SURE AS EGGS

Ultimate omelettes for unexpected guests
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Indy Lifestyle Online
To have arrived windswept and famished on Mont-St-Michel and been nourished by one of Mme Poulard's plain omelettes must have been a rare experience. Quite apart from using the freshest of local eggs and plenty of the best butter - the oft-quoted secret of her success - such omelettes are something of an art to produce, which means they are good only in the hands of the right cook.

I suspect there are many successful techniques for producing a fine omelette, rather than any single one: I would list the confidence of the cook as the third ingredient. But what I like most about the story of Mme Poulard is the reason she turned out so many omelettes in the first place.

When Annette and Victor Poulard opened the Hotel Saint Michel Tete D'Or there was no causeway to the mainland and visitors were few. Then, when the causeway was repaired, the influx of guests swelled, though unpredictably depending on the weather and the tide.

The story has it that Mme Poulard's maids would stand on the ramparts and try and assess through binoculars how many visitors were approaching. Eggs, butter and pan were ready and waiting when they arrived. For my part, I find it's usually a phone call that sets off an omelette alert rather than gazing down the street with binoculars.

Rather than plain, thin omelettes, I find myself making the large, thick variety, with various adjuncts in the way of vegetables, melted cheese and sauces. I have always loved Spanish omelettes, baked Persian ones and frittatas. And open ones, not dissimilar from Omelette Arnold Bennett with its covering layer of creamy haddock and melted Gruyere.

I have a wonderful book called The Omelette Book, by Narcissa Chamberlain, published in 1956, written with the tone of a "grande dame". It's beautifully illustrated with line drawings not dissimilar to John Minton's work, though sadly there are no details of the illustrator. It contains over 300 recipes, all of which I'd like to mention - such as anchovy omelette au croutons, brandade of codfish omelette, and others with Chinese lobster, venison liver, squash blossoms, as well as almond souffle, and rum apricot. Perhaps somebody could think about reprinting this book, although I believe it's still available in the US.

I now make a special journey to buy my eggs, the final straw being a trip to a supermarket where the eggs tasted resonantly of fish. Ever since, I have made a point of seeking out Martin Pitt's organic eggs, or at least going to a wholefood outlet that I trust.

I am sure, in the long term, the switch to the new sizes will simplify the buying of eggs. In the short term, though, the old number system does not neatly divide into the new categories. Roughly speaking, you can assume that sizes 0 and 1 correspond to very large, 2 and 3 to large, 4 and 5 to medium and 6 and 7 to small. I've settled on large as the most useful size as you'll see from the recipes.

On to technique. I prefer to beat the eggs very lightly, until they are just blended, and, in cooking them, I find the great essential is to err on the side of undercooking. If you stop cooking at the moment you think they are perfectly set, they will be overcooked by the time you eat them. An inner creaminess is as important as the tenderness of the lightly coloured blanket on the outside. Speed, too, that's the bit that comes with practice.

Crispy potato omelette, serves 3-4

This is the traditional potatoes, onions and eggs, classically a Spanish omelette, rearranged with crispy potatoes and caramelised onions on top of the eggs. Egg and chips is another way of looking at it.

400g/14 oz new potatoes

extra virgin olive oil

400g/14 oz onions, peeled, halved and sliced

sea salt, black pepper

9 large eggs

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Peel the potatoes and cook until tender, drain into a sieve and allow surface water to evaporate, then slice them.

While the potatoes are boiling, fry the onions. Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a 25.5cm/10" frying pan and cook over a lowish heat until soft and caramelised, stirring frequently. Reserve in a bowl.

Heat a little more olive oil in the pan and saute the potatoes until they are nice and crispy, turn them regularly and season. Once they are cooked, add the onions to heat through. Remove the potatoes and onions to a bowl - these need to be warm when you add them to the omelette.

Preheat the grill. Whisk the eggs with seasoning for about 30 seconds until just blended. Tip into the hot frying pan and scramble with a fork until they begin to set. Leave the pan on the heat for about one minute, scatter the potatoes and onions on top of the omelette and place under the grill for a minute or two until the egg on the surface begins to colour, if you stick a knife into the centre it should still be a little runny. Serve straight away in wedges.

Souffled spinach and fontina omelette, serves 3

These omelettes are very light. Ideally use fontina or raclette, which will meld in with the foamy egg. Failing this use Gruyere.

250g/9 oz spinach

3 tbsp double cream

sea salt, black pepper, nutmeg

5 large eggs plus 1 egg yolk

20g/34oz unsalted butter

110g/4oz grated fontina or Gruyere

Wash the spinach and cook in a covered saucepan with the water that clings to its leaves. Drain into a sieve pressing out the excess water and chop. Return to a smaller saucepan with the cream, salt, pepper and nutmeg and beat until the cream has been absorbed.

Lightly beat three whole eggs and three egg yolks in a bowl. Whisk two egg whites in another bowl until just stiff and fold into the beaten eggs, and season.

Heat a 25.5cm/10" frying pan, and a knob of butter and when this melts add a third of the eggs and scramble very briefly with a fork. Spoon over some of the spinach and scatter over some cheese. Using a palette knife or a spatula, flick one side of the omelette into the middle, then roll the omelette over and out onto a plate. It should be lightly coloured on the outside and foamy on the inside, and the cheese melted. Cook the remaining omelettes in the same way.

Artichoke and wild mushroom omelette with Bearnaise sauce, serves 3- 4

I can think of few better uses for springtime morel mushrooms, but chanterelle will do nicely. The instructions for this sound lengthy, but it's all said and done within 30 minutes.

white wine vinegar for acidulation

3 artichokes

25g/loz unsalted butter

150g/5oz chanterelles or other wild mushrooms

9 large eggs

Sauce:

2 tbsp tarragon vinegar

1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped

sea salt, black pepper

3 large egg yolks

175 g/6 oz unsalted butter, melted

2 tsp finely chopped tarragon

Bring a medium-size pan of water to the boil and acidulate it with the vinegar. Have a bowl of acidulated water to hand for the artichokes as you pare them. Break off the stalk of each artichoke, and cut away the base and sides to reveal the pale flesh. Dip this in the acidulated water as you work. Slice off the top to just above the choke and reserve in the acidulated water.

Boil the pared artichokes for 15 minutes or until a knife inserts easily into the base. Remove and drain them leaf-side down. Once cool enough to handle, remove the leaves and choke, tidy up the sides of the heart with a knife and scrape away the pitted layer. Slice and reserve.

To make the sauce, place the tarragon vinegar, the shallot and seasoning in a small saucepan and reduce by half to a syrup. Strain the reduction, rinse out the pan and return sauce to the saucepan. Once this is cool, whisk it with the egg yolks. Warm gently over a low heat, then start to whisk in the melted butter, just a few drops at a time to begin with, as though making a mayonnaise: discard the last little milky bit of butter. Pour sauce into a bowl, stir in the tarragon and keep in a warm place.

Heat the grill to make the omelette. Melt 20g/34oz of the butter in a 25.5 cm/10" frying pan and cook the mushrooms, seasoning them towards the end; if they give out liquid, keep cooking until it evaporates. Remove, add the artichoke and cook until this colours. Combine the artichokes and mushrooms - these need to be warm when you add them to the omelette.

Whisk the eggs for about 30 seconds with seasoning until just blended, add remaining 5g/14oz butter to the pan, when foam subsides pour in eggs, scramble with a fork until beginning to set. Leave on the heat for 1 minute and scatter mushrooms and artichokes over the top. Place under the grill for a minute or two until the top starts turning gold, the inside should still be a little runny if you pierce it with a knife. Serve with the Bearnaise sauce.

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