December 5, 2018

I’ve always thought that if more men understood how much women love to eat, every cooking class in the world would have a waiting list. The late humorist Erma Bombeck famously said, “I haven’t trusted polls since I read that 62 percent of women had affairs during their lunch hour. I’ve never met a woman in my life who would give up lunch for sex.” And we needn’t deliberate about how much men love women who can cook; a woman who can make the standard four and do them well — meat and potatoes, a casserole of some sort, a pasta dish and fried chicken — will be up to her eyeballs in marriage proposals.  

The reasons for this are obvious, basic, tried and true. First, cooking for someone is an act of generosity — a life-affirming, caring and deliberate sport. You can’t send text messages and e-mails while in the throes of a gastronomic session. The cook generally is laser-focused on the person or people being cooked for and is weaving together his or her soul foods, palate and preferences. If you know your significant other likes things on the spicy side, and you’d like to be dessert, you aren’t making him a risotto, even if your version is world class. Likewise, if a man is dating a vegan, he must put in a good amount of effort to create a menu that doesn’t feature animal products. This effort is seen as an act of adoration and one that is sure to win over hearts, far beyond taking her out to a fancy restaurant.  Even if the feast you are preparing for your lover is uncomplicated — nothing says “I want you” more than a night at home and a candlelit meal. 

As a female chef at a foreign outpost of an American embassy, it’s impossible not to notice the adulation from men and women to whom we serve food. If I’m ever tempted to downplay the contribution made by our cafe to the mission morale —  I need only be absent for a time. When I return from a trip, I’m greeted like a celebrity and treated like the most important person at the embassy (sorry, ambassador).

It seems that cooking is seductive to both sexes. It’s no coincidence that the divorce rate among male chefs is higher than in some other professions: Most men who cook professionally have groupies and admirers who are eager to spend time with a knife-wielding lothario. Cooking is simultaneously primal and sweet — it’s a reminder of romance and our basic needs, but it also brings forth memories of our mothers. 

That’s why, although I cook like a hard body all week — and often add massive catering events to my already overloaded plate — I always make time to cook at home on weekends. Not only is cooking in your own kitchen better than almost any stress buster, lavishing your significant other or friends with a meal puts you and them into the best possible frame of mind. And it’s a great way to say you’re sorry — you simply cannot be angry at a person who has just rocked your world with a few good dishes. 

This past weekend, after a work week that left me feeling like I’d been squeezed through a meat grinder, I invited a few girlfriends over for a late lunch. I didn’t have much time to do a lot of advance prep so I threw together my no-knead focaccia and left it on the counter to rise slowly overnight. Even though my friends are vegan, making the prep a bit more time-intensive than, say, throwing a hunk of meat to braise slowly in an oven — in under three hours I created some soul-satisfying dishes, none of which was even close to taxing.

I served an Israeli chopped salad, rice-and-parsley-stuffed vine leaves, roasted eggplant and peppers with herbs and tahini, hummus, a sensational African pumpkin leaf peanut stew (recipe below) and Persian saffron rice with barberries, pomegranates and pistachios. I even whipped up a quick dessert — a mock rice pudding made with almond milk and chia seeds scented with rosewater, cardamom, saffron, turmeric and nutmeg, topped with fresh berries and toasted almonds. 

I also topped that focaccia dough, slathered in olive oil, rosemary, thyme and sage, with whole garlic cloves and cherry tomato halves. It took me maybe 10 minutes, including picking the herbs, and another 30 minutes to bake, and it may have been the star of the show, as any good bread item often is.

I took great pleasure in decorating the table with colorful dishes and flowers, used my best wine glasses even though we were drinking only lemon water with cucumber and mint, and still had time to pick out a good playlist.

We spent the whole afternoon shaded from the sun on my veranda, eating and giggling, listening to a hot sound mix and inspiring one another with tales of love gone wrong and right. By the time I watched them drive out of the gate I realized that although I was physically tired from the nonstop hustle of the week, I hadn’t stopped smiling for hours — and better still, my soul was revitalized.

If you want to turn all the lions in your life into purring pussycats, you needn’t visit Victoria’s Secret to purchase the latest lace and feathers (although that never hurt anybody’s cause either) You need only to spend a few hours of your precious time immersed in the delights of a well-stocked pantry. There, in your steamy kitchen, after a bit of chopping, a modicum of sautéing and even the slightest suggestion of kneading and baking — you can stir and seduce even the toughest of hearts. It’s worth every minute.

1 pound pumpkin leaves (available at most Asian supermarkets or in a
pumpkin patch; I picked the leaves out of my garden)
4 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
1 large red onion, finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 red chili (optional)
1 stock cube (optional)
3/4 cup ground peanuts (or peanut butter)
1/8 cup raw tahini
1 vegetarian stock cube or bouillon (optional)
1 tablespoon (or to taste) apple cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Remove spines and fibrous coating from pumpkin leaves, chop roughly and boil for 3 minutes in salted water. Drain well and squeeze out excess water.

Sauté onion, garlic and chile (if using) in olive oil until onions are transparent, then add the tomato paste. Cook until oil separates on the side of the pan.

Add stock cube (if using) and then peanuts (or peanut butter) and tahini.

Add drained, chopped pumpkin leaves and cook for approximately 15 minutes on medium heat until mixture is thick and stew-like in consistency and pumpkin leaves are completely soft and silken in texture.

Season with vinegar, salt and pepper to taste and serve with rice or boiled sweet potatoes.

Serves 4.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef
at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co. 

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