‘Home can be something as vast as a country, as holy as a temple, or as simple as a cake.’
― Elizabeth Bard, Picnic in Provence: A Memoir with Recipes
© 2016 Yara Zgheib All Rights Reserved
My father made the best Spanish omelet in the world. I grew up with that assertion as fact. It was his specialty; no one made it like he did. I have childhood memories of hours of starvation as he peeled and chopped onions, tomatoes, parsley, got distracted by a phone call, a butterfly, sent me out for fresh bread he realized we were missing, and upon my return, back out for the eggs.
Spanish omelet à Papa
Two eggs per family member, and two more for unexpected guests.
I remember him whisking those with a dash of milk, the splatter making my mother squirm, the smell of coarsely ground black pepper tickling my nose, making me scratch and sneeze. Meanwhile, the onions and tomatoes fizzed and softened, edges caramelizing lightly in the pan, quieting as he poured the liquid mixture on top and stirred it once, twice.
One onion, finely chopped, from the old grocer across the street,
Three tomatoes from grandfather’s garden,
No garlic, for mom.
By the time he sprinkled thyme, rosemary and cheese, and set the pan on the table to share,
Serve with bread and eat together, quickly while still hot,
I was so hungry I believed with all my heart that the omelet was the best in the world.
It took my father three hours to make a simple dish we devoured in ten minutes flat. But it reigned over our Sunday mornings, and with repetition and time, its notoriety grew with us too. I took the recipe with me when I left home, but it does not taste the same.
It has been years since I have had a Spanish omelet à Papa. Since he last made it for me. Now I am grown up, and it is my turn to cook; my father is coming over for a dinner party tonight.
Clear out the table and decant the good wine. I am setting the nice plates, nice glasses and napkins, and the menu for tonight. I pull out my recipe book; a tattered pink notebook that has sat limply on the shelf of our family kitchen for years. It smells of the spices and herbs it has shouldered, is stained with the sauces it has drunk. Its edges are curled and pages are yellow from having been flipped and folded so much.
I turn those carefully, coming across my grandmother’s handwriting, my mother’s, my father’s, my own. My little brother’s made-up recipe for color-sprinkled chocolate balls. I skim through family recipes and memories to choose what to cook tonight. Halfway through, I stop.
Movie night popcorn, cooked on the stove,
would be a perfect way to begin.
Pop kernels in a pot covered with a glass lid,
Set child on the counter to watch.
Applaud generously when popping starts, and when it ends, pour into big yellow bowl.
Sprinkle salt, shake. Taste. Serve.
Choose movie to watch while making second batch.
Tonight one batch will do, however, because another hors d’oeuvre catches my eye:
School night grilled cheese sandwiches,
with perhaps a green salad on the side.
On pita bread, line imperfectly rectangular slices of cheese, corners nibbled by little teeth.
Fold circles of tomatoes in.
Wrap sandwich and press on the grill.
Wait till the tomatoes fizzle, cheese starts to ooze out,
Serve soggy for the children, crispy for the grownups.
Inevitably burn tongue.
For the main dish, my father’s favorite:
Pinto bean stew over rice.
His own mother’s recipe, served with stories of dinners with his father when he was young.
Double whatever initial quantity of pinto beans soaked overnight.
Simmer gently for hours with ground pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves.
Fresh tomatoes, peeled and stewed with herbs, slices of apple to make them less tart.
Combine and stir. Cover. Simmer a few hours more.
Serve over heaping portions of fluffy, steamed rice.
Serve happy man seconds.
Serve happy man thirds.
Dessert will be a joint effort, I decide. Slices of orange dipped in crème patissière. He will peel the oranges into long, coiled snakes, as he did when we were kids, and I will call my mother for phone instructions on how to make her famous cream.
Crème patissière, façon maman
Fresh milk, gently heated, constantly, consistently stirred,
Vanilla, sugar, lemon zest.
And then perhaps, with coffee, a few chocolate squares, his favorite and mine, nestled into pieces of fresh baguette. A feast we used to have on family road trips and Sunday picnics in the park.
My menu is set. I must get started on our celebratory dinner tonight. Celebrating nothing in particular, or everything actually. Twenty-six years of memories compiled in a few family recipes.
Mon chéri pours two glasses of the wine. I put on a little jazz. My blue dress and pearl earrings. My father is coming over for a dinner party tonight.