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Monday, January 27, 2014

Egging You On

WE THINK OF HEN FRUIT as a breakfast item, and too often meet it atop a fast-food takeout sandwich, reconstituted from a powder. Eggs have a versatility that not only allow them to meet you in the morning in many different way, but also to feature in the meals you enjoy at the other end of the day.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“All I need to do to see if a guy can cook is watch him make an omelet,” said the chef who trained me and who, mercifully, didn’t let my lousy technique stop him from hiring me. To make a good omelet, you should know how to scramble eggs.

Eggs should be at room temperature before you start, and the fresher the better. You’re better off buying them from a farmer or food co-op.

Almost anything I cook on the stovetop is done in olive oil. You can substitute butter, if you like, but it has less tolerance for burning. Start your lubricant heating in a nonstick pan. Break two eggs into a bowl and whisk them until the color is uniform. I add a splash of half-and-half. Salt and pepper it – especially pepper. Fresh chopped parsley is another excellent additive.

Pour the eggs into the pan. Push them around with a wooden spoon, allowing uncooked portions to come into contact with the pan, but keeping the mass in motion. They’re done when they still seem runny – they’ll continue to cook as they head for your plate, but you’ll still be able to enjoy them “loose,” as it’s termed, which is the ideal consistency.

For an omelet, have any additional ingredients – cheese, meat, veggies – already shredded or cut to size. Cook (or blanch) things like peppers and onions beforehand. Pour the eggs into the pan and let the bottom harden; with a hard rubber spatula or a skilled flick of the wrist, fold the part of it that’s away from you towards you. With good wrist technique, you can make a few flips, for a fluffier texture. Add the other ingredients before you give it its final fold.

My mother had a technique I haven’t encountered elsewhere for shelling hard-boiled eggs: holding one upright, she used the edge of a teaspoon to create a crack around its equator, then dug the edge of spoon just under the shell and pried it free in one or two pieces. This works best on eggs still warm from the water.

There’s a range of results available just from boiling an egg. At three minutes, you have the runny-yolk egg-cup classic. Five minutes give you thicker yolks, or eggs mollet. After eight minutes you’ve got a hard-boiled egg with some texture remaining in the yellow, and a 13-minute egg is what you chop into salads.

Poached eggs seem to have lost their luster, probably because their prime vehicle, eggs Benedict, is a time-consuming, health-destroying compote. But it’s a double tribute to the egg: not only does a pair of poached eggs sit atop a slice of grilled ham (or Canadian bacon), which itself is atop a toasted English muffin, but the whole shebang gets a sheath of Hollandaise, a sauce made with frothed egg yolks and more butter than you care to know about.

But eggs can be poached in milk, poached in wine – possibilities abound for adding a flavor that will enhance the use of them in salads and warm vegetable dishes.

Which is why we need to bring the egg to the dinner table. For one thing, it’s a great uniter of leftovers. A variety of meat and vegetables can be worked into a frittata, a baked egg compote that’s pretty much a quiche without a crust.

For a dinner portion, beat a dozen eggs and add a pint of half-and-half (whole milk also will work). Onions and peppers are natural components, and can be sautéed ahead in the skillet in which you’ll finish the dish. This is what cast iron was invented for. Add the egg-milk mixture, seasoned as you like it, and sprinkle in meat, vegetables, cooked potatoes – whatever is lying around the refrigerator. And don’t forget the cheese. Bake it at 375 degrees for about half an hour, or until the middle is set but not necessarily firm.

Put a crust around it and you’ve got a quiche, although the proportion of dairy to eggs increases on the dairy side, to make it lighter. The classic quiche Lorraine has bacon and Gruyere, but a quiche can contain just about anything.

Eggs add texture to stews, as exemplified by a Moroccan preparation of lamb meatballs. They can be made from a mixture of lamb and beef, or whatever ground meat you have on hand. Traditionally cooked in a tagine, which is a broad clay pan with a conical lid, you can achieve a reasonable result with a heavy skillet on the stovetop. Make your meatballs, sautée them, then make a tomato sauce around them, using minced onions and garlic, celery and carrots and crushed or whole peeled tomatoes (crushed through your fingers). Season with salt and pepper, basil and oregano, maybe a dash of cinnamon or nutmeg. Towards the end of the cooking time, crack a few eggs around the top of the mixture. When the eggs are cooked, the dish is done.

The summit of egg cookery is the soufflé, a deceptively simple dish to prepare. Its basis is a roux, which is a one-to-one mixture of butter and flour that’s cooked until slightly brown. Temper a mixture of milk and eggs by adding a little of the hot roux to it, then combine and cook it, always stirring, until the mixture has thickened (you’ll find the proportions online or in a good cookbook). The key is whipping the egg whites you reserved until they’re shaving-cream thick, then quickly folding them into the (cooled) yolk mixture too achieve a mossy texture without a too-uniform color. This goes into a greased soufflé dish, which has high, straight sides, with appropriate flavor additives.

Cheese is the simplest, but I worked in a restaurant that specialized in lobster soufflés served with a side of Béarnaise sauce (which is a Hollandaise flavored with tarragon and vinegar), and this was a spectactularly popular dish, emerging from the oven the moment it was done, its high crown seeming to waver precariously as I served it.

And I’d return to the kitchen to hear the chef say, “I love this. I’m making money by serving air.”

Metroland Magazine, 23 January 2014

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