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I have always loved to cook and entertain at home. From grand events and festive family dinners to everyday lunches, I have done it all. Cooking is my way of giving back, of sharing the bounty that I have, of being generous and supportive. Cooking is a great source of delight; it is artistic, creative, challenging and inspirational. I learn something new everyday. It also reduces stress and gives me a huge sense of accomplishment, of something well done.As a young girl, I was only allowed in the kitchen at teatime, and watched the cook make cakes, tarts and cookies. I was really more a bother than help, but I did become an expert in licking spoons and getting the last possible bit of chocolate sauce from the pan. It was then, waiting for the cake to bake, the jello to mold and the dough to rise that I learned the art of patience.
Then, at boarding school in England, at Home Economics class, we learned the beauty of a flaky scone, how to make short crust pastry and how to separate an egg. We were also taught how to write recipes, balance household accounts and create menus. We fought over the last bits of butter, and scraped pans for tidbits of dough. It was here that I learned prudence and frugality in the kitchen.
As a teenager, I made hors d’oeuvres for friends that came over to our house and mixed drinks for my parents. I learned the art of timing when I insisted on preparing hors d’oeuvres in the morning and watched, in horror, as they totally spoiled in the Andalusian summer sun. Mixing drinks and passing hors d’oeuvres is how we were allowed in the living room to be among the grown ups, and so I learned the art of gracious hospitality.
I didn’t touch a pan until my early twenties. Well, it wasn’t really a pan that I touched, it was my nemesis: the salad spinner. As the eternal weekend house-guest, I soon realized I’d better contribute something to the household. Helping in the kitchen was my way of saying thanks for the invite. I became an expert in drying lettuce and slicing tomatoes!
It was later, when I fell in love, that my desire to cook expanded to full fledge meals. I wanted to entice my then boyfriend, now my husband, with delicious, albeit creamy and buttery meals, making sure he would come back for more. Creating a home in a small apartment in NYC, I learned that yes, I can seduce a man through his stomach. In that tiny apartment with a half stove and a half sink, I was able to make memorable meals. I have to admit with great pride that my husband still remembers.
Babies are born, children grow, they leave, they come back, dinner parties at home get grander and then smaller, children visit with more children in tow and yet, through all these changes, my desire to cook at home has not diminished, it has just evolved. My pantry is not what it used to be, bursting with spur-of-the-moment staples, frozen ravioli, and jars and jars of home made tomato sauce. Now, it carries delicacies from around the world, exquisite cheeses, fragrant dried fruits, freshly cured smoked salmon and one-of-a-kind olive oils. As we have traveled, evolved and learned, so have my tastes and those of my husband’s. Eating at home has become, once again, a great pleasure.
Creating a wonderful, comforting and enveloping atmosphere at home, one that keeps me–not just my husband– coming back is how I like to live now. Cooking for two, just as it was when I was cooking for six, is meant to be a pleasure, a way of sharing goodness and generosity.
For me, cooking is a lifestyle choice. And I say this in a very loud voice because cooking does take time, it needs preparation and thought and requires practice and practice. It will take you away from walks, and shopping with girl friends, and maybe going to the movies, or even sleep if you are “on call” for breakfasts, but the other side is that you will be healthier, happier, stronger and have a lot more friends who will be thrilled to come to your house for meals. I promise.
Huevos al Plato (Baked Eggs)
This dish is traditionally made in individual gratin dishes. They are hard to find as baked eggs are out of fashion right now, but I have been lucky finding sets at estate sales. Some of the dishes are very ornate and have beautiful imagery on the outside, others have solid, colored enamel and white ceramic inside, and others are just plain white. This recipe, as it can be assembled ahead of time, is great as a first course for a group, or as a main course for a mid-week supper. This recipe can be multiplied or divided as needed.
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and diced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and diced
2 medium eggplants, diced
4 medium zucchini, diced
1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 16-ounce can tomato puree
3 tablespoons rosemary
1 bay leaf
6 large eggs
In a medium stockpot, heat the olive oil over high heat and add the onions and garlic; season with a little salt. Sauté until the onions are translucent. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the eggplants. Cook until they begin to soften and turn golden on the edges. Add the zucchini and continue cooking until the zucchini begins to release their liquid and become soft. Add the diced tomatoes with their liquid, the tomato puree, rosemary and bay leaf and simmer; stirring occasionally until the sauce thickens and all the vegetables are cooked through.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. In a shallow gratin dish or in 6 individual ones, spread the eggplant and tomato sauce in the bottom of the dish. Crack an egg in the middle and bake until the sauce is bubbly and the egg is cooked to your liking. I cook for about 15 minutes. ■