Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Scrambling in the Dark

A perfectly poached egg, some ambrosial scrambled eggs…two things I would never want to live without. The art of cooking an egg (or two, or three) is a skill, I have heard, that is of great importance for many a chef, and lately I’ve come to see why. To be sure, I’ve always loved softly scrambled eggs, à la Française—slowly and delicately cooked in a pan with a knob of butter until they form soft curds, so right for spooning atop a piece of toasted baguette. It was my mother who first introduced me to the miracle that is her "soft-scrambled," a regular feature in our family breakfasts. She had them when she was growing up in France, sometimes made with a light sprinkling of fines herbes, and oh how grateful I am that she never forgot her first taste. It is, I have come to believe, the epitome of comfort food—luxurious yet simple (and fabulously cheap!). When I was in France and my host family went out for dinner, it was a meal I made often for myself, with whatever bread laying around that Madame had picked up. I could always count on finding eggs in the fridge, good ones too, with deep yellow yolks and cute phrases written on the plastic carton like “elévées en plein air!” for free-range. I never used to eat things like scrambled eggs for dinner, but after living in Paris for five months, where they will eat eggs at any hour of the day, in all their various forms, it has become my secret meal. Picture this: me, alone in a grand old French apartment on the seventh floor at 9pm, bent over the stove with wooden spoon, scrambling in the dark.

Still, it wasn't until quite recently that I mustered up the courage to eat (or make) a poached egg. Believe it or not, I used to be one of those types that squirmed upon the sight of a runny yolk. Presumably it had something to do with texture, but I'm still not sure myself. My mother used to make my sister and me “one-eyed jacks,” cutting a hole in the center of a piece of bread and cooking the egg in the vacant space, but she would always have to cook mine until it was hard. Even then, it difficult for me to eat that caked, dreaded "yellow part," so pitifully dense.

Boy, was I missing out! A softly cooked egg, whether fried or poached, is a rare treat indeed. Somehow, the idea never appealed to me when I was younger, but I was determined to try them again in college. My father loves over-easy fried eggs so much he eats them at least two or three times a week, always preparing them in his signature “chopped” style, in which he swiftly slices the just cooked eggs into small pieces—not a pretty plate, but I’m sure it tastes good. I also have a distant memory of my parents making poached eggs in a large cast-iron pan, but alas, I was still so stubbornly sure of my dislike at the time, I imagine they never even asked if I would like to try a bite.

Years later, in my tiny studio apartment kitchen in student housing, I made poached eggs, Italian-style—with roasted asparagus and shavings of parmigiano on top, sometimes with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. I’ve always had a thing for roasted asparagus, but served with poached eggs it was a meal, and a fine one at that. Granted, the first few times I attempted my eggs didn’t look quite as pretty as the ones you see in cookbooks. Also, I found it was quite easy to overcook them, and although they were still edible when slightly firmer, they lacked the slightly liquid center, an essential part of the dish. But after few more times I started to get the hang of it—and suddenly, miraculously, I was no longer afraid of poaching an egg. The recipe here is variation of the asparagus/egg union inspired partly by something I spotted on a breakfast menu recently. I always like to have a little smoked salmon around, and after my great success with poached eggs à la Italienne, it seemed only natural to slip a bit in between those lovely green stalks* and the perfectly cooked egg. I made it the other night, for an impromptu dinner. The crème fraîche was a last-minute addition, but the whole affair turned out quite nicely, so nice, in fact, I thought I’d share.

* I’ve still seen asparagus being sold in some of the markets, though sadly, its season is nearly over here in So Cal.

Roasted asparagus
with smoked salmon and a poached egg

If poaching an egg does not seem appealing in the slightest, fried could also work here. Also, even though slightly thicker asparagus holds up a little better in the roasting process, I used fairly skinny ones last time and they were just as good—just make sure not overcook them! The same goes for the egg, but I’ve already told you about that. Also, many recipes suggest adding white vinegar to the water to prevent the whites from “feathering” too much in water, but I never have, mainly because white vinegar it’s not something I usually have on hand. I’ve always been curious, though, if it does really a difference.

- ¼ bunch asparagus (approx)
- 1 fresh, free-range egg
- 1-2 oz smoked salmon
- one lemon
- one piece of bread, toasted
- 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
- crème fraîche (optional)
- salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400°. Trim asparagus stalks, then wash and dry thoroughly, spreading them out onto a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle olive oil over them and roll the asparagus between your hands until they are all evenly coated, and sprinkle with salt. Put the pan into the oven and roast for 10-15 minutes, shaking the pan once or twice, until asparagus is slightly browned.

During the last few minutes that the asparagus is cooking, crack the egg into a small bowl or glass ramekin. Fill a small saucepan of water until it reaches a ¼ way up the sides and bring to a simmer, reducing the heat to low until the water just has tiny bubbles. Begin toasting bread. Then carefully dip the bottom of the bowl with the egg into the pot of water for a few seconds before gently turning out the egg into the water. The whites will feather slightly, but it is not worrisome unless it is extensive. Cook for four minutes on low and then lift the egg from the water with a slotted spoon, setting on some folded paper towels to drain.

Plate asparagus and place a few pieces of smoked salmon on top. Squeeze a bit of lemon juice on the salmon, and place poached egg on the salmon as the final layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, and serve with a bit of crème fraîche and warm bread.

Serves one.