Friday, April 15, 2016

Omelets and Memories

My maiden Demeyere omelet: ham, cheese, and mushrooms.

Making a familiar meal is a comforting routine; everything usually goes according to plan and the results meet or beat my expectations. It's fun to try something new and learn as I go, too. But cooking becomes exhilarating to me as my chances of culinary disaster increase. This is me we're talking about, remember, so it doesn't take much. Just put me near a hot stove, hot pans, and ingredients I can ruin through poor judgment, ignorance, klutziness, or a moment's inattention.

I'm thoroughly enjoying my new Demeyere cookware. I like its shapes and handles, its satisfying weight — heavy but not killer like cast iron), and how neatly I can pour from the saucepans. I like just looking at it: it's more silvery-white than other steel cookware, and it seems I'm attracted to bright, shiny objects the way crows are. I even like scrubbing it with Bar Keepers Friend.

Cooking with it is a pleasure. It heats quickly and is sensitive to temperature changes — more responsive than my old Gaggenau glass electric cooktop, in fact. Now I want a different kind of stove, but I'm not getting one.

After a lifetime of using nonstick pans, I'm still learning how to cook with steel. (Nothing horrible has happened yet, but it will, sooner or later, and I'll tell you all about it.) Among other things, my omelet technique, still needs work although they have turned out fine so far.

I know that many serious cooks will resort to a nonstick pan for cooking eggs. But when am I ever serious?

But you are lazy, you say.

That's true: at the I Can't Be Bothered School of Cooking I learned sleazy tricks and shortcuts I'm sworn never to reveal. But I'm also stubborn. I began making omelets at 17, taught by Archie, the owner of a tiny French restaurant in my hometown. It was the only French restaurant for miles, and I was its sole waitress, dishwasher, and salad girl in the summer before I left for college. Omelets were a staple on the menu, along with onion soup and a fancier special du jour, like bouillabaisse. My omelet lesson was the only time I was allowed near the stove in his kitchen. Archie had Teflon pans, but keep in mind it was the '70s.

The 70s are over, so I figure it's time I learned to make omelets the traditional way. Using a "sticky" steel skillet is a tricky business so it all feels new again. Maybe even a bit like being 17 again. But now I have far fewer pots and dishes to wash, I don't have to take orders from people, and no one is screaming, throwing saucepans, or plotting murder (some things never change in restaurant kitchens). I also don't missing having to stand at every table holding a chalkboard while customers made up their minds, Archie being too cheap to print menus. But I got a ton of tips then, compared to now.

One of the restaurant's steel and glass fridges sat right in the middle of the kitchen. Its coils were exposed and it wasn't grounded, so it would shock us when we brushed against it or opened it. I wore Adidas tennis shoes for protection but they barely helped. I hated that fridge. Now that I think about it, those shocks could be why I hit my intellectual and emotional peak as a high-school senior, and have been steadily deteriorating in most ways ever since. I suppose the shocks could have been therapeutic, making me less crazy now instead than more, but I don't think so. At least I didn't touch the fridge with my head most of the time, although the floor was slippery so we fell and skidded a lot. (The whole kitchen was pretty filthy and grease-laden until we shut down for two hot days in August to do the annual cleaning, one of the most disgusting jobs I have ever done.)

But I digress. Back to omelets.

Mine start with four to six eggs at room temperature. Very fresh eggs taste different from older eggs. I learned this the summer after college, when I shopped at an Amish farmstand in Lanscaster, Pennsylvania. New eggs have a bit more flavor, a sweeter taste that dissipates over time. Around Boston, Wilson Farms sells fresh eggs for a reasonable price. Or you can pay a fortune at the farmer's markets; I can't. More power to them, but I can't.

I whisk the eggs with a splash of milk or water, and add salt, pepper, and maybe some herbs.

Mise en place is essential for omelets cooked in a steel pan, so I use some of my egg-warming time to set everything I'll need by the stove, including butter and an old plastic spatula I stole from my parents in 1977, probably the most rewarding criminal act I've ever committed. I feel guilty every time I use it and the big serrated cake knife I also stole, but not much.

For me, an omelet must have sliced or grated cheese — plenty of gooey, melty cheese. Or what's the point? We also like shredded Danish or pepper ham if we have any. I often sauté mushrooms in butter and oil with a wee splash of sherry — practically the only alcohol my stomach tolerates. If there are garden tomatoes, I'll use those. Everything gets laid out on a plate or cutting board so I can grab it when I need it. If I'm smart, I make the salad now, and put my nifty new dressing bottle and tongs nearby. Ideally I've also remembered to slice a baguette or put some bread in the toaster. I got a butter crock for Christmas so we always have soft butter, which is life-changing.

I'll put two dinner plates on the counter; I make one large omelet, turn it onto a plate and then split it.

I begin by heating my 9" Demeyere skillet on medium-high while it's empty (a bit of thrill right there since one never dares do that with nonstick). I test its temperature with droplets of water and wait for the Leidenfrost Effect: when the droplets become spheres that race around the pan like mad. I always announce this with great excitement, and my husband looks up blankly from wherever he is. (Part of the Leidenfrost Effect that no one ever documents is that it can agitate the cook, too.) Now it's time to lower the heat a bit, count out ten seconds, add a chunk of butter, watch it melt and foam, and pour in the eggs.

Then I get busy. We like our omelets well-cooked, even a bit on the dry side, so I have to spread and move the eggs a lot while begging them not to stick. If I move them too little, they get tough and brown, impersonating a frittata while cementing themselves to the pan. If I move them too much, I get scrambled eggs. If I watch them like a hawk and move fast when I need to, I get an omelet.

I haven't done the research, but I think the eggs' stickiness is related to how hot the pan is and how much butter stays attached to its surface. Some people add melted butter when they mix their eggs; I need to look into that but it doesn't sound right to me. I think the trick is getting the pan temperature just right, so I suspect I'd have an easier time if I had a gas or induction cooktop, which would be far more responsive and controllable. I welcome any tips.

When the eggs are set to our liking, I run my stolen spatula all around underneath them for insurance. Ideally the omelet moves freely in the pan if I shake it. I turn off the heat. I often take the eggs off the burner to add cheese and so forth, and let it melt. I toast the bread and finish the salad.

Some people fold their omelets in half; I was taught to fold it in thirds as it slides out of the pan and onto the plate, in a neat roll with its edges tucked underneath. "Sliding" is key. In a new, slick, nonstick pan, it's effortless. My old Teflon pan wasn't so great so I've had practice with sticky eggs.

So far I've gotten a decent roll. The omelet pictured above is not perfect; I can do better. I garnish with grated parmesan, as was drilled into me by Archie. Omelets should be eaten warm. If I can't get ours to the table immediately, I cover it with the hot, overturned skillet until I'm ready to cut it in half and plate it with salad and bread.

We continue to exclaim at how much nicer omelets taste from the new skillet. Is it just be the greater amount of butter I need to use?  Maybe it's because our eggs are often fresher since I'm using up so many for chicken-egg-lemon soup nowadays. I don't know.  Whatever it is, it's good.

After we eat, I get to scrub my pan and admire it until I put it away.

2 comments:

  1. Interesting. I have never been ambitious enough to try making an omelet, as the process appeared a bit tricky. Maybe I should investigate further. The butter crock is something I have never heard of, but I found some on Amazon.ca. I will think about getting one the next time I order some stuff.

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  2. I bought a butter crock a few years ago but my butter kept sliding out of it. Now I just keep my butter on the counter in a glass container. we go through it fast enough that it has never been a problem.

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