08/28/2011 02:21 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2011

Creating a Meal You'll Love

As a chef and caterer for over 25 years, I've cooked a lot of meals. Cooking has been my passion as well as my career for my entire adult life. I couldn't have done anything else. My personality fits this work, and I'm entirely grateful that I got paid to do it.

Cooking has kept me out of trouble.

At the wise old age of 60, nothing makes me sadder than to see and to listen to people tell me they don't have time to cook. That's like telling me they don't have time to breathe, love, or enjoy their life. Food, cooking, feeding myself, family and friends are the reasons why I get up every day. I've chronicled the most important moments of my life by the food or tastes I've enjoyed. The memories, sentiments, heartbreaks and happy times are completely tied to what I was eating. Food memories keep my taste buds alive and hold my treasured moments.

Here's a clear example; getting engaged to my first husband at 20 years old. We were in a little Italian restaurant in Mill Valley, California. It was 1969. I was pretty and he was trying to avoid the draft. I barely remember what he said, and I did think the diamond was small, but the eggplant Parmesan was perfect. We were married for seven years. It is a lifetime ago, that young woman is long gone, and that tiny diamond has been reset, but the eggplant Parmesan I still cook today and it is inspired by that moment.

It was a happy moment, regardless of the outcome. Soft, warm, breaded eggplant, several melted cheeses and garlicky tomato sauce with layers of herbs and mushrooms. Who could forget that?

I've studied food since I was that new bride. As a wedding present I was given Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. I started cooking a recipe every weekend. We were poor (he was a dental student), but we had to eat. It wasn't easy on my food budget, but became necessary for me. I did not know French food since I'd grown up in an Italian family, but Julia showed me the way. I remember my first Blanquette de Veau; I served it with a white Burgundy (finding a white Burgundy in 1971 in San Rafael, California, wasn't easy, but I was determined). When friends came for dinner, they were amazed and so was I. That dinner took us to another place. We would never be the same again. Julia's recipe made us smart, grown up, and searching for more. When I told Julia that years later when I worked with her, she simply replied, "Well done."

I enrolled in the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco when my marriage was over, and found that my cooking was alive and well. I didn't want to cook in a restaurant but dreamed of giving parties. Big, fancy, beautiful parties with white linens, tapered candles, delicious foods, and the world's finest wines. I practiced on my classmates and we planned meals together each weekend. We taught each other through our mistakes and triumphs how important perfected recipes were, the timing of every dish, how much to serve and what foods taste the best together. It was a stunning time in my life.

The realization that all food was not equal and that the preparation of a simple dish
could be a meaningful experience. I also learned that in my life's' tapestry, food was the thread.

My life has been richer, deeper and sweeter from cooking.

In my career, Richard Simmons has been a friend and client of mine for many years. When his Mother passed away, he found a box of her recipe cards. He showed them to me and his Mother had attached a note saying, "For you, Dickie." When Richard was writing one of his cookbooks, he asked me to test some of her recipes. I cooked for several days and then brought the finished recipes and dishes up to his home. With every bite of a dish, Richard would tell me something from his childhood, or a story about his Mother and her great talent as a showgirl. We were laughing, crying and eating all at the same time. My proudest moment ever was Richard telling me that my cabbage rolls were almost as good as Shirley's. And that's what we named the recipe, "Almost As Good As Shirley's."

I didn't have the opportunity to meet Shirley, but I only had to cook her food to know how much she loved her life and her son. She was still there. I know you're probably thinking, that's a lot to learn from cabbage, but trust me, that's the magic of a good dish.

Teaching cooking classes all around the world has taught me that cooking is a gift I've given myself. No matter what city, country or continent I'm in, I get to create memorable meals that I love. Sometimes I cook them, sometimes I find them, and often I'm invited to them. It doesn't really matter. It's the sharing of food and eating that makes me happy.

I've included my favorite recipe for very simple Eggplant Parmesan. If you are reading this and don't cook, start here! Go right now to the store and buy the ingredients, a bottle of red wine and toss a green salad. Go on now; go create your own meal to love.

Eggplant Parmesan

My Tips:

Find eggplants with smooth, purple skins. They don't have to be big. When slicing one, take a bite and make sure it isn't bitter. If slightly bitter, salt the eggplant, let slices sit on a plate and pour off the water and blot dry before breading.

To save some time, buy a jarred, chunky tomato sauce. Buy a plain flavor and then add sautéed garlic, some fresh rosemary and cook it down with a half-cup of red wine. It tastes almost as good as homemade.

If the budget allows use fresh buffalo mozzarella along with the grated Parmesan.
It costs more but it's so worth it.

1 large egg
1/2 cup Panko breadcrumbs (regular is fine, too)
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano (or 1/2 tsp dry)
1 tablespoon torn fresh basil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large eggplant, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
1 lb crimini or button mushrooms, quartered and sautéed in olive oil
3 cups chunky tomato sauce
1 cup shredded or sliced mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a bowl, whisk egg with 2 tablespoons of water.

In another bowl, combine breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, oregano and basil. Season with salt and pepper.

Dip sliced eggplant first into egg mixture, then into breadcrumb mixture, and place on baking sheets.

Bake 25 minutes, turning once, until golden brown on both sides.

Remove from oven.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Spray a 9x13 inch baking dish with cooking spray. Spread a small amount of tomato sauce on the bottom. Make one layer of eggplant on top of the sauce, sprinkle a layer of mushrooms and top with cheese and sauce. Repeat this process until all eggplant is in the dish. Top with remaining sauce and cheese (and any leftover breadcrumb mixture).

Bake uncovered until cheese is bubbly and golden brown, about 20 minutes.


I want to thank Mark Chimsky-Lustig. This story is reprinted from Creating a Meal You'll Love, published by Sellers Publishing, Inc.