The truly incredible, edible egg

It can be the star or just an ingredient

April 07, 2004|By Emily Green | Emily Green,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Which came first? Easter or the egg? Did early Christians give up eggs for Lent, or did they simply run out? The ability to keep birds laying year-round is relatively recent. It seems likely that over the years, it became traditional to celebrate Easter by eating eggs because the Christian Holy Week falls at the peak of bird-nesting season.

Either way, no other food is better suited to feasting. Eggs are so versatile, they amount to their own cuisine. Given the sheer number of dishes that depend on eggs, from angel food cake to zabaglione, the odd thing is that we have no words to describe their flavor. There are the viscous subtlety of the white and the rich barnyard flavors of the yolk, that combination of dandelions, sweat and spring that somehow amounts to egginess.

If the right words existed, they would have to run the gamut from pleasure to pain. Consider how profoundly the flavor changes from the teasing delicacy of a soft-boiled egg to essence of burnt rubber as aromas of overcooked egg waft up from beneath cafeteria heat lamps.

There are endless recipes for eggs. But the art to getting the best out of eggs isn't a profusion of recipes, it's appreciating the structure of the egg itself. This is, says George West, a University of California veterinarian, "nature's most perfect biologic package."

Egg cartons now carry instructions to refrigerate eggs, but they don't need it, says West. The egg evolved tough enough to remain viable to produce baby birds in scorching heat, in rain, in conditions that make postmen pale, he says. It manages for many reasons, not least because it emerges from a chicken coated with a protective film saturated with antibodies to protect the egg.

If you get eggs from a farmers' market, or backyard coop, don't wash them until just before you use them; the coating will keep protecting your egg. In fact, the vacuum effect of putting eggs in and out of refrigerators is probably stressing them, says West. But eggs are so tough, they've been able to take it.

The shell itself is porous, which allows evaporation, but its weave also repels incursions from bacteria. Inside the shell, the white, or albumen, is protected by membranes that keep anything that might have got past the shell from getting any farther. Where the white appears to thicken at top and bottom are the chalazae, ropelike structures that anchor the yolk inside the white and shell to keep it from bouncing around. Protecting the yolk is another membrane.

The egg's compartmentalization is exactly what makes it so versatile in the kitchen. It allows us to separate the white and yolk. The two components have entirely different but wholly compatible natures. Yes, whites lack flavor, but they bring a mix of protein and water that begs to be whipped.

As gratifying as it can be, beating eggs is not a good way to thrash out stress. One must stop beating when they reach the proverbial soft peaks. Beat more and the proteins break down, water spills out, and the egg is finished.

When you cook meringues, the whites continue to be tricky. Baking on humid days can add hours to cooking times. Push meringues too fast, and the ephemeral batter turns to sticky glue. Cook them too long, and they crumble.

The yolk, the heart of the egg, is a luscious mix of protein and fat that can be more or less yellow, depending on how much green alfalfa went into the chicken feed. For the cook, the beauty of the yolk is that the white has essentially come with its own sauce. Italians take advantage of this with the perfect spring dish: poached eggs lightly seasoned with sea salt, pepper, maybe parmesan - served with steamed asparagus. They puncture the egg yolk with asparagus spears, dipping and eating, then eat the sauced white, mopping up the last with a good chunk of bread.

The yolk is the test of an egg cook. Although it is the richest part of the egg, it has so little fat that when overcooked, it quickly takes on the burnt-rubber flavors of stressed protein. Nancy Silverton, co-chef of Campanile restaurant in Los Angeles, is so serious about eggs that she keeps her own chickens. She jokes that the way to test a restaurant is go in, order a hard-cooked egg and, if it's not good, leave. Perfect hard-cooked eggs will be firm but will retain their fresh barnyard flavors.

The art is packing the eggs tightly in a pot just big enough to hold them, she says, then covering with well-salted water (if there is a crack in the egg, it sets the white right away). "Bring it to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and cook from five to seven, maybe eight, minutes," she says.

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