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For the last three nights I have been dreaming that I’m cooking a French dish I used to love to cook, Ratatouille. I’m pretty sure of the spelling but am too lazy to drag my Larousse Gastronomuique out of the bookshelf. It weighs about 20 pounds. If I am wrong I apologize to any member of the audience who knows better.
I had my first experience with this great dish the night one of my Stanford foreign grad students cooked it for his Luxemburg Night party. It was customary for a foreign student to host a dinner featuring a dish from his native land, plus a slide presentation of the country in question. Michel Benoit was the only Luxemburg student in the place. He was one of the most elegant persons I have ever met. He was a member of the Luxemburg royal family but just one of the family at our house. I was surprised that he was such a good and enthusiastic cook.
His best friend was another doctoral candidate in engineering was Rodney Eatock Taylor from England and they both spent their spare time with me and mine. Rodney, a Cambridge graduate, was equally elegant, and equally funny and fun around us.
Rodney and I were assigned as assistant cooks with Michel playing the chef. We had to do most of the slicing and mixing. Rodney also was sent out for another bottle of wine as the evening progressed in the kitchen. The dish calls for wine and so did the culinary staff. It all turned out very successfully.
I brought all my students home. My job was to teach them idiomatic and conversational English and there was no better way than to involve them with us in our home. Many of them were terribly homesick and missing their families, so, in a sense, we adopted them and they became just one of the kids, no matter what their status at their homelands.
Almost all of them wanted to cook for us, even those who never had been inside a kitchen. One of them was a Japanese kid whose father was one of Japan’s three biggest industrialists. Kiminori, his son, had been sent to Stanford graduate school to be groomed for the day when he would inherit the top job in his father’s company. Kiminori was especially happy to hang around with us, especially when we would go to the beach and play baseball. His dream was to be a shortstop not a CEO. One night he decided he wanted to cook us a Japanese dinner - beef tempura. He provided the food and the sake wine and did all the cooking. I remember thinking how shocked and surprised his parents would be if they saw him in one of my aprons working in a kitchen. I also remember how shocked and surprised I was when he opened a package of 20 pounds of filet mignon he brought. You could tell money was of no object in his life.
One of my happiest guest cooks was a physicist from the then Soviet Union who was here doing research. He was a family man who greatly missed his two daughters and wife whom he always helped prepare dinner. He would don an apron and peel and cut everything while drinking vodka from a water glass.
Those were my happiest days as chief cook and bottle washer. I loved cooking with and for friends and family. It’s not the same when one lives alone and eats alone most of the time. Right now, my microwave is the most used appliance. I cook just about everything in it even some things supposedly not meant to be nuked. I have invented some short cuts to haut cuisine. For example, I put together cut up tomatoes, fresh mushrooms, garlic, basil, oregano and microwave the mix for a few minutes. This can be frozen in several bowls and used as a base for rice or various pastas. I keep lots of frozen meatballs in separate small plastic bags. I defrost some and cut them up with kitchen scissors, (the best thing to use for such cutting in order to prevent a finger part in the dish), and add them to the tomato base and extra ingredient. No pots, no pans, no fuss, no bother. Heck, if I want to avoid washing dishes I use paper plates, bowls, paper cups and even some rather nice plastic cutlery I’ve found. I defy Julia Childs or Martha to do any better.
I’ve dreamed so much about ratatouille I’ve become determined to make some, and every step of the way will be nuked. All I need is an eggplant, mushrooms, white and purple onions, zucchini, summer squash, red and green peppers, and some herbs and I’ll be set to go, not forgetting the wine. Wonder what I’ll dream up next?
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