Friday, August 21, 2009

A little eggs story then smoked soft boiled eggs with caviar

On a business trip to the Netherlands a few years ago, a colleague and I were having lunch in a small bistro on the outskirts of a northern town called Alkmaar. It was directly beneath the town’s historic and still functioning windmill. Damon was what I would call a non-eclectic eater at best. It has always bothered me to see folks who pick through their food with a fork and knife –inspecting every crumb and bit for that hint of some unappealing vermin that the chef snuck in during the cooking process. This is far different from the inspection of the gustatory enthusiast who often deconstructs his meal while lauding each component for its creative use. The difference can be seen in the face of the inspector. A scowl or grimace on the former and a look of reverence on the latter. Damon had that scowl for 2 solid weeks (except for our adventures into the red light district of Amsterdam which should be left for a completely different blog).

In the smaller towns of the Netherlands, English is scarce making reading menus difficult. Sometimes you just had to take your best guess and Damon was trying his best to survive this horrid dining experience. On this day, we recognized the word “Hamburger” and Damon felt safe ordering this. I feel enlightened knowing the word has Dutch origins. I was prepared for the disaster to come when the waitress struggled to convey through a combination of frustrated hand gestures, guttural utterances and less-than-adequate interpreter help from the neighboring table that bread was an option. If bread was not standard for a Dutch hamburger, there was going to be an unappealing twist to this story for Damon. With a bright smile, the lovely barkeep returned with our plates and set before Damon two hamburger patties that I’m guessing were boiled. To the side was a large piece of the optional crusty bread atop a fresh cut slice of tomato and a few lettuce leaves. The coup-de-gras, though were the two poached eggs nestled atop the beef –yolks pre-broken and running lazily through the valleys of the meat. After a lunch of bread and butter, tomato and lettuce, Damon rose from the table with that scowl fixed and I swore –just like mom used to warn us about childhood eye-crossing –this was permanent.

Eggs. C’mon. The first thing most of us learn to cook as kids are scrambled eggs, right? There’s something primal and comforting about cracking eggs. But I must admit, that first guy who saw that white orb squirt out of a chicken’s ass and decided, “Wow, I should eat that!” well –he’s my hero; an epicurean visionary of unrivaled proportion. Or maybe he was just that hungry. Either way, eggs are enjoyed on every corner of the inhabited world and for great reason. They can be raw, boiled, fried, baked, stuffed, simmered or steamed. They can be the star of your meal or be a subtle perfect ingredient. In the September issue of Bon App├ętit, a particular egg dish caught my eye. Told in unique and captivating comic book style is the story of an egg appetizer served at Momofuku Ko in New York City. Chef David Chang has been toying with this dish for some time until arriving at his current sensation. He perfectly soft boils an egg for a very specified length of time (5 minutes, 10 seconds). It then goes into a ice bath to stop the cooking process. Once cool enough to handle, the egg is gently pealed taking extra care not to split the white apart. The first bit of creative magic that sets this apart from any pedestrian egg dish is that the peeled egg is now returned to a water bath infused with a touch of liquid smoke. An overnight stay in the refrigerator yields a smoked, soft boiled egg. Already sounding perfect to me, the egg is re-warmed (4 minutes in a hot water bath) and served split –its silky warm ribbons of yellow oozing out like a perfect sunset over the beach. Ah, but wait, this is where it really gets good. A bit of caviar is then gently placed at the split in the egg giving the impression that these briny, black bits of oceanic perfection followed the yolk onto the plate. I had to try this. There was more to the dish than just the egg. He serves this atop on onion soubise (slow braised onions) next to a few homemade chips and some greens. For me though, it was the egg that moved me.

Within hours of reading this article, I was at it. Before wasting my time and money at the store for liquid smoke and caviar, I had to see if I could make a soft boiled egg at all. It’s a good thing I started with 3 because only one egg ended up worthy. It takes some practice removing the shell from that silly thing without pulling the while apart and ruining the yolk. I found the tricky part to be at the poles of the egg while the equator seemed to go fairly smooth. Now to the store. Since I live in the burbs, so to speak, I wasn’t willing to travel the distance required to find a high quality caviar so I settled on what was readily available at the grocery store. I imagine that might appall any caviar aficionados out there but I don’t know any. There was a black lumpfish caviar that was $14 for a tiny jar so I chose that. It certainly looked regal enough although my next rendition will be with the good stuff.

I got home, followed the recipe with my improvised ingredients and ended up with a treat of epic proportion. This tasted like something you’d pay a fortune for in a restaurant and I can only imagine how wonderful it would be with the accompanying onions at Momofuku Ko. Certainly, my rendition may be a bit more crude than the celebrated chef’s version but I was quite pleased with my more pedestrian version and I can’t wait to make this again.

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