which is super-thin and squished (not a fan myself), and my favourite: The Twister which is a little doughier and tends to have waaay more poppy seeds on it.
It’s a great spot. You can get your lox and cream cheese bagel, or you can get some nice eggs, but I like to get the Shakshuka (10.99, comes with a bagel AND a coffee). Now, I’d never even heard of this dish before Thornhill, so if nothing else, at least it’s given me that. It’s so simple it makes me wonder how the hell I never figured it out. It also made me wonder why Italians don’t have a version of their own. Hell, maybe they do, what the hell do I know?
Shakshuka is a poached egg dish that comes out to you in a cast iron skillet. The eggs are poached in a tomato-based sauce that’s thick with onions and peppers and then covered with some awesome goat cheese. I break the yolks and mix them into the sauce, then mop it all up with my bagel. It’s amazing. It’s popular in the Levant and Northern Africa, and I’ve got a feeling it’s probably quite old.
Honestly, the rest of the food there is pretty much standard fare. Nothing to blow your mind or write home about, but if I’m in Thornhill, this is where I’m going for brunch; this is where I’m going for bagels. Maybe I’ll switch it up once in a while if I want something different or special. Head to Gryfe’s or go to United Bakers, but for my default, my everyday, the type of place that I’ll go to frequently enough to start disparaging, that local joint? Yeah, I’d say Kiva’s.
Joe’s Italian Shakshuka
2 yellow onions
6 cloves of garlic
1 red pepper
2 cans whole tomatoes
1 can tomato paste
4 large eggs
Salt & Pepper
Optional – Red Wine, Honey
Pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil into your skillet and set on medium.
Chop up your onions and garlic however you like them (I like nice, chunky pieces of onion, but if you want to dice ’em up, be my guest!) and toss them in the pan and stir until they start to get soft, translucent and sweat a bit.
Add your peppers and continue to sweat for 2 or 3 minutes.
Sprinkle a pinch of cumin, and about a quarter to a half-teaspoon of turmeric over the garlic and onions and stir it all together, then add a 1/4 tsp salt and crack some pepper in as well.
Mix it all together for 2 or 3 minutes, you don’t want it to get too dry.
Then, add cans of tomatoes and all the juices that come with it, the tomato paste drop in a dash of sugar (maybe 1 tsp) OR a tsp of honey and 1/2 cup red wine if you want.
Stir it all up and let it simmer until the peppers soften up, maybe 7-10 minutes.
Using a wooden spoon, break open the tomatoes when they’re soft.
Add a squirt of Sriracha if you like a little spice.
Bring the mixture to a low boil and crumble in your feta, then using your wooden spoon, try and make four little pockets in the sauce and crack in your four eggs letting them rest in their little spots.
Immediately turn it down to a nice simmer. Season the eggs with some salt and pepper.
Cover and let cook for 10 minutes or so, longer if you’d like the yolks harder. You can also leave it uncovered and just baste the eggs with the liquid from the sauce. Just spoon it over them.
Chop up some fresh parsley and sprinkle over the top.
Drizzle some Extra Virgin Olive Oil on top OR toss a couple pats of butter in and watch them melt.