Just Enough

Eggs, really, are little miracles – so much more useful than chickens. Neatly packaged and compartmentalised by nature, they are, appropriately, a starting point in the wider world of food, fed to babies and invalids and anyone who needs to (re)learn the pleasures of eating; proverbially if not actually easy to cook, they are the first ingredient a lot of us work with, a fact we pay homage to every day at breakfast (“we” not including the unfortunate cereal-munchers and toast-snatchers of this world). Go to work on an egg, they said, and it was good advice – but they’re even better for long, lazy mornings. The meal of brunch could not exist without the emulsifying presence of the egg to combine its disparate parts, its salads and sandwiches, hashes, leftovers and toast. Egg (or more particularly its yolk) is a great match-maker.

What magician first made a mayonnaise? What was she (probably not he) doing? How did she know? It can’t have taken a Heston to work out the effect that breadcrumbs or ground nuts (which we still occasionally use in bread sauce, in picadas) would have when thrown into a stew; but to bring together two liquids and end up with something thicker than either – we can only bow down to this long-lost innovator, who should be the patron saint of the kitchen. Perhaps you don’t make mayonnaise at home (you should). Think about a cooked yolk, then – the way, mixed with cream, it bakes or simmers into a silken whole, occupying a perfect liminal space between solid and liquid. A well-made quiche, quivering plainly in a buttery shell, is a beautiful thing – a bad one a disaster. Eggs are difficult to cook. When such things were still fashionable, a soufflé used to be considered a real test of skill – Anthony Bourdain describes the soufflé station as the ultimate ordeal of his education at the confusingly-named CIA – which is a testament to the tricky versatility of the egg. Essentially a yolk-enriched béchamel mixed with extraordinary amounts of air, a soufflé showcases the egg white, its ability to become something both extremely rich and toyingly light, decadently ephemeral. If this seems to circle around French cooking, that’s no coincidence. If there’s one area of cuisine that the French can really claim to have raised to an art, it’s egg cookery. From the humble omelette to the most delicate creations of the saucier, the egg, more than butter, wine, or garlic, is the real hero of the French kitchen, the symbol of its gift for complete transformation.

Eggs, for all their work behind the scenes, are capable of standing on their own in a way that flour, say, is not. I just ate two fried eggs, cooked in butter with salt and pepper; I’d happily eat them again. Maybe poached are more your thing – fair enough, though butter isn’t bad for you any more. Scrambled, although laden with bad memories, are wonderful if done well (which, for me, means extremely sloppily), and particularly good if you don’t have any bread – there’s no escaping yolk that needs mopping up. Leave them alone and you have a kind of omelette. Even a boiled egg can be a fine thing. None of these, however, are particularly easy to do. The difficulties are obvious with scrambled – just take them out of the pan quickly and you should be fine. Boiled eggs never take the time that anyone says they do – they are a struggle between you and your cooker, mediated by the pan, which might take years to resolve itself – and even plain old fried are a delicate balancing act between soft yolk and set white. The trick, generally, is to cook them a lot cooler than you think you should (ridiculous advice, once you’ve started taking it). Egg will cook if left alone in a hot place.

Eggs are so homely, so comforting, that it always comes as a surprise to see them abroad – although it shouldn’t be, given all of the above. A chicken is a present help to any family, fits easily in even urban gardens (‘yardbird’) and can be eaten when it gets old; mad-eyed squawking idiots that they are, they have spread from India and abundantly populated the world (although what percentage of that population exists in battery farms I don’t dare imagine). So we have avgolemeno soups and dressings, shakshuka, tortilla, egg-and-kofte tagines, egg curries, eggs on pizza and omelettes on sushi and egg-fried rice, we have egg salad and gala pies and pickled eggs to go alongside or before or after pastries and cakes and sauces, meringues and curds and ice-creams; we can eat eggs from terrible French hotel buffets, magnificent New York diners (the closest the egg has to a temple), shacks and stalls and counters across the world. Never trust anyone who doesn’t like eggs, and pity those allergic to them.

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