Back to the Basics
February 12, 1997
I'll follow some food writers wherever they lead me, just for the pleasure of hearing their voices. Miriam Ungerer is one of them. She has long lived on the east end of Long Island and written a column for the East Hampton Star, which remains blessedly outside fashion in an alarmingly fashionable part of the world. Ungerer tells us of encounters with local farmers and fishermen (yes they still exist in the Hamptons), and of the pleasures of making comfortable, welcoming food for guests who are likely to discuss anything imaginable -- but probably not food.
Recently the Ecco Press republished a book I've long cherished, Good Cheap Food, in a handsome revised and expanded edition. Ungerer's sassy but elegant voice is wonderfully intact. True to the title, she always remains aware of what is freshest and therefore usually cheapest, but in fact her real loyalty is to what's worth cooking: she's practical above all, and very reassuring for beginning cooks.
Here is Ungerer on three dishes that every cook begins with and always comes back to -- scrambled eggs, omelets, and roast chicken. I had to put in the roast chicken because it gives an insider's chef's tip to add flavor to bland meats like chicken and, sadly nowadays, pork: soak it first in brine. And I quote the passages on eggs at length to show why I so like Ungerer's writing.
-- Corby Kummer
From Good Cheap Food, by Miriam Ungerer
Scrambled Eggs With . . .
Nearly everybody starts his culinary adventures with this dish. And whatever he does wrong may linger on for life. For instance, hard, dry eggs are usually preferred by the very young, and this unfortunate preference is as hard to wean people from as well-done steak. (In his eighties, my Australian father-in-law was still imploring waiters to "incinerate" his.)
First of all, be sure that the white and yolk are completely amalgamated. (I have watched lazy short-order cooks try to do this after the eggs have hit the sizzling grillplate -- a hideous striped slab results.) Beat in half a teaspoon of water, milk, or cream for each egg used. Two table forks held slightly spread in one hand do the best job of preparing eggs for scrambling or omelets, because this system avoids overaerating the eggs as a wire whisk tends to. Sprinkle in salt and pepper and blend in any extra ingredient, such as cooked onions, herbs, cottage cheese, chipped beef, etc. Cottage cheese may sound a bit weird but it not only lightens and extends the eggs, it really is delicious.
Put a generous amount of butter into a cold skillet (or lightly butter a nonstick pan) and set over medium heat. When the butter is hot and frothing (not browning or smoking), pour the eggs all at once into the center of the pan. Stir lazily in a circular motion with the flat of a fork until the eggs are semi-set but still moist. Serve on warm plates.
Never serve scrambled eggs -- or eggs of any kind -- on cold plates. In fact, never serve anything on cold plates unless the food is intended to be cold. I am a fanatic on this point and simply cannot understand people who tolerate the best prepared food slowly congealing on the plate before it reaches the table.
Until the fabled Michel Guerard came along (he introduced the French to the idea of haute cuisine diet food with Cuisine Minceur) scrambled eggs had no role in French cookery. But his invention, scrambled eggs in their shells topped with caviar, has been widely copied from Paris to L.A. The French -- and English -- method of scrambling eggs goes like this: Beat the eggs with their seasonings and a bit of cream. Melt a large lump of butter in the top part of a double boiler set over boiling water. Pour in the eggs and stir them constantly until they are a thick, creamy mass, not curdy as are American scrambled eggs.
I don't favor this method because of the resulting texture, but even if this weren't the case, I would object to a technique that always leaves half the eggs stuck to the pot.
The chief difference between an omelet and scrambled eggs is one of social status. An omelet can be presented with some pride almost any time, whereas an offering of scrambled eggs (no matter how delicious) always requires an apology, except at 5 A.M. An omelet with a salad is what I palm off as lunch or dinner when I really haven't time or inclination to cook. It's fast, pretty to look at, and infinitely diversified by whatever bits of vegetables or cheese or leftovers one finds in the fridge. Fillings for omelets should be flavorings, not great masses of stuff spilling out of the ends. Omelets should be soft and creamy, actually runny as they are folded, because they continue to cook on residual heat.
The best way to master the few little treacheries of omelets is simply to sacrifice a dozen eggs to perfecting this most useful of cookery skills. Then make one every day for at least a week, varying the fillings. I prefer a simple, nonstick aluminum skillet for omelet making. The expensive, heavyweight "omelet pan" I thought indispensable when I was young and foolish is now used only for egg dishes such as piperade, which, unlike omelets, is cooked very slowly.
Three eggs are the number used in the classic French omelet, but you can reduce it to two if this number seems excessive. But then don't expect your omelet to look the way they do in restaurants where often four eggs are used to make those big, plump, luscious, golden creations. This kind of omelet in no way resembles our dry, flat "western" omelet that is slung in every hash house across the land.
The Basic Omelet
There are several techniques for making omelets; this is the one that is easiest for me. The showbiz technique involves a lot of pan shaking and hitting your left wrist (holding the sliding pan over the flame) with your right fist to cause the omelet to "jump" into a roll. This does indeed work but it's the sort of showboating that you have to try out of town for weeks before unleashing it on your public. So we'll go with the less flashy but more instantly gratifying method.
Shake the pan back and forth over the flame while you're stirring or lifting. It's sort of like patting your head and rubbing your stomach. Lift the pan from the heat from time to time so that the omelet doesn't brown. When the omelet is soft, creamy, and slightly set, lay your precooked ingredient or cheese across the center of the omelet. Grab the pan handle from underneath with the left hand, and with the right hand flip one third of the omelet over the center. Tilt the omelet pan up, and roll the omelet onto a waiting warmed plate. Although this sounds complicated, it really is not. Speed and high heat are the chief requirements for successful omelet making.
A pretty variant on the rolled omelet is to fill it after it is cooked by making a long incision on the top and placing the filling inside. This is the way to make a sour cream and caviar or smoked salmon omelet. Lumpfish or smelt eggs are delicious poor-man's caviar.
Some Omelet Fillings
Cheese must be grated or it won't melt properly in the brief time an omelet is cooked. An exception is cottage cheese which should be beaten into the eggs before cooking, herbs too. Any other fillings must be precooked and hot. The more delicately flavored vegetables, such as peas, spinach, artichoke hearts, asparagus, and mushrooms sautéed in butter or mixed with a bit of cream are delicious in omelets and only a soup spoon of any of these things is necessary for each omelet. Try chicken livers, sautéed onions and/or potatoes cut in tiny cubes, croutons, stewed tomatoes with garlic and herbs, sweet (or hot) pepper strips, chili with or without beans, creamed chipped beef, crumbled bacon or a julienne of ham or salami, or a fine dice of tongue, veal, or lamb kidneys. These are just a few possibilities and, if you're of a mind to throw all caution to the wind, hollandaise sauce spooned over the top of a plain or vegetable-filled omelet is sublime.
It was an accidental discovery that nearly all chicken profits from soaking in the following brine for anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days. I brined chicken for the smoker, discovered I didn't have time for that process, and so had to roast the chicken. The flavor was wonderful and the flesh firmed up but remained juicy. Works wonders for chicken to be grilled outdoors, too.
Here's the brine: Dissolve one tablespoon coarse salt in two cups hot water. Add one quarter cup soft brown sugar and one cup white wine with the following herbs or others in season: one branch dried sage (three or four leaves); one dried bay leaf, crumbled; and three sprigs fresh marjoram. Add two cups ice cubes and stir till dissolved. Rinse a chicken well under cold running water and put it vertical in a narrow, deep vessel. Pour brine over chicken; add more ice water if necessary. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Rinse chicken before cooking and dry with paper towels.
Fast Roast Chicken
Soak a roaster in Brine for Chicken for at least two hours. Rinse and dry. Rub with softened butter and place in small roaster (or wide loaf pan) with wings snapped behind the body but legs left akimbo. If brining has not been done, put a quartered, unpeeled onion, two cloves bruised garlic, some salt, pepper, and whatever herbs you like in the chicken's cavity.
Roast at 425 degrees F. for 20 minutes, turn chicken breast side down, and roast at 375 degrees F., basting after 10 minutes; roast 15 minutes longer. Check with thermometer for 180 degrees in thigh.
Let rest in a warm place 15 or 20 minutes before carving. Or refrigerate for use in salad or pot pies. Remember that skin and bones are much easier to remove while the bird is warm. However, the skin and bones give a chicken much of its flavor so should never be removed before cooking unless for some special reason -- dietary or esthetic. If you're a rush-hour cook, it's as easy to cook two birds as one, and the second one can be used a day or two later for a different dish. There are hundreds of ways to use the meat from roast chicken, especially if you make a strong broth from the drippings and save it to use in subsequent recipes.
Copyright © 1997 by Corby Kummer.
Recipes from Good Cheap Food by Miriam Ungerer. The Ecco Press: Hopewell, New Jersey, 1996. 346 pp. ISBN: 0880014881. $23.00. Copyright © 1996 by Miriam Ungerer.