I’ve been reading, or re-reading The Best Food Writing 2008 and 2009, edited by Holly Hughes, selectively going through the essays. Many of them are very well written, and the writings cover the range of high and low brow tastes. Perhaps being on a diet means I am getting some empty calories from the aromas wafting off the pages of books on food? Mother got vicarious enjoyment and vicarious nutrients from The Food Network when she was laid up one time in the hospital getting her meals intravenously from a clear bag. It wasn’t torture, at least not the Food Network part of the hospital experience. She could appreciate the visuals and sizzles of food (this was before The Food Network became the challenging extravaganza of people outdoing each other that it is today). Anyway these books come up because of two or three articles penned about eggs.
Best Food Writing 2008 had two essays about making the perfect omlette.
All right, I parsed both essays, and came away with the conclusion that these French experts have no clue what makes the best omlette. Now, certainly, they are more proficient at it than the cafeteria at work, which uses “egg product” poured from cartons (this tastes sorta slimy and rubbery, and the scrambled “eggs” are even worse — the only way to improve the omlettes there is to douse the things in Tabasco, and to improve the scrambled is to upend them into the dumpster). I do like the way the French flip or slide them out of the pan and can make a perfect looking object of art. But I digress, the French apparently make no use of the one ingredient which makes sense of an omlette to begin with: CHEESE. You don’t have to use American if you don’t want to, cheddar or colby or edam or muenster or pepperjack work perfectly well. And, if you don’t mind your repast kinda stringy, mozzerella is a delight. Anything, in other words, that MELTS!
So, I set about breakfast this morning, and after reading about how my omlettes fail at haute cuisine, I set about making soft-cooked eggs instead. (The experts all say “soft-cooked”, not “soft-boiled”, but this is a quibble not about to stand in my way. Nor is the essay published in Best Food Writing 2009 by Margaret MacArthur (“Eggs Enough and Time”) going to do so either. She and I are devotes of the perfect soft-cooked egg. (PS, I do say “soft-boiled” in speech. Technically, I’m wrong, and I have no hesitancy in typing correctly, as I do this slower than speech. Anyhow.) She has a great light-heartedness in her attempts to find the best method to cook the perfect soft-cooked egg. She talks about her failures and has no chef hanging over her telling her how she’s doing it wrong. She decides on her own. She experiments with the Slow Start (put the egg in when the water is still cold) and the Fast Start (put the egg in when the boil is underway) methods, finally settles on the Fast Start method using 5 minutes of simmer.
All well and good, and I will keep her timing in mind if I do a Fast Start egg. Since I’ve been doing Slow Starts over the last 30 years or so, when I’ve been making these eggs, I figured I’d do the same today. Indeed, since I wasn’t going to be using cooking oil, my diet decided to justify using one duck egg and one chicken egg, both real free-range, not technical by the robotic definition of free-range. (I’m sure you are well-aware that it is legally acceptable to call a given poultry item “free-range” if you open the door during their last couple of weeks of existence, well after they’ve been entrained to remain indoors and not move much, and there they sit, indoors, with maybe a whift of semi-fresh grass coming towards a few of the paranoidly-crippled poultry that happen to be crouched somewhere near that door.)
Anyhow, as said, I’m ingrained into the Slow Start method, force of habit or something. I put several twists of salt into the pot as the water while the eggs begin to heat up, and once or twice or thrice I move the eggs around so the yolk centralizes itself. The salt here is important: Osmotic Pressure. It actually adds no flavor, it is for Osmotic Pressure. Keeps the eggs from serious rapture, er, rupture.
The duck eggs probably don’t care, but the thinner-shelled chicken ones do. Osmotic Pressure is a feature those of us who ran into an old physics or perhaps chemistry class may relate to: if something is saltier inside and is placed in an environment that is less salty outside, if whatever is keeping it apart from the outside ruptures in the least way, everything inside wants to get outside. (This is particularly a nuisance when doing hard-cooked eggs for aesthetic deviled eggs.)
For an even more impartial visual: Picture a salt water fish plopped into a fresh-water lake. The fish tries to balance its osmotic balance, and sends as much of its salty self out into the water… and dies. (The reverse is also fatal, but implosions are better than explosions when considering cooked eggs.)
So anyhow, at about three minutes or so after the boil is reached (and I reduce to a simmer), the eggs are usually ready for me to eat as soft-cooked. (Margaret MacArthur timed this down to 3 minutes, 20 seconds — but I have come to believe the Slow Start method is dependent on other factors, too: the size of the pot and how long it took to come to a boil, which burner you use. Keep notes.) Egg size is also a factor in either the Slow Start or Fast Start methods — the turkey eggs when I had them took a deuced long time to do anything, but fortunately I figured that out in advance.
About salt — the flavor of salt does not impart to the egg when you add it to the water you are cooking it in, as the shell gets in the way.
To digress even further… potatoes. I’ve found only a couple varieties of flavorful potatoes. Yukon Gold and a red-skinned Gold whose name hopefully only temporarily escapes me. For the largest portion of my life I treated potatoes as fillers, sort of the way I imagine that Dominos back in my days at college in Indiana (the ’70’s) apparently treated cardboard in pizza. Potatoes needed to be heavily assaulted with the shaker just to have a modicum of taste. Or turned into potato chips, which were of course already packaged as-“salt”-ed. “Everyone” (a word that just means the usual suspects, certainly not everyone) used to say that the MacDonald’s fries were the epitome of French-fry-ness. Nope, I had to assault them heavily as well, and I found them to be so skinny that they were either served soggy or over-crisped and dried out in a way that salt would not adhere properly. Which gives the lie to their claims that all their food items are always the same, in any locale, at any time. The once or twice that I ate them that they were actually tasty and of the right texture: Outliers in my experience. And they still needed extra salt. Of course, being Russet potatoes, one couldn’t expect otherwise.
In an ideal world, every French fry would be a steak fry: hearty, cooked to just the right texture, not so skinny it would sap up every drop of cooking grease, and it would be a Yukon Gold. If I ever see such a fry, I’ll pass on the salt shaker. Probably.
PS: My regular computer is in the shop, being decontaminated from whatever contaminated it and whatever keeps it from doing anything but being a doorstop. I have photos to go with this piece; I hope to edit later on to include them. Grumble!!!
Edit: Photos finally on board. and a typo or two, fixed.. Hoping to get my real computer back SOONEST! This dialup thing leaves a lot to be desired.