Fixing omelet and honing skillet skills

October 23, 2002|By ROB KASPER

I THOUGHT I was merely trying to flip an omelet, but I was actually learning culinary principles.

That is what James Peterson told me a few days after I opened his latest cookbook and cracked a few eggs on a Sunday morning.

Peterson is a former chef and an award-winning cookbook author. He is also a man with big ideas in his head. One of his ideas is that the way you learn to cook is to master basic principles, not blindly follow recipes.

"If a cook understands what is going in a dish and how it relates to other similar dishes, he can cook from principles, not from recipes," Peterson told me.

Cooking is an art form, like painting or playing music, he said. You can play a piece of music by stiffly hitting all the notes, but the process doesn't really work, he said, "until you play it from your heart ... until you own the music."

Accordingly, Peterson's ideal cookbook would be one that had no recipes, but instead described cooking techniques and approaches to a dish.

His new cookbook, Glorious French Food (John Wiley & Sons, $45), does not quite live up to the no-recipe ideal, but it takes a step in that direction. Each of its 50 chapters focuses on a particular dish, then shows, with a variety of recipes, the various cooking techniques that can be used to prepare the dish.

Take, for instance, my Sunday morning omelet-making session. It was, according to Peterson's view, a lesson in how to handle eggs. There were, his book informed me, two classic ways to flip a French omelet: the traditional, or hit-the-skillet-handle, method and the rolled, or jerk-the-skillet, style. I tried both.

In the traditional method, I poured two tablespoons of cream in a bowl with three large eggs and beat them with a fork. Then I tossed a tablespoon of butter in a nonstick 7-inch skillet and waited until the butter frothed, but did not quite burn. For me, the aroma of bubbling butter ranks right up there with sizzling bacon as one of the best reasons to get out of bed on Sunday.

After pouring the egg-and-cream mixture into the skillet, I scrambled the eggs, working them around the pan with the back of a fork. The decision to scramble or not scramble is the cook's call, Peterson pointed out, a decision that changes the texture of the dish.

When the surface of the scrambled eggs firmed up and reached a "runny but not raw" state, it was time to flip the omelet. With my left hand, I held the pan level, then whacked down on the skillet handle near the base with my right hand.

This was supposed to cause part of the omelet to jump up out of the far side of the pan, out of fear, I guess. Then I was supposed to fold the frightened part of the omelet over. But this omelet didn't scare. I whacked and whacked, but it wouldn't jump.

Finally I cheated, and used a spatula to flip it over. In musical terms, I was still sight-reading this omelet number, not playing from the heart.

For the next omelet, I changed skillets. The first skillet had had a grid etched on its bottom. This, I surmised, had held onto the eggs, refusing to let them jump. The next skillet had a smooth bottom that encouraged the omelet to go airborne, which it did.

During the second omelet-go-round the ingredients were the same as the first, but two techniques changed. The eggs were not scrambled before they were flipped, and the flipping style was altered.

Instead of trying to make the omelet jump by whacking the skillet handle, I got it in the air by jerking the pan toward me. Each time I did this, part of the omelet would roll over on itself. It took a little while to get the motion down. But once I got the hang of it, I lurched, yanked and jerked my way to a delicious dish.

I also began to experiment with adding ingredients to the omelet. Peterson warned that if I added heavy ingredients, such as mushroom or soft cheeses, too early in the cooking process, the omelet would be reluctant to move. Put the heavy stuff in just before the omelet rolls, he advised.

He also said that if you have fancy stuff, like lobster or caviar, you should put it on top of the omelet, after all the flipping or jerking has subsided.

But he said some ingredients, such as a teaspoon of Dijon mustard and a tablespoon of rated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, can be tossed in early, when you are mixing the eggs and cream.

I tried that mustard and parmesan approach. While I am not yet making music with my omelets, I am more comfortable with the process and occasionally hit a few terrific notes.

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