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Exemplary Eggs

Martha Stewart Living, April 2008

Nature's most perfect form may contain nature's most perfect food. Adaptable and versatile, the egg is delicious in every one of its many guises.

What do we mean when we talk about eggs? Is it the pleasure of a runny double-yolker at an all-night diner or the satisfaction of a sliver of smoked Yukon salmon topped with a gribiche sauce of hard-cooked egg that's flecked with herbs and capers? The yellow scramble spilling out of your breakfast burrito this morning or the soft-cooked eggs with maple syrup and sherry vinegar at the Parisian three-star l'Arpege? The hard-cooked egg your mother used to pack in your Partridge Family lunch box a couple of times a week? The hard-fried oyster omelet you devoured in Bangkok on your honeymoon? The gooey eggs with charcoal-grilled toast in Singapore? Last night's ile flottante? The delicious deviled egg on pig-cheek scrapple at Resto, a Belgian joint in New York City? A crisp little omelet sprinkled with anise-scented blossoms in an Umbrian mountain tavern?

Eggs can signify homeliness and opulence, honest poverty and total luxury, asceticism and gluttony. They have figured into the breakfasts of lumberjacks and the suppers of kings. Charles II liked his dusted with ambergris. Paul Newman in "Cool Hand Luke" forced down 50 of them on a bet. I rather like them cooked slowly with lots of cream. What other ingredient is a traditional accompaniment to sausage and caviar? What better to bring out the expensive funk of a fresh truffle? What else was on the plate the last time you experienced fried Spam?

With their elastic proteins and their exquisite sensitivity to subtle changes in heat, eggs lend themselves to seemingly infinite preparations -- puffed into souffles, baked into custards, sizzled into matzo brei, simmered in soy sauce and served atop noodle soups, griddled into hoppers in Sri Lanka and parathas in India, even soaked in salt and lye until they become marbled black and translucent, per the famous 1,000-year eggs of China. Have you ever fried an egg in duck fat? You should.

Eggs bring with them the clean farmhouse scent of happy abundance, the swell of a well-made omelet, the sunny-yellow taste of fresh butter, and the promise of the day to come. By the time lunch rolls around and the sheen of civilization has enveloped us again, we may be ready to take on shallots and snipped chives. But tell me how you eat your eggs in the morning and I will tell you who you are: over-hard, broken yolk; scrambled dry; sizzled in pungent green olive oil; soft-cooked and served with a crusty hunk of country bread. Has life left you coddled? Hard-cooked? Steamy and slightly burned at the fringe?

Although it can be the quickest kitchen task, cooking eggs is often the trickiest mission an experienced cook can perform. Chefs frequently audition line cooks by asking them to scramble an egg or make an omelet. I am married to a woman who likes the yolks of her fried eggs limpid and bright yellow but her whites perfectly set. It has been the work of a lifetime to get it right. I think I have finally mastered the essential -- low heat, good butter, fresh farmers' market eggs, nonstick pan, cover the pan briefly with the bottom of the hot tea kettle, baste if you must, and keep your wits about you. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that eggs can smell your fear.

Simple Soft-Cooked Egg and Toast
Skillet Matzo Brei with Cinnamon, Apple, and Raisins
Southern Fried Eggs Over Buttermilk Biscuits with Sausage Gravy
Steamy Bowl of Noodles with Poached Duck Egg, Scallions, and Mushrooms
Miniature Grapefruit Souffles with Ginger
Classic Egg Custard Pie with Lots of Nutmeg
Coddled Eggs with Wild Mushrooms and Creme Fraiche

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Text by Jonathan Gold

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