Eggs aren’t just for breakfast anymore, says Eli Jameson.
Just make sure they’re fresh
I had a friend, many years ago, who was terrified of eggs. He wasn’t plagued by dreams that involved giant eggs coming out of the sky, or having to stand up naked and give a speech to the annual convention of the Egg Marketing Board. Instead, it was the mere sight of an egg outside of its shell that absolutely horrified him. One of his more darkly hilarious monologues involved his horror at going out to a pizza restaurant in Paris once with a large group of relatives and an even larger hangover the day after his sister’s wedding, and having a pie with a quivering fried egg cracked into the middle of it placed in front of him by a smirking garçon.
Oddly, though, ‘hidden’ eggs didn’t bother him. Sauces made with eggs, meatloaves bound by eggs, French toast soaked in eggs – all of that was fine by him, so long as he wasn’t around to see the preparation. Which shows that even if he had a few screws loose in the food department (it would take a Freudian half a decade to work out how his mother gave him this particular phobia), he at least had pretty good taste.
Needless to say, I’ve never known this terror. Poached on toast with a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt; fried in butter and drizzled with hot sauce (Tabasco is great, but my new favourite is a Mexican brand called Tapatío); or gently scrambled with lots of cream, chives, and smoked salmon, I just don’t think it’s possible to go wrong with eggs. Unless, of course, one overcooks them.
But it is this first preparation, poaching, that seems to cause many home chefs the most grief. Raised to believe that poaching an egg involves some sort of complicated French alchemy involving whirlpools and vinegar, and until recently unable to get anything fresher than supermarket eggs that have spent days or weeks in trucks and on shelves, even many good cooks I know just don’t care enough to bother.
Which is a shame, given that it is so easy, and the results potentially fantastic. Nothing showcases a really good egg like poaching. All one needs to do is heat a pan of water – about an inch or so deep – with a slug of good white wine vinegar to the just-bubbling point, slide the eggs in one by one, and wait a few minutes before pulling them out again with a slotted spoon.
Which brings us to the first problem with eggs, no matter how they are prepared: most of the eggs found on supermarket shelves are not truly fresh, and are laid by chickens fed in an insipid diet that leaves their product as tasteless as the factory tomatoes over in the produce section. This means they won’t poach properly – instead, they’ll run all over the pan (don’t ask me to explain the science, just trust me on this). Worse, they’ll be tasteless. Although there are many instances where an ‘organic’ label is just a marketing con to separate greenies from their money – more on this in a subsequent column – when it comes to eggs, every input counts. If your farmer is playing music to his hens, make sure it’s calm and relaxing stuff. You can’t get good eggs from chooks whose nerves are being jangled up by a Wagner fetishist.
I get my eggs from my local farmers’ market, where they sell free-range eggs from Chanteclair Farms, outside Sydney. These eggs, which can also be found in some supermarkets, are always fresh, and the hens have been fed a special diet that makes their yolks rich, golden and creamy – as well as high in Omega-3, which fights cholesterol and helps mute the chant of
‘remember, thou art mortal’ that tends to play in the back of one’s head when one eats as many of the things as I do.
BEST-EVER BEANS AND EGGS
When the mercury is low and the bank balance lower (or even if it’s not), this is a great, cheap plate of comfort food that elevates its humble ingredients to far more than the sum of its parts.
• 1 800g tin of Heinz baked beans in tomato sauce
• 1-2 brown onions
• 3-4 tablespoons brown sugar
• 50 grams butter
• Balsamic, red wine, or sherry vinegar
• White wine vinegar
• Dijon mustard
• 4 slices bread (I like Helga’s Light Rye)
• Salt & pepper
• 4 eggs
1. First, caramelize the onions. Slice the onions into thin half-moons, and put them into a wide pan over very low heat with the butter, and just let them sit there, stirring them occasionally. The more time you can devote to this, the better: you want them to slowly sweeten with just the barest of heat. About ten minutes in, throw some brown sugar in – this will really up the sweetness factor. After about twenty minutes, turn up the heat to medium and throw in the balsamic (or red wine or sherry) vinegar until it reduces, and then add the beans, stirring in Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper.
2. Meanwhile, get another pan out to poach the eggs. Put in an inch or so of water, add the white wine vinegar (this helps hold the eggs together), and heat to the barely-boiling. One by one, crack the eggs into a cup or small bowl and slide them into the water.
3. Toast the bread, and cut it into quarters. Assemble by putting half the beans on each of two plates, arranging the toast quarters (using the French and calling them croutons would be too pretentious in this case, even for me) around the beans, and putting two poached eggs on top of each. Season with a bit more salt and pepper, and serve.
‘SPECIAL’ EGGS, ITALIAN STYLE
I first saw the great American-Italian chef Mario Battali make a variation of this in the U.S. many years ago; since then, I’ve discovered that poaching eggs in some other sort of sauce is a staple dish in many cultures. The Persians, in fact, do a remarkably similar version of this; they call it gojay farangi; in our house, what my three-year-old calls ‘special eggs’ is an unbreakable Saturday tradition.
• Olive oil
• 1 good-sized brown onion
• 2-3 (or more) cloves garlic
• ½ birds eye or bullet chili, chopped (optional)
• 2 x 400g tins peeled Italian plum tomatoes
• Dried mint
• 4 slices of thick, crusty Italian bread
• 4 eggs
1. Make a simple red sauce. Dice the onions, slice the garlic, and throw it in a hot pan of olive oil with the optional chili. Feel free to throw in a slug of the previous night’s wine at this point if there is any left over; red sauces are a very personal thing. Add the tomatoes (make sure they’re imported from Italy; if you want to buy local, avoid Aussie tins and make the sauce with fresh tomatoes instead), breaking them up with a wooden spoon. Add some dried mint, which is my personal touch, and let simmer, uncovered
2. Once the sauce has cooked down a bit, use a spoon or a ladle to make a depression in the sauce, then crack an egg into the well, repeating until all the eggs are in. Cover and let simmer.
3. Meanwhile, toast the bread – I like to rub the slices with olive oil and a smashed clove of garlic, but that’s not 100 per cent necessary – under the grill. By the time the bread is ready, the eggs should be coming pretty close to done as well. Plate them up by putting two pieces of bread on each plate, then topping with an egg and red sauce.