30 Mar The Poached Beauty
I’ve always loved eggs, any which way they come – be they ‘pooched, bollid, scrimbled, or flied’, as one classic Indian breakfast menu once presented it. Few things can compete for my King of Breakfasts title better than Sri Lankan Egg Hoppers with chili and onion sambals, or perhaps Eggs Florentine, although both Huevos Rancheros – the Mexican mix of eggs on a flour tortilla with a chili-tomato salsa – or the Middle-Eastern Chatchouka – eggs cooked with peppers and tomatoes – are good contenders. Nor should we forget the myriad ways in which our French friends have elevated the humble egg to more sophisticated realms with Oeufs en Meurette (poached in red wine), Oeufs en Cocotte (baked with cream), or Oeufs en Gelee, set in a stock-flavoured jelly for picnics, let alone the great Spanish tortilla and Italian frittata.
My passion for eggs started young. We kept a few bantams, the diminutive eggs, with their deep orange yolks, becoming the departure point for my first forays into cooking when I was about ten, often soft-boiling up to six at a time and devouring them with stacks of buttered ‘soldiers’. I recall my mother voicing concerns about my soaring cholesterol in the days when it was deemed safe only to eat two eggs in a week, but shrugged this off as the protein demands of a growing lad. (We now know that the eggs are not the problem but the saturated fats we may cook them with – eggs fried in oil, scrambled with butter etc.)
With an evolving foodie fixation at university, I saw the wisdom of shifting my skills from frying to poaching, recognizing the healthy purity of the Poacher. Like so many who have taken to this culinary challenge, my early efforts were disastrous, salvaging grey-yellow Stormtrooper helmets from strands of white froth and gloop. Keen to persevere, I sought advice, adopting my grandmother’s addition of some vinegar to the water and the introduction of the ‘whirlpool’, the time honoured technique of whisking the water to create a vortex, thus encouraging the white to centrifugally form around the yolk. At least in theory.
As time passed, I dropped the vinegar, realizing that the freshness of the egg was the most fundamental requirement of all. I also dropped the ‘whirlpool’, which merely created a mess when poaching a number of eggs at once. In fact, dare I say it, I was soon in the Delia Smith camp, using a little water in a frying pan and just dropping the eggs in carefully and close to the water to create my perfect Poached Beauty.
When my cooking passions turned professional, I learned that the Poached Beauty is often regarded as the acid test for a prospective apprentice, hearing how the Roux brothers road-tested novice chefs at Le Gavroche by asking them to poach a dozen eggs in a pan simultaneously, thereby assessing their mastery of temperature. The basic methods behind the perfect Poached Beauty do reveal wide discrepancies between prominent chefs, some calling for salt for example, others citing it as an active contributor to the dispersal of the white.
Only recently, after years of sticking to my tried and tested methods, did I come across something to challenge their efficacy. Where else should this come than from Elizabeth David, who recommends parboiling the egg in it’s shell for 30 seconds before cracking into a bowl and poaching. This allows the proteins around the edge of the albumen white to bind together and produce what is in her eyes the critical component – the translucent veil of white across the yolk, ‘a transparent Veil for the Egg’, as first identified by the Regency eccentric and gastronome Dr Kitchiner, in his culinary classic from 1829, The Cook’s Oracle. As with all Elizabeth David’s recipes, it works a dream and allowed me to produce fourteen Poached Beauties from one large shallow frying pan on Christmas Day.
For me, few things have the versatility of the Poached Beauty, or the potential to contribute such unexpected delight to a dish; whether floating in a soup, nestled in the leaves of a salad, or breaking open over wilted greens on toast, the Poached Beauty will forever live up to it’s name. For some reason, it never fails to impress, especially when served in bed.
How to: Poach a Beauty
Warm fresh eggs under a running hot tap, gently lower into boiling water for 30 seconds, then remove and reserve until ready for poaching.
Crack the parboiled eggs into small bowls and then drop the egg gently into boiling water at the surface (a gentle thribble, not a raging boil).
Lower the heat and simmer until the white has formed the all-important ‘transparent Veil’.
Remove your Poached Beauties with slotted spoon and serve.
(On toast, spread with harissa and a pile of wilted greens like chard, spinach or cavolo nero – my current favourite pairing with the Beauty).