Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Omelet School

My mother was the chef of the family but it was actually my dad who taught me how cook my first dish, scrambled eggs. He showed me how to use a little bowl to crack and stir the eggs, and how much milk to add. We melted some fleischmann's in a little faberware saute pan and when the butter just started to sizzle we poured in the eggs. With the help of a stool, I hovered and stirred with a little wooden spoon that could not have been more than 6 inches in length. I learned to make my eggs over a moderately low heat, that stirring often but gently would produce large wet curds that still retained a little definition between white and yolk. We finished with salt and pepper and ate with Home Pride wheat bread. The mis en scene, down to the blue kik-step stool and tupperware mixing bowl, is as vivid as the margarine-smeared toast that picked up the last few bits of scrambled egg on my plate. I think because this dish is still so visceral, I don't like to eat anyone else's scrambled eggs but mine.

Omelets are another story. Both of my parents could make them, but the preparation wasn't sacredly handed down to me. I learned at an early age that I disliked the big fluffy omelets of a breakfast-chain restaurant and I preferred mine to be a little runny in the middle. The thing I liked the most about omelets was the fact that you could put extra food inside of them, like cheese and mushrooms, which were both good vehicles for getting more butterfat into my diet. But I could never make a decent one. I always overestimated the amount of filling that 2 or 3 eggs could hold and ended up with an awkward scramble of over and undercooked pieces. Or let the eggs cook too long undisturbed, dry out and burn to the bottom of the pan. It wasn't until recently, after years of reading about proper french omelet preparation, and storing Julia Child's omelet demonstrations in my memory vault for many years, did I decide to forget everything I thought I knew about them and just start over.

Start small; 2 eggs are plenty. whisk them in a bowl just before you're ready to pour them in a heated and buttered pan, preferably a small seasoned cast iron pan you use exclusively for omelet making (which you will also never want to wash with soap but simply wipe clean and continue the seasoning process). The heat should be a solid medium, warm enough to make the butter froth but not sizzle. For a 6 inch pan I use only about a teaspoon of butter, but more is fine, of course. Pour in the egg. Now you can probably add salt and pepper. Using your wrist and the pan's handle, swirl the egg around a bit. I have a great tool. I don't know where I got it or what you call it but it's a single piece of wood beveled at both ends. I guess it's a kind of spatula. I use this to gently lift the cooked edges of the omelet and allow uncooked egg to occupy the vacated surface next to the pan. Continuing to pivot and swirl, gently lift and cook the bottom of the omelette until there is no more liquid running forth. At this point, you've got your base and you can add filling. I put no more than 2 tablespoons of whatever in the half of the pan closest to me. Then, I raise the pan, pivot, and begin to let the omelet fall unto itself. I can't yet accomplish the perfect turning of the omelet with my wrist alone, so I use my stick to help it along.

None of this will probably help you make an omelet. I think about reading Dostoyevsky: you have the story down and you know what you're supposed to get out of it. But you can can get through page after page without knowing what you just read. It's not until the third or fourth pass--the second if you're lucky--that the meaning reveals itself. At some point, everything you've learned about omelets from other people, whether they be a cookbook writer, television personality or the guy impatiently training you and breathing down your neck, will flow into your wrist, for it really is your wrist that is having that "a ha!" moment.

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