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While dining at a Spanish-Cuban restaurant, I overheard a conversation in which a Cuban man lovingly described his mother's baked eggs. You prepare a sofrito, or sauteed mixture, of onions, peppers and tomatoes, he said, add peas and spoon these savory vegetables into a hollowed-out round roll, preferably a rich one like brioche. Then you break an egg over the mixture, put the top on the roll and bake it briefly, so the yolk stays soft and creates a sauce for the vegetables and the roll.
His description brought back memories of the delicious baked egg dishes I enjoyed in Paris. Some elegant restaurants served sensational baked egg dishes with foie gras with black truffle sauce as a luxurious first course. At our favorite cafÃ©, Le Flore en l'Ile on Ile Saint Louis in the heart of Paris, we loved the eggs baked with a luscious topping of creme fraiche for brunch or supper.
We learned to make all sorts of variations of these egg dishes at the cooking school where I doing my chef's training. Often we baked the eggs on a bed of chopped cooked vegetables, such as spinach, cabbage or cauliflower. You can use just about any cooked vegetable you have. For extra flavor, we followed our teachers' recommendation to saute the cooked vegetables in butter (or garlic butter or herb butter), then to add the egg and bake it with a sprinkling of Gruyere (Swiss) or Parmesan cheese. With or without cream, these eggs-on-vegetables were always a hit. Sometimes we heated the vegetables with fried onions and chopped smoked meat before the egg was added. Occasionally we mixed the vegetable with tomato sauce.
Our chef-instructors turned small amounts of cooked seafood or chicken into tasty appetizers by heating them in their sauce and baking them under an egg. These dishes had become French classics with fancy names but, practically speaking, they were just good ways to use up leftovers. And that's undoubtedly how they originated.
Baked eggs are wonderful when cooked to perfection but everyone has his or her own opinion of how soft or firm the eggs should be. While the eggs are baking, check them occasionally and bake them until done to your taste.
To bake eggs on a bed of vegetables, use shallow buttered baking dishes; individual ones of about 15-cm. diameter are best. Serve them as soon as they are ready, and set the hot baking dishes on plates for serving. And be sure to have ready fresh bread or good-quality toast for dunking into the tasty eggs.
BAKED EGGS WITH ZUCCHINI, GARLIC AND KASHKAVAL CHEESE
For this eastern Mediterranean dish, you can prepare the zucchini in its quick, thyme-accented tomato sauce in advance, then heat it before adding the eggs. Cooking the eggs thoroughly is the Middle Eastern tradition but personally, I like them soft, the French way. Accompany this savory dish with fresh pita or your favorite bread and with a plate of olives, pickles and small pieces of fresh green onions.
4 Tbsp. olive oil or 6 Tbsp. butter
450 gr. zucchini, Middle Eastern squash (kishu) or
other summer squash, diced small
3 garlic cloves, minced
450 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped,
or a 400-gr. can tomatoes, drained and chopped
1â„2 tsp. dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper
6 Tbsp. grated kashkaval, Parmesan or other firm
Preheat oven to 220Âº. Heat 2 tablespoons butter or olive oil in a large, heavy skillet. Add zucchini and garlic. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes or until zucchini softens. Add tomatoes, thyme, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until tomatoes soften. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Butter 4 individual 15-cm. shallow baking dishes or a shallow 5-cup baking dish. Melt remaining butter, if using. Reheat zucchini mixture if necessary. Divide hot mixture among dishes. With a spoon make a hollow in center of mixture in each small dish, or make 4 hollows in large dish, each large enough to contain 1 egg. Break egg carefully into each hollow. Spoon 1 tablespoon melted butter or 1â„2 tablespoon olive oil over each egg and sprinkle egg whites evenly with grated cheese.
Bake eggs until whites are just set and yolks are still soft, about 7 to 9 minutes, or until they are done to your taste. Set individual baking dishes on plates and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
BAKED EGGS WITH BROCCOLI, PARMESAN AND CREAM
Instead of Parmesan, you can bake the broccoli with 1â„4 cup shredded Swiss cheese. Use the same recipe with cooked cauliflower.
450 gr. broccoli, divided in medium florets
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 Tbsp. butter
Freshly grated nutmeg
1â„2 cup whipping cream
4 large eggs
2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan
Put broccoli florets into a saucepan of boiling salted water, enough to cover them generously. Return to boil. Boil uncovered until just tender, about 5 minutes. Drain well. Let cool until easy to handle. Chop coarsely.
Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 220Âº. Melt butter in heavy large skillet. Stir in broccoli. Cook over low heat, stirring, until butter is absorbed. Stir in 1â„4 cup cream and simmer until absorbed, about 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Butter a 5-cup shallow baking dish and spread broccoli mixture in the dish. With spoon make 4 hollows in broccoli mixture, each large enough to contain 1 egg. Break egg carefully into each hollow. Spoon 1 tablespoon cream over each egg and sprinkle with cheese.
Bake for 10 minutes or until egg whites are just set and yolks are still soft, or longer until done to your taste. Serve immediately; eggs continue to cook from heat in the dish.
Makes 2 to 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.