Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Consider the egg

“Eggs shouldn't dance with stones.”     Charlie Chan  (Earl Derr Biggers)

the Twelve Monogram Egg, Fabergé

There is nothin' like an egg. Nothing in the world. Sometimes they disappear into a dish such as meringues, macaroons or macarons (see my posting from Dec 23.) Sometimes they are the dish: baked, boiled, coddled, dried, fried, pickled, poached or preserved as 100 year old eggs.

preserved eggs, composée

Should you wish to preserve eggs, here are very brief  instructions: take whole eggs and coat them with a mud made from ashes, salt and lye (if you have extra you can open a drain or two). Next roll them in rice husks and put them in the basement for at least a month at which point you may crack the shells and ... eat them. Or you could age them longer...like, forever.

here lies this guy

The egg holds things together. Paints made of pigment mixed with egg yolk and white wine have lasted more than two thousand years. Apparently, the odor was a little off-putting for the first two weeks, sort of like Florida tap water. Icon painters in Greece mixed myrrh into the paint to mask the smell.

Sometimes, eggs become the sauce, to wit: bibimbap, a Korean meal of rice, sauteed vegetables and meats topped with a raw egg to be stirred in by the diner. And... the magical spaghetti carbonara. By quickly combining eggs and piping hot pasta they bypass scrambling and emulsify with a little fat to form a sauce which coats the pasta like a rich butter. Just add black pepper.

Spaghetti Carbonara* for two

one half pound of spaghetti, linguine or bucatini
2 whole eggs and another yolk
picture by culinariaitalia.wordpress.com
at least a full cup of grated cheese, I like half and half pecorino/parmigiano
a quarter cup of diced guanciale (cured jowl.) Pancetta and unsmoked bacon works almost as well.
olive oil
lots of freshly ground black pepper

Put a pot of salted water to the boil and add the pasta. In a medium mixing bowl, beat the eggs and the extra yolk lightly and add the cheese, stirring to mix.
Choose a pan large enough to contain all of the cooked pasta. In a slick of olive oil, saute the meat until it has rendered and is not quite crisp.

Use tongs to lift the cooked pasta out of the water and into the pan with the seasoning meat. Pour in the egg mixture all at once and immediately begin tossing the pasta to distribute the egg. If it seems too dry when you're finished, add a splash of the pasta water. I would add a rounded teaspoonful of freshly and coarsely ground black pepper although you may like more or less.

beef tartare with egg

We eat eggs uncooked. Rocky himself drank them by the quart.. A cheap power lunch during the Great Depression consisted of a cheese sandwich and a milkshake with an egg beaten in. In tartar à l'Americaine, a yolk sits on top of raw beef. Personally, I would rather mix it all together and cook meatballs. Eggs are served uncooked in other dishes that I love: tiramisu, zabaglione, mayonnaise. We are warned about the dangers of salmonella although I am confident in eggs from organic and free-range producers.

Flying cloud (rust) coddler

The egg also holds a special literary place for me. Mother went to Occidental in Los Angeles where she once received the scariest writing assignment I've ever heard. The students in her class were told to write a three page (single spaced) essay on the feel of an egg (unbroken) in the hand.

In a non-egg aside: while a student at Oxy, Mother was fixed up for a college weekend with a Whittier underclassman. He turned out to be a bore and a boor so she terminated her date with Richard Milhous Nixon. I am so proud!

The ability to manipulate and cook eggs is a fine kitchen skill. They provide structure and texture in souffles, puddings, custards, cakes and sauces. There are many possibilities but eggs are delicate. They cook quickly and can become rubbery.  If you don't understand the different ways to combine eggs with other ingredients your cakes can be leaden, sauces curdled and souffles will never rise.

My father taught me a very fluffy omelet:

Capt. Kobler's Omelet 101

not cooked by my father
Lightly beat eggs one ot two eggs per person and season. You may enrich the omelet with a splash of water, cream, wine or stock.
Heat the pan, add butter, wait for the foam to subside and pour in the egg mixture.

Waiting until the bottom of the mix just begins to firm, shake the pan to loosen the omelet and so it slides easily. You can encourage the slide with  the curve of a fork. Continue to shake and slide from time to time and your eggs won't stick.

With a fork, gently draw the firming egg to the center, try not to touch the fork to the pan itself as you'll cut through the butter and the omelet may stick. As you bring the custardy egg to the middle it will mount up. When you can no longer pull the cooked portion to the center, scatter what fillings you like**. Then tilt the pan away from you so the omelet slides up the side of the pan. Lift the edge with a spatula and fold the omelet back onto itself, enclosing the fillings. After a very brief shake, slide the eggs onto a plate.

If at any point they do begin to stick to the pan, my advice is to scramble the remains and pretend that was your intent all along. Speaking of intentionally scrambled eggs, B showed me a method of low heat cooking that produces very creamy and rich eggs. It was taught to her as a Swedish style and it is a favorite. There is nothing particularly difficult about them. They simply require patience and frequent and gentle stirring. The idea is to cook the eggs slowly enough so that they barely form curds.

Shakshuka -  NYTimes

From time to time, I come across a dish that I want again and again. A few years ago I read about a north african egg dish that was intriguing: shakshuka. Basically, it consists of eggs baked or poached in a chunky pepper and tomato sauce and served with bread. As is often the case I knew the dish for quite a while before I tried it. B came across a version in a magazine and we tried it. It is a wonderful meal and we serve it often.

My version is seasoned with whole toasted caraway and cumin seeds, smoked paprika, turmeric and some spice heat (Aleppo pepper if you can find it.) The sauce comes together very quickly: sweat onions and peppers in olive oil, add tomatoes and seasoning and cook until a red oil forms little pools on the surface, stir in roughly chopped spinach or chard. Turn off the heat and break eggs into the sauce. Finish the the eggs (to the level of firmness that you prefer) either back on the surface with a moderate heat or place the pan in a 375 to 400 degree oven until the eggs are set. Top each one with a generous spoon of mascarpone or creme fraiche. Put out a basket of fresh, crusty bread and let diners serve themselves.

Lagniappe, if you have leftovers, lift out the remaining eggs (which toughen on reheating) before storing in the fridge. Chop the eggs coarsely, toss with  cannellini or garbanzos and canned solid, white tuna, preferable in olive oil. Nest portions of the mix on small piles of butter lettuce and dress with a vinaigrette. Garnish with capers and olives. -and- You can reheat the sauce and poach fresh eggs for another meal or add some stock to make a pasta sauce.

There you are, it's just a beginning but that's it for now,


*The Martha likes to add half in half and some people add English peas, softened garlic or onions. Personally, I think it's gilding a glorious lily, further, these are rarely added in Italy. Generally, I am not a purist but this dish is perfect as I've presented it. Splurge on fresh, organic eggs, first rate cheeses, good black pepper and the best cured meat that you can find. You will be rewarded. Serve it to me and I will come back.

**Since it is important to avoid overcooking and vulcanizing the eggs, I precook most fillings.
Exceptions are grated cheese and tender greens for which the heat in the omelet is enough.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Every morning, when the sun comes up

I learned to drink it black out of fear.

I didn't care for coffee until I began to reject peanut butter. Adolescence. I went to sleep thinking PB&J was fine and woke up knowing that I was tired of sticky, oily and too sweet. I lost my taste for soft bread and popsicles and looked for the new and especially the forbidden. Surrounded by adult things, I wanted some. Surely you can remember foraging the remains of cocktail parties: chips, clam dip with olives and eau de Gilbey's. I loved those olives.

I was sixteen; everything was changing. I no longer knew where I belonged or even what I liked. I needed to go off by myself. If only I could simply put to sea, to live before the mast and learn manly things. Wait, I did exactly that! Conveniently, we lived near a seaport so I signed on to have my Ishmael moment. While at sea, I was forced to drink coffee every single day.

The family lived in Bellevue, across Lake Washington from Seattle. I joined the Inland Boatman's Union and found a berth on the tug Charles. We pulled full barges up the protected inside passage to Alaska and empty ones south.

a different tow boat with barge

Sometimes we offloaded in Anchorage and sometimes in Whittier, one of the stranger places I've ever been. It was built as a military facility in 1943 (in case of something.) Basically a large dock facility, a railway spur and the largest building (abandoned) in Alaska. When a barge arrived, a crew of longshoreman would train across the isthmus from Anchorage, unload the barge and go back home.

My job was in the engine room, I remember it without even a trace of affection. I was a Wiper, the lowest conceivable position on a ship. My primary function was to ensure that the engines did not overheat. And explode. I never really knew how to do my job. It was explained once and involved adjusting seven valves in a very specific pattern. It was not written down. Furthermore, it was the first and last time that the engineer (my boss) addressed me directly.

inside passage

The engine room was a constant 120 degrees and a bit over 115 decibels. There were a lot of old Reader's Digests (bi-monthly editions.) To stall the impending explosion I would jump up from my reading or swabbing every few minutes and run from one engine to another, making random adjustments to the 14 wheels.

While on duty I was allowed up to the galley for coffee (the only option) and, because of the explosion thing, I was afraid to take the time to get sugar or milk, just the joe. Absolute and unvarnished (both the coffee and the truth.)

Since that summer my devotion (or enslavement) to coffee has settled in. I have learned what coffees, methods and cups I prefer. It has taken most of the past 52 years to get it right. The shipboard version was strong and both bitter and sour. Since my coffee consciousness began before the first Starbucks, it was all perked or boiled with egg shells and pepper. On special occasions, father would brew in an Italian moka.

Then, in 1966, I chased a girlfriend to Hamburg, where I got a job as a pearl-diver in the kitchen of the Hotel Europaeischer Hof. One kitchen for four restaurants and room service: many, many dishes. 3:00 PM to midnight, 6 days a week. The job included a room in a transient hotel and two meals a day (we were often served chicken necks with white sauce on white rice.)

While in Germany I moved to more serious coffee at stand-up tables. It was delivered in a heavy, silver-plate pitcher that held two full cups of rich, round flavored coffee. It seemed to me that I had actually not had real coffee until then.

I'm sure that it had much to do with libido and a manly, tough guy image. I liked being seen drinking this dark and rich brew without any feminine sweetness and cream.

Then, a dozen years later, I drank espresso in Rome and was reborn. Again, it was as if I had not had real coffee until that first moment. Those Roman shots remain my favorite coffee experience but I also happily drank church-basement coffee for decades. In Vietnam, we boiled water over burning C4 explosive, trying not to inhale the fumes. We dug it out of hand grenades and claymore mines (because it burned very hot) to heat rations and for my Sanka. It even burned in  the rain.

At this point in life, my coffee ritual is the way in which I ensure that the sun will rise (it has a retroactive effect since I like sleeping late.) I recommend the entire experience. It starts the day outwards, I have just spent hours floating inwards. It eliminates the grump and I approach the task with gratitude and focus. I know exactly how B likes her coffee and she has won me over so that my first cup now also gets a little sugar and milk.

The dog begins to wake me, she knows that walking and eating will only occur after that first cup. It can take a while but, when she's won, I go downstairs and she goes back to sleep. Sometimes the operating theater is prepared: water on the stove; cups, press pot, spoons and the coffee jar in place on the counter. If I'm really on my game, my pills and vitamins are laid out on the other counter.

An after dinner demitasse   (shot by Brigid Burns)


Having consumed the stuff for a long time uniquely qualifies me to tell you exactly how to make coffee for me
and B. Except for a wonderful Italian coffee, Lavazza Pienaroma, no single coffee  works for us. B prefers less caffeine and we start with a mix of two coffees. After I brew the first pot, I adjust the ratio and often add a third variety.

I do have a grinder that we use when I find a whole bean coffee on sale but I don't require my coffee fresh ground. I use nearly a cup of ground coffee in a one quart french press. I brew it very quickly. As soon as I've added the water I stir it thoroughly, press the plunger and fill the cups.

For the moment, we have an inexpensive espresso machine which I only use for the steam wand. I am pretty good with it.

And, now the world can turn..