Food - Chef Nick Oltarsh's 'Ode to Egg'
One Midtown Kitchen's chef explores a world without eggs
Fried, shirred, coddled, country-style, poached, basted, sous-vide, raw, omelet, boiled, salted, pickled, scrambled. Is there anything an egg can't do? And isn't it impressive that each of these preparations tastes unique, even though they are all made from the same thing? The latest restaurant trend has been to throw a fried egg on every conceivable dish indiscriminately — but let us not forget that the egg is a versatile and crafty little guy, a taste chameleon of white and yellow, albumen and fat, meringue and mayo, whose omnipresence in our foodie lives is wonderfully indispensable. Imagine a world without eggs ...
A toad in the hole is just as good as you remember from when you were a kid, if not better; all brown, buttery, and gooey, with runny yolk and crusty fried bread. Subtract the sizzling egg, and it would just be an eyeless piece of desiccated Melba toast. Your egg-less childhood would be bitter and frivolled, leading to antisocial behavior, reefer madness and ultimately a life of wanton depravity. Ham-and-cheese croque monsieurs are perfectly good, but the revved-up croque madame with the addition of a butter-basted fried egg is exceptional: The creamy béchamel is that much richer and textured with a sunny-side-up egg ravenously pierced by an eager knife and fork. Picture drop soup instead of egg drop soup or foo young rather than egg foo young — so much for Chinese takeout.
What are the holidays sans our eggy friends? Eggshells become whimsical artwork at Easter: expressions of spring rebirth, floppy-eared fluffy bunnies and mirth. Without Easter eggs, kids would scavenge for mildewy bread heels, oxidized pennies, and cigarette butts. Christmas eggnog, heady with brandy, makes us tipsy and gives us the bravura we need to face our families. The eggnog-free version of the holidays includes oodles of counseling for posttraumatic filial stress disorder. Raw eggs in the classic prairie oyster recipe (raw egg, Worcestershire, and hot sauce) cure our hangovers the next day, for those of us game enough to slam a shot of Tabasco-laced egg crudo. The eggless hangover option is a headache the size of a bloated watermelon.
Without eggs, desserts wouldn't amount to much. No salty peanut butter cookies, no unctuous crème brûlée, zero flan, ixnay custard, nil meringue. Ben and Jerry's, gone. Tiramisu? AWOL. Pound cake would weigh a lot less than a pound. Bread pudding would be stale bread and dry raisins bobbing around a puddle of sugary milk. S'mores without marshmallows (egg white and sugar) are a campfire buzz kill. Try making cheesecake without eggs and you wouldn't get very far. Forget chocolate cake, or a lick of cake batter, for that matter; forget buttercream icing and — woe is me, harsh world — decadent chocolate pudding.
Eggs not only provide culinary pleasure; they also coddle the brain. What came first, the chicken or the egg? What is better, fried or scrambled? Are 100-year-old black Chinese eggs disgusting or tasty? Is it gross to eat the Filipino hard-boiled fertilized egg/chicken balut? Do I eat cage-free eggs, antibiotic-free eggs, or my neighbor's backyard eggs covered with itsy-bitsy feathers, hay, and a little bit of what appears to be poop?
And what about brunch without eggs? We would be forced to eat musty sandwiches, woebegone salads and exhausted burgers at 11 a.m. on Sunday. I would dearly miss fluffy buttermilk pancakes, comfy with salty, soft butter, sweet with warm Vermont maple syrup flowing over their edges. French toast would morph into dry toast. Adios, double-smoked bacon, fried egg and oozy cheddar cheese sandwiches on kaiser rolls. The recipe for eggs Benedict would vanish from every cookbook, recipe folder and country club menu on Earth, a stupefying loss to worldwide culture. Cancel Sunday.
"Breakfast for dinner" without eggs is, sadly and obviously, "dinner for dinner" — what a drag. No waffles at Waffle House or pancakes at IHOP. No after-hours breakfast shops of dubious repute to fill the late-night munchies void. I may as well hit the hay at 8 p.m.
As a lad, my mother would send me to school with scrumptious egg-salad sandwiches that invited ridicule from my classmates, both for the farty odor that emanated from my brown-bag lunch and the fact that I always had yellow mayonnaisey smears on and about my teeth. It did not stop me from eating them. When I was in fourth grade, with my parents' permission, I invited my favorite teacher, Mrs. Richardson, over to our house for lunch. I was giddy with excitement and asked my mother what she planned to make. "Eggs Benedict," she said. I cried colossal, salty tears. How could my mother serve breakfast food at lunchtime to my favorite teacher? Mrs. Richardson would undoubtedly suspect that boorish trolls raised me. The fateful day arrived, and Mrs. Richardson came for lunch. The meal went off without a hitch; eggs Benedict made the grade. I was not ejected from my elementary school classroom.
The moral of the story is — there is no moral. We have eggs, we love eggs and we are going to keep eating a lot of them. If I could, I would sip warm egg yolk through a twisty straw, perhaps with some flaky Maldon sea salt or fleur de sel; yes, I surely would. The next time you chow down on a frittata at brunch or enjoy a thick slice of chocolate cake for dessert, just remember that the little white egg is quite the miracle, no? Please share your egg stories with me!
Nick's Kick-Butt Egg Sandwich recipe and Mayonnaise-Is-So-Simple recipe:
• 1 egg yolk
?• 2 tablespoons room-temperature water
?• 1 cup neutral oil (canola, vegetable, safflower are all fine)
?• Juice of 1 lemon
?• 1 tablespoon EVOO (extra virgin olive oil)
?• Dash of cayenne
?• Kosher salt to taste
?• 9 eggs
?• 4 ciabatta bread or baguette-style rolls
?• Watercress or arugula for four sandwiches
?• Mixed whole herbs/petit greens without stems (dill, basil, chervil, purslane)
?• 8 marinated white anchovies, tails removed
?• 1-2 tomatoes, washed and cored
?• 1 local cucumber, washed and half-peeled
?• Sea salt, fresh lemon juice and EVOO to finish
Whisk one egg yolk in a small bowl with the water. Have the person who is going to share your sandwich hold the bowl while you do all the hard work. Slowly stream in the neutral oil very slowly, using a whisk. The oil should emulsify into the egg yolk/water mixture. If it looks greasy, add a couple teaspoons of tap water. Squeeze in the lemon juice; add the extra virgin olive oil, the cayenne and kosher salt to taste. Meanwhile, hard-boil the eggs. Start them in large pot of cold water and make sure they are well covered with water. Bring the eggs to a boil. Continue cooking them for eight more minutes. Test one egg to make sure it is done. Eat it when no one is looking. Drain the eggs from the boiling water, crack them slightly — they peel more easily when you do this — and put them in a bowl of ice water. Let them cool for 5 minutes and then peel them, dry them off and slice into thick slices. To make the kick-butt egg sandwich, generously smear the ciabattas with the homemade mayonnaise (or Duke's Mayonnaise if you want to cheat, like I would). Layer in the sliced hard-boiled eggs, the watercress, herbs from your garden or your grocer, the fresh-cured white anchovies, tomato and cucumber slices. Sprinkle with sea salt, a splash of lemon juice, and extra virgin olive oil, and they are ready to eat!