Mediterranean Vegetable Stew with Poached Eggs

1 medium onion, halved, thinly sliced
1 medium green bell pepper, seeded, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, bruised
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large ripe tomatoes, cored, coarsely chunked
1 bay leaf
1 medium eggplant, peeled, cut in 1/2-inch dice
2 small zucchini, cut in 1/4-inch thick rounds
1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 teaspoon fresh
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 cups canned crushed tomatoes in puree
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup crumbled Feta cheese or grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Layer onion, pepper and garlic in a 4 1/2- to 6-quart slow cooker. Add remaining ingredients, in order listed, up to and including canned crushed tomatoes. Cover and cook on low setting for 8 to 9 hours or on high setting for 4 1/2 to 5 hours.

About 20 minutes before serving, spoon a little of the cooking liquid into a small bowl. Add tomato paste and stir well to smooth. Stir back into stew.

Break the eggs into 4 small ramekins or custard cups. Using the back of a ladle, make 4 shallow depressions on top of the stew. Slide an egg into each one. Cover and cook 15 to 20 minutes more, until the eggs are done to your liking. Serve some of the stew with an egg on top, garnished with the parsley and cheese, if desired.

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