The perfect poached egg

eggI’ve tried many methods to poach eggs, but this one seems foolproof, from Julia Child via the NY Times:

Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Have a bowl of ice water at hand. Punch a tiny hole in the end of the egg(s). Gently place the egg(s) into fully boiling water for 10 seconds. Transfer the egg(s) to the ice water. Crack the egg(s) into a small bowl and slide into the boiling water one at a time. Turn off the water. Remove when poached to your satisfaction (for me, about 3 minutes).

Opinionated cooks

Some of the most charmingly biased writing can be found in the prose of great cooks. Here is Marcella Hazan’s aria on vegetables:

“Perhaps one day the vitality of these still-flourishing markets will be replaced by the pallor of deep-freeze counters, those cemeteries of food, where produce is sealed up in waxed boxes marked, like some tombstones, with photographs of the departed. But I hope it never happens. I would sooner be deprived of all the marvels of Michelangelo.

“The quality of Italy’s produce is matchless. Only that of France comes close…Do not waste your efforts on second-rate materials. Buy carefully, avoiding any vegetable that is wilted, badly bruised, ill assorted, tired-looking, soggy, flabby, or overgrown.  Shopping for good fresh vegetables in this country may be frustrating at times, bit that does not mean we must deliver ourselves up in thralldom to the frozen-food shelves.”

Or the final paragraph of her page-long disquisition (worth reading!) on Parmesan cheese: “The recipes in this book call for freshly grated Parmesan cheese.  Do not under any circumstances use ready-grated cheese sold in jars. Even if this commercially grated cheese were of good quality, which it is not, it would have lost all its flavor long before getting to the market. It is of no interest whatever to Italian cooking.”

Here’s Julia Child on wine: “Food, like the people who eat it, can be stimulated by wine or spirits. And, as with people, it can also be spoiled…If you have not a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor one can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one.”

And here’s Elizabeth David on the same subject: “Nobody has ever been able to find out why the English regard a glass of wine added to a soup or stew as a reckless foreign extravagance and at the same time spend pounds on bottled sauces, gravy powders, soup cubes, ketchups and artificial flavorings. (She adds a long footnote on the poisonous nature of these flavorings, which employ putrid cheese, gas tar and nitric acid.) If every kitchen contained a bottle each of red wine, white wine and inexpensive port for cooking, hundreds of store cupboards could be swept clean for ever of the cluttering debris of commercial sauce bottles and all synthetic aids to flavoring…Sherry is a good addition, but should be used in cooking with the utmost discretion; it is useless to think that the addition of a large glass of poor sherry to the contents of a tin of soup is going to disguise it.”

And I love David’s short paragraph at the end of her “Batterie de Cuisine” section, after she has spent five or six pages detailing essential kitchen tools: “Some sensible person once remarked that you spend the whole of your life either in your bed or your shoes. Having done the best you can by shoes and bed, devote all the time and resources at your disposal to the building up of a fine kitchen. It will be, as it should be, the most comforting and comfortable room in the house.”

If I were ever to teach writing again, I’d include excerpts from these writers along with my favorite essays of George Orwell and Adam Gopnik and some of William Logan’s biting, accurate, and fearless evisceration of contemporary poets (analysis and praise, too, when warranted). The command of grammar (Marcella Hazan, not even a native speaker, makes excellent use of the subjunctive, and Elizabeth David uses the slippery semi-colon perfectly), the passion and the richness of their prose make reading their books not only instructive but pure pleasure for those who love words as much as food.

In case you might want to create the syllabus for such a ravishing course, the selections above are from The Classic Italian Cookbook, Marcella Hazan; Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One, Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck; and French Country Cooking, Elizabeth David. From Orwell’s essays I’d include “How the Poor Die,” “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” “Revenge is Sour,” “Reflections on Ghandi,” and “Such, Such Were the Joys,” in addition the much anthologized (but perhaps slightly too didactic “Politics and the English Language.” Some of these are hard to find, but available in the four volume set of letters and essays, which is worth owning. My favorite Gopnik essays include “Last of the Metrozoids,” “The Rules of the Sport,” “Barney in Paris,” and “Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli.” These are available in Paris to the Moon and Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York. You can often find William Logan’s criticism online in “The New Criterion,” as well as his books: Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue and The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin.


Pear Tart and Poetry

I’ve written a lot about food and cooking, and wrote this poem after
making a Julia Child tart.

Loaves and Fishes

This weekend, while I poach the perfect pears
in wine and sugar and ginger,
while I bake paté brisée, whip
crème anglaise with its spice-imbued milk,
carefully slice crescents of cooled, softened pear,
and layer them in geometric circles,
armies of hungry children roam the streets
for trash to eat
somewhere far from here.

I know they’re out there.
My whole generation had to finish
what was on our plates
because children were starving
in India, as if we had to eat
for everyone.

If I could, I would take
this perfect tart and transform it
into loaves and fishes. I don’t pretend
to understand why it’s fallen to me,
this cornucopia of succulent fruit,
of scapes and green garlic, tender baby
lettuces spread on folding tables
at outdoor markets four days a week,
while others probe gutters for crusts.

I think if I were out there, scrabbling
for enough to eat, I would be cunning
and merciless. I would be one
who survives.

Meryl Natchez

Cheap Eats

It occurs to me that along with a ruinous national debt, we’re leaving our children untold reams of blather that they’ll have to pick through to find any useful advice. So I’m going to post at least some practical information here. For example, how to eat very well and very cheaply, assuming you cook at all. The key is good stock. Stock is simple, it’s made from the cheapest meat and vegetable matter you can buy, and you can freeze it and add it to beans, rice, sauces, or make tasty soup or stew quickly.

I’ve read a lot of recipes for stock, but you don’t need a recipe. You can make it from almost anything. Chicken stock is my favorite because it’s light and versatile—and Jewish penicillin, of course. If you don’t have a place where you can buy chicken feet or necks or other bony pieces, you can start with the bones of cooked chicken you’ve eaten (even from KFC) and maybe some wings or thighs. Take a couple of pounds of bones and meat and add enough water to cover them along with a tablespoon or two of vinegar. Bring to a simmer, and then lower to just below boiling. Cook for awhile—at least an hour, but more if you like. Then add vegetables. These can be trimmings—the skins and roots and stalks and greens of onions, carrots, celery—the parts you would throw away. You can (one of my favorite methods) just keep your pot on the back of the stove, and throw in the leavings from whatever vegetables you’re using, and bring it to the almost boil for at least 15 minutes a day over a few days time. Or if you’re in a hurry and want to make good stock fast, cut up and add a whole onion, a couple of carrots, some celery, whatever, leaves, peels, etc.  Cook for at least an hour, but no upward limit really.  You can ladle out some stock and strain it into whatever you’re making. For example, put a ladle full of stock into your rice water to add flavor.  Or you can decide you’re done. Then strain the stock, and let it cook down to concentrate (without actually boiling). If it’s fatty, let it cool in the fridge overnight and peel off the top layer of fat. They heat it slightly, put it in ice cube trays, and freeze it.  You have cubes of instant flavor.

There are now great covered ice cube trays with rubbery bottoms that make it easy to pop out a cube or two or twelve whenever you want to make sauce or stew or add flavor to anything on the stove. You can buy these from Amazon—is it still ok to buy from Amazon? they seem to own the world.

If you like beef stock, do the same thing with beef bones; for fish, use heads and tails. You can make plain vegetable stock the same way, just no bones or vinegar. Corn cobs are a great addition to stock, the hearts of celery or cauliflower, carrot tops, onion skins. I’ve even thrown in avocado skins.

If you like your stock rich and dark, roast whatever you’re starting with in the oven for about 45 minutes at 425 degrees first, so it slightly carmelizes before you start simmering (nice to add at least one whole onion). That’s what I did with the fish in this picture.

The only somewhat gross thing about stock is getting rid of the remains that you’ve strained out. These can get smelly if you don’t get them out of the house, especially if you’re using fish heads and tails. More about this when I show you my amazing compost blaster. But this is enough practicality for one day.