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the tragedy of very expensive scrambled eggs
october 11, 2003
This past week, Mary and I have been trying new recipes in anticipation of our annual visit from Joe, Mary's dad, during the year-end holidays (Joe's currently traveling through the Northwest, visiting family. Hi, Joe!).
Each time Joe visits, we set up a conceit, for the amusement of the three of us, that our home is in fact a hotel, and specifically, The Hotel Noel.
We leave toiletry samplers in his bathroom, a small box of chocolates on his pillow, and print the hotel's menu, complete with the sort of descriptions one would expect to find on a restaurant's menu. The menu itself is an elegant, stiff-papered folio listing the hotel's offerings.
Dishes the three of us especially enjoy always appear on the menu, such as steamed lobster, Mary's sea scallops in cream and basil sauce, Eggs Benedict. During each year prior to Joe's next visit, we come up with new dishes, testing them in our kitchen.
So this week, we tried three candidates for the menu, two dinner items and one brunch item, and along the way discovered a fourth dish, which we had originally planned just as a new dish for ourselves, but which turned out so well we're adding it to the hotel's menu.
One thing we wanted to do this year was expand the number of brunch choices offered by the hotel. Most mornings, the three of us just have different breads and imported butters for breakfast, or pastries with our coffee, but we thought it would be nice to at least offer some fancier options. We came up with several more elaborate brunch items, all of which were successful, and this past Monday tested another, Eggs Mornay.
Eggs Mornay can be made a number of different ways (I even found one variant on the Internet which uses hard-boiled eggs), but essentially Mornay is a toasted English muffin half, a slice of Canadian bacon laid on the muffin, topped with a poached egg, draped with a Swiss cheese-flavored white sauce.
I don't know if I've ever actually had Eggs Mornay, but I'd heard of it over the years, and in trying to come up with a brunch item I thought, Well, why not give it a try? Once I read the actual recipe I was a bit disappointed. It didn't sound that unusual, plus it was rather close, in structure at least, to another brunch item, Eggs Benedict, the hotel already served.
But we tried it.
For those of you who might not know, a "white sauce" is a French roux, meaning butter melted in a saucepan, to which flour is added, the two ingredients, a golden paste, cooked together for a few minutes, then milk added. The thickness of the sauce is determined by the proportion of the three ingredients. You can then further flavor the sauce by simmering a clove-studded onion in it.
I say French roux because there's a variation on the traditional French roux which was developed in New Orleans. In the variation, oil is used instead of butter, since oil has a higher temperature tolerance, and the oil and flour are cooked for a much longer period of time, often half an hour or longer. Cooking the roux this long produces a wonderful, complex flavor.
I've never been a big fan of French roux, and in fact when we made the white sauce for the Eggs Mornay, and added the shredded Swiss cheese, the sauce thickened unpleasantly, to where it was almost a spackle. In addition, as I suspected it would, the finished sauce had a strong, floury taste to it, not the most pleasant taste for poached eggs, or anything else.
So we abandoned the recipe. We could have tinkered with the dish, but since the end result would have to be a Swiss cheese flavor on poached eggs, to be true to the recipe's concept, and that concept didn't really seem that exciting, why bother?
We currently offer Lobster Thermidor at the hotel, served on toast points, and wanted to expand to a Newburg dish.
Since Thermidor and Newburg sauces are not that different (both sauces are driven by cream and Sherry), we thought we'd offer the Newburg with shrimp and sea scallops instead of lobster.
We tried one Newburg recipe, but again it featured a French roux as the sauce's base, and again, our feeling, trying the dish, was that it just wasn't up to the hotel's standards. It wasn't horrible, but it didn't have that velvety texture you expect from a Newburg.
Since we did like the concept of a Newburg sauce on shrimp and sea scallops, we decided to go with a more difficult recipe, one where the completion of the sauce, its slight thickening, depends on emulsification (egg yolk, butter, cream) rather than flour, in other words, a 'bound sauce'.
Bound sauces to me are always superior to flour-based sauces, lighter in texture, more flavorful and with a better mouth-feel, but they are tricky. Unless they're blended and heated just right, the sauce will 'break', meaning the milk solids in the butter will separate from the butter's oils, creating an unpleasant mess, and if you don't incorporate the egg yolks just right, you wind up with what Julia Child has referred to as 'very expensive scrambled eggs'.
But we tried it, and it worked fine.
Next, we had to decide how to present the seafood Newburg on the plate.
Traditionally, you'd use toast points, but we were doing that already with Lobster Thermidor, so we needed something different.
We decided to use puff pastry to create a heart-shaped vase, into which we would pour the seafood Newburg, with a heart-shaped lid to place beside the vase.
Again, it worked fine. So we have that dish ready.
Another dish we wanted to offer was a veal dish served in a cream sauce with crawfish.
We tried one recipe a month or so ago, which called for veal tournedos (deboned veal rib chops) and Chanterelle mushrooms (which currently sell for about fifty dollars a pound). Like a lot of recipes that require expensive ingredients, where the expense of the ingredients is apparently supposed to be enough justification for the dish itself, the recipe simply didn't work. The end result, plated and quite pretty, was bland.
So this past week we tested a variation with veal scaloppini, one written by Paul Prudhomme, whose dishes are usually quite good, and although the end result was all right, it just didn't have that extra oomph that would qualify it for our menu.
So we're still searching for a good veal dish. We have a completely different direction we'll try in another week or so, which combines veal and chicken with teleme, an Italian cheese, in a classic cannelloni, and we're looking at other veal recipes as well.
The meal we made this week which we expected to just be for us, but which actually turned out to be quite good, worthy of inclusion on the hotel's menu, is a chicken breast dish in which halved breasts are breaded and flavored, simmered in olive oil, then served with a sage butter sauce. We got the recipe from a free sample magazine we received in the mail, Cuisine at Home.
Previously, we tried the magazine's meatball recipe, which calls for beef broth mixed with the meatballs, and the meatballs themselves baked in a bath of beef broth, an unusual twist which worked well. Since the chicken breasts in sage butter recipe from the magazine also turned out well, we signed up for a subscription.
You have to go through a lot of recipes to find a few good ones.
Most of my evenings I've been working on a new section of SENTENCE which will be devoted to stroke information.
When Mary had her stroke in April of 2002, I of course went on the Internet to try to find as much information as I could, and although there are some good sites out there, most sites I came across only covered one aspect or another of a stroke, so that to get a full picture, you could spend quite a while searching.
In the time since Mary's stroke, I've also heard from a number of stroke patients and, especially, caregivers, asking me if I knew where they could get more information.
So the new section will hopefully serve as a "one-stop" source for basic stroke information, all of it compiled from reliable medical sources. What causes a stroke, the different types of stroke, what are the standard treatments, including medical, therapeutic and pharmaceutical treatments, what is aphasia, how is it treated, etc. The section will also include a glossary of stroke-related terms, and links to resources on the Internet.
The section will be about 5,000 words long.
I may also include an option where people can post their own experiences, in the hopes that might help others.
Once it's up, in a week or two, it'll be a subsection of the Marginalia section.