I have no problem readily admitting when I’m wrong.
Once I recognized their culinary versatility, I started admiring eggs. In his latest cookbook, Ruhlman’s Twenty, Michael Ruhlman devotes one of his twenty techniques to the egg. In the introduction of the chapter, Ruhlman eloquently writes, “…there’s no ingredient a cook can bring more honor to than the humble, ubiquitous egg. The egg is the perfect food—an inexpensive package dense with nutrients and exquisite flavor, a food that’s both easily and simply prepared and also virtually unmatched in terms of versatility in the kitchen.”
As Ruhlman points out, the egg is a meal, an ingredient, a garnish, and a tool.
Further evidence of the egg’s esteem can be found on the food-based competitive reality tv show Top Chef. At least once a season chef-testants are presented with one sole egg for a Quickfire Challenge. The chefs that master the egg usually end up in the finale or get pretty close to it.
The egg only became a vital necessity in our fridge when our family doctor prescribed a gluten free diet for my husband. Panicked about finding gluten free condiments and figuring out quick GF meals, the egg became my savior. Michael Ruhlman’s mayonnaise recipe in Ratio ensured at least one GF condiment would always be in our fridge while we learned what store-purchased condiments didn’t include any wheat, barley, or rye.
And an egg over-easy with some fruit and GF bacon became a quick staple for a high-protein breakfast or lunch. Then I turned to my favorite egg recipe, the good ol’ Frittata, to pile in even more nutrients from vegetables for super-fast dinners.
I am constantly looking for those recipes that are versatile enough to include almost everything in the fridge. As someone who buys seasonal produce from local farmers and has several friends with gardens, I’m constantly calculating ways to use all the produce in our fridge on any given day. I can basically put everything but the kitchen sink in a frittata, and it’s light enough for those on a diet and versatile enough for those with food allergies (excluding egg allergies, of course). Served with a salad, a buttered piece of toast, or roasted potatoes, the frittata is my go-to dish for cook-aheads, travel snacks, and brunch. It’s perfect for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It can include as little as cheese and onions or as much as potatoes, kale, shallots, garlic, hot peppers, crumbled sausage and parsley. In the summer, it’s ideal for picnics and in the winter it’s comforting with roasted root vegetables. Frittatas were in heavy rotation when I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and they quickly re-entered my monthly recipe planning as a gluten free home cook.
However, I can’t honestly say that frittatas made me love eggs.
Really, it’s The Girls who nurtured my awe for the egg. Since Sarah and I have been friends, many dozens of our eggs came from her four laying hens, The Girls, as we affectionately call them. This past summer while the Lenz’s were on vacation, I cared for their cats and The Girls. It was my first time taking care of chickens, and apart from the day I chased two of them around the yard like a mad woman, desperately trying to get them back in their poultry palace after some free-range time during which they ate worms in the compost pile and bathed themselves in the lawn’s bare spots, it was a gratifying experience. I felt humbled the first day as caretaker when, near dawn, I harvested three warm eggs from their nest. Few times is the notion “farm-to-table” so visibly put into action, but during that humid week, I encountered it daily. One late morning I made a frittata from their just-laid eggs, and while beating the electric-orange yolks with their lively whites and a slash of milk, I was aware in the moment, much like I am when I’m practicing pranayama during yoga. Each step became meaningful and clearly part of a chain, a chain of which I was only a small part. What an honor to harvest those fragile little spheres and then cook a fresh, nutritional meal with them. The cycle of life is a precious thing. The moment I pulled that frittata from the oven, I realized the egg is worthy of its metaphor for life. Namaste.
Frittata(recipe adapted from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Miracle, Vegetable)
Seriously, you can put almost any vegetable, type of cheese, or cooked meat in a frittata. I’ve even added shredded pieces from leftover roasted chicken with crumbled goat cheese and chives. Leftover braised pork shoulder or beef roast work well too. Of course, bacon and ham are my favorite choices for brunch. To finish almost-empty jars of olives or chutneys, to find a purpose for that lone baked potato from last night’s dinner, or even to use beet greens I couldn’t bear to toss out, I turn to the frittata. Don’t be afraid to get creative; the frittata can handle it. But if I want something light and easy, chopped onion, thinly sliced kale leaves, and feta is delightful. For me, the onion is always a must.
Olive oil, enough to coat an oven-safe skillet (preferably an iron skillet)
1 T butter
salt and pepper
½ cup of milk
1 small onion or shallot, chopped
Seasonal vegetable of your choice (kale, for me, please!)
Feta or other cheese (optional)
Meat and anything-but-the-kitchen-sink (optional)
Preheat oven to 350.
Season skillet with olive oil. Melt butter over medium heat.
Add onions to skillet. Cook until softened, almost brown, about 5 minutes.
Add leafy greens or vegetables. Cook 1-5 minutes depending on the vegetable.
Beat milk and eggs together, then pour into skillet. Add cheese and cooked meat, if desired. Stir mixture slightly. Turn heat down to low without stirring until the eggs are mostly set, about 5 minutes. The frittata will become firm around the edges of the pan. Transfer to oven and bake for 10 minutes, until top becomes golden. Cool slightly to before serving.
At the end of an early morning vinyasa yoga class, as I lay on my sticky mat in savasana or corpse pose, the instructor told us, “Think of the energy you have generated this morning. Think of the heat and fire inside of you.” Flat on my back, I felt both aware of my body and detached from it, training it to relax into the floor, to rest after the previous hour of contortions and stretches. Then the instructor read an excerpt from Deborah Adele’s The Yamas & the Niyamas, the chapter in which she discusses tapas. (Tapas, in the yogic sense of the word has nothing to do with the Spanish bar snacks.) Adele writes, “Tapas has the sense of ‘cooking’ ourselves in the fire of discipline to transform ourselves into something else.” Then my instructor explained that allowing tapas to work in our lives changes us just as heat changes the form of an egg. Even before this metaphor, I loved eggs above any other ingredient in the kitchen.
The textural diversity of eggs alone astonishes: the pleasant toothy rubberiness and thick chalkiness of one hardboiled; the creaminess of one scrambled; the soft, silky sauce of one over easy; the crisp, lacy-brown edges of one fried; the hefty crunch of one meraingued.
When I think of ways I cultivate discipline, they too are as diverse as my egg cooking methods. Lately, I’ve renewed my interest in yoga to stay limber to counter painful tension in my neck and shoulders. I wake early every morning to write after the ritual of a pot of tea and a breakfast of eggs (sometimes fried, sometimes scrambled). I’ve recently joined a Quaker spiritual formation group that keeps me accountable as I try to nurture gratitude, mindfulness, and compassion in my life. My husband I devote one night a week to date night, a time for us to reconnect.
These daily and weekly habits lead to a slow and steady transformation, like a patient soft poached egg. I fail at discipline, repeatedly, and life gets overwhelming sometimes, but I keep coming back to the daily routine of cooking to balance me.
That’s how it is with making a soufflé. Classic French cooking is all about the finesse of balance: finding the perfect spot between stability and loft. Julia Child adored soufflés, and like everything she cooked, took a no nonsense approach to the dish known best for its temperamental behavior. “You must discipline the egg whites,” she explained to her T.V. audience on The French Chef. She held a balloon whisk clamped in her fist, forearm muscles, flexed and taunt.
Discipline transforms. So, the soufflé, more than anything, is a symbol of transformation. First, soufflés show character. They take bravery and fortitude because they are notorious for collapsing on themselves in a soggy mess. Also, in the process of making a soufflé, you take the most banal ingredients (eggs, milk, butter, flour) and turn them into something elegant and flashy. A soufflé is theatrical as it emerges from the oven, a puff ball slowly deflating to a rich, cheesy cloud of egg, golden around the edges.
The puffery of a soufflé is symbolic. It announces to diners: Here’s a cook that is unruffled by the fear of failure, who refuses to be cowed by perfectionism, who goes about the practice of separating the eggs, beating the egg whites, making the roux with a humble confidence. Each movement is a practice in mindfulness. The roux can’t get too dark. Care must be taken when the milk is added so lumps don’t form. The egg whites must not be overbeaten. The folding of the egg whites into the thick, milky roux mixture must be at once show gentleness and conviction. In the ritual, I find calm. I find meaning.
A woman from my Quaker group put it best, “For you, Sarah, the Divine speaks to you through food.” Cooking is spiritual. Knowing how to get the ratio right, knowing what still needs work, and coming to an authentic place where all parts of my being are melded together is just as much about my soul as it about a good soufflé.
Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck (1961).
The most important aspect of this recipe is having the correct size baking dish. A too large dish doesn’t force the soufflé to rise properly, and a too small dish is an oven disaster. The best I’ve found is a 1.5 quart French White casserole dish made by CorningWare. You also need to have precise oven temperatures, so an oven thermometer is invaluable. And, finally, I encourage the use of a stand mixer for the egg white beating, unless of course you’re working on toning your forearms.
3 T butter + extra for buttering the soufflé dish
3 T flour
1 cup milk
½ tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
A pinch of cayenne pepper
A pinch of nutmeg
4 egg yolks
¾ cup mixture of grated Swiss and Parmesan cheese + extra for lining soufflé dish and sprinkling
5 egg whites
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter soufflé dish and sprinkle with cheese. Set aside.
Heat milk to a boil.
In a separate saucepan, melt butter. Add flour and cook over medium heat until butter and flour foam together for two minutes without browning. Remove from heat. Pour in boiling milk all at once, while whisking vigorously. Beat in salt, pepper, cayenne, and nutmeg. Return to a boil over medium heat, while stirring, for one minute. Remove from heat.
Mix egg yolks and cheese to milk/flour mixture and set aside.
Place the egg whites and a pinch of salt in a separate, perfectly clean, dry bowl and beat with electric mixer until stiff.
Take about a fourth of the egg whites and mix well with the milk/flour mixture. Fold in the rest of the egg whites, gently.
Turn the soufflé mixture into the prepared mold, smooth the top, and lightly sprinkle with more cheese. Place on the center rack of the oven. Immediately turn oven down to 375 degrees and bake 30 to 35 minutes, or until the soufflé has puffed and is golden brown.
(Take heart. Even if your soufflé doesn’t rise, it will still taste delicious.)