The Perfect Egg

March 25, 2009

A few years back, I was talking with my friend and then-neighbor Chris Birch about eggs. Ok, that might be an odd subject to talk about, guys hanging out, drinking a couple of beers and what are we talking about? Eggs. But it makes sense, really. You just need the background to set the scene.

Chris is a professional chef in England who cooked a variety of places, classically trained, a good food guy all around. His job at the time was working for a company that sold professional ranges to restaurant kitchens and other mass preparation operations. Serious gear indeed, one of these days I’d love to have one in my kitchen. My way of smacking a fly with a sledgehammer, total overkill. But what Chris did primarily was travel around and demo the product by cooking a meal on the equipment, demonstrating ease of use, versatility, all those selling points. One day Chris tells me that he has been selected by the company for the dubious honor of planning a meal for a business conference. The attendees? Chefs, each and every one…

So, what I ask, does a chef cook for other chefs? It obviously can’t be half-assed, can’t be too pretentious, has to be producible in mass quantities to feed the whole group and overall, has to be good. This being in England, I should have hit on the obvious answer. Chris tells me the team is going to make a full English Breakfast to serve to this collection of chefs. I’m sure he was nervous at the idea of it , there is only two ways that can go, total praise or total disdain. So, eggs, perfectly cooked, the best ham, the freshest produce, good bread, the best of the best goes into the planning. Not only did Chris pull off a successful meal but he sparked a notion in me.

I like eggs. Quite a bit. But, as with everything, there is a right and a wrong way to cook an egg. We all have our preferences but I like them over easy, yolk warm but not even thinking of solidifying… a little salt and pepper and on the plate with a slice of white bread for yolk-dipping. Immediately after hearing about the meal Chris was preparing, I decided. I would cook the perfect egg for myself.

Ok, when it comes down to it, cooking an egg is simple right? Well, maybe it’s the perfectionist in me but I disagree. You can cook a pretty good egg most of the time. Hell, you can go to your local IHOP or Denny’s and get a pretty good egg. But I wasn’t after a pretty good egg. I wanted the egg that was perfect for me.

There are a few variables under your control when cooking eggs. The type of pan used. The cooking medium. The heat applied. The time the egg cooks. I started working with all these in a search for the perfect egg. Every weekend, I would set out my materials and work with it until finally one day I got it right.

I use a griddle to cook my eggs. The flat surface and low lip around the pan make for a really consistent cooking area and allow easy access for turning. After experimentation with different techniques, trying the Italian method of almost deep frying it in a thin layer of olive oil, the traditional method of cooking bacon and using the leftover fat as your medium, even trying dry pan cooking (not suggested), I hit upon the one medium that works for me. A couple spritzes of butter spray and that’s all you need. The heat was the most difficult variable to master. Too hot and the sugars in the egg white caramelize, giving you that crispy egg that is so common to greasy spoons everywhere. Too cool and the egg sets too slowly, missing out on the actually “fried” aspect. Every stove is different but I found that one mine, a medium low temperature (4 on this crappy electric stove I’m stuck with) is the perfect compromise, hot enough to fry without scorching. The time is subjective. I’ve found the only way to accurately know when its time to flip an egg is by watching how it reacts. For me, the egg is ready to flip when the edges start to pull away slightly from the surface of the pan. The egg white in the center around the yolk should still be translucent. I sprinkle a dash of salt and pepper and then flip. This is also a good time to start your toast, light brown perfect for dipping takes about the right time for the flipped egg to finish cooking.

And there it is. I had perfected the over easy egg to my tastes, a simple dish with so many poor variations that it really pops when you get it right. After my lengthy attempts and finally success, there I was, talking with Chris, drinking a beer, on the subject of eggs…

His response… “well mate, that’s great… the real trick is scrambled though.”

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On the subject of Spatchcocking

March 11, 2009

Proper preparation is aided by the use of proper techniques. As they say, there is more than one way to skin a cat and I have found that for just about every ingredient out there, a multitude of cooking techniques can be used. Let me preface this discussion by saying that I am (obviously) not a professionally trained chef. I have learned by trial and error, exploration of cookbooks, finding the things that I like to eat and figuring out the best way to make them, compatible with my time restraints, palate and equipment on hand. I can certainly find my way around the kitchen but I do occasionally stumble on the nuances between say par-boiling and blanching (yeah, I know, partially cooking in boiling water is par-boiling and blanching is a quick dip with an ice bath after). This aside, I have been attempting to increase my arsenal of techniques by intentionally preparing a dish that uses a method that I am unfamiliar with and learning it as I go along. I’d probably be kicked out of any formal instruction for my random and cavalier ways but its working for me so I’m going to go with it.

My new favorite technique is Spatchcocking… First off, its got a really funny name which makes it fun to talk about. Sounds vaguely dirty to me. I’m pretty sure it was Alton Brown that I first saw use it on an episode of Good Eats but I have since used it numerous times with varying success. The whole principle of this is to reshape a chicken or other bird to present more surface area to the heat. More surface area equals faster cooking times and when barbequing, more delicious carbonization and caramelization of any sugars in your marinade or coating.

I use the technique detailed in the link above but add the step of two small incisions in the skin between the drumsticks. This way, you can tuck the ends of the drumsticks into the slits and have a nice convenient package that stays in place while cooking. I have spatchcocked Cornish hens twice in the recent past, once for the grill outside and once for stovetop grilling. The important factor is to keep the meat flat and in as much contact with your heat element as possible. To this end, on the grill outside, use a brick or two wrapped in foil. Heavy enough to hold it down but not so heavy as to crush your bird. Inside on the stovetop, I took a small stockpot filled with water and used that as my weight. Again, this is the Alton Brown influence, I can’t take credit, I’m just putting the techniques into practice.

The cooking time, as mentioned above, is cut down considerably by increasing your surface area. The results are downright tasty and quick and I think that I am going to take the dive and try to spatchcock a turkey come thanksgiving. It’s a bit daunting but I think the ends will definitely justify the means.


Substitution of Ingredients

March 9, 2009

Ok, so almost every week, I have a discussion with my wife. I can’t complain, she does all the food shopping based on a list that we both contribute to making. She does the best with the shopping locations we have available. However, I tend to be a bit picky, especially the first time I prepare a new dish. The first run through of any new recipe for me has to be letter perfect, ingredient wise, technique wise, every which way. Usually after the initial attempt, I modify the dish to suit both my level of cooking skill and our families individual taste (yes, this means adding more garlic to most dishes).

So here is my frustration. Quite often, the exact ingredient is not locally available. Be it the wrong shape of pasta, a certain kind of hot pepper or even, heaven forbid, the wrong cut of meat, occasionally, an ingredient has to be changed to accommodate local availability. Now, I’m not stupid. I know that you can make a damned fine meal with one or two slight modifications to ingredients. I do it quite often. But, philosophically, I balk. To change the contents changes the meal. I know with proper attention and care, the dish will still turn out great and everyone will love it. But on a basic level, its no longer the dish I started out cooking. It because something different, a variation on a dish. This is fine for subsequent preparations but as I said above, the first run through, I want a dish as close to the intended form as possible. Substitutions come later.

This leads to a question that I’m already starting to answer for myself as I type… Do I modify my intended menus based on what is available or do I modify the dishes on my menu to match ingredients. The logically side tells me that I need to use what is available and articulate the best dishes intended for the ingredients on hand. This is favorable in my opinion to changing a dish that calls for an ingredient that isn’t available. Maybe someday, I’ll have access to every ingredient in the world, fresh and in season, all the time but for now, concessions must be made.