Egg Salad Angst

Some dishes simply scream of ladies’ luncheons and soda fountain sandwiches, and egg salad is one. Pimento and cheese once simpered under a similar association, but now, thanks to the same Southern machismo ethic that has established eating a white bread Vidalia onion sandwich dribbling Duke’s mayo over the kitchen sink virtually a rite of passage, P&C has transcended effete associations and is even found served in micro-breweries with an unassuming yet authoritative amber larger and parsnip chips.

Still and all, the South is nothing if not traditional, and while egg salad might certainly be served on pumpernickel at some happy hour buffet in a west Florida leather bar, by far for the most part it endures as a staple at occasions with a heavy distaff attendance such as christenings, weddings and of course those endless, inevitable funerals.

Basic egg salad is just chopped, cooked—usually boiled—eggs blended with a sauce or emulsion to make a spread, but as with most simple recipes, variations abound and additions are discussed, debated and occasionally disputed. For instance, olives seem to be a traditional addition throughout the nation, but most recipes from the South tend to include black olives whereas above the Mason-Dixon Line green olives with pim(i)ento stuffing is the general rule. Woody Allen trivialized egg salad in his 1966 feature film debut as the object of Phil Moskowitz’s search for the stolen recipe of the Grand Exalted High Majah of Raspur, giving heft to my argument that when it comes to egg salad people can work themselves into a steaming froth over seemingly the most insignificant details, which puts egg salad right up there with art, law and religion, right where it should be.

Though I’m certain some misguided, unbalanced individuals actually do make egg salad with scrambled eggs, or–horror of horrors–compounded mangled omelets, or worst case scenario God help us please not mashed quiche. Use whole boiled eggs. Peeled. I mash then with a wide-tined fork (swear to God I knew a gal who used a baby food jar) and add mayonnaise to bind. Adjust the amount to your own tastes; me, I like it a little on the dry/chunky side as opposed to the creamy/smooth. I use canned, pitted jumbo black olives; a little olive oil is a nice touch. Finely-chopped celery and green onion give egg salad a better texture; a dash of vinegar gives it bite. I like mine peppery, served on rye toast. With a light Pilsner, not lager, you knuckle-dragging Philistines.

Egg in a Basket

Use sturdy bread and a metal cutter. Eat the hole; there’s nothing else you can do with it. Lightly toast bread on both sides in a hot buttered pan, add a pat of butter in the center, and crack an egg into it. Cover to cook through. If you’re feeding several people, you can make these on a cookie sheet in a hot oven. Keep the seasonings simple: salt and black pepper with a dash of smoky paprika.

A Savory Dutch Baby

More often served as a sweet breakfast dish, a Dutch baby/German pancake can easily provide a savory platform for any number of toppings any time of the day. This version is seasoned with salt and pepper mixed with a scattering of onion, topped with more onion, peppered ham and served with a grated hard cheese. Whip two large eggs and a half cup each flour and whole milk into a froth. Pour into a heated, well-buttered skillet and cook in a very hot oven until puffed and browned. Serve with grated hard cheese and sour cream.

 

The Naked Quiche

At the old Bean Blossom in Oxford, we worked with a limited inventory and a short menu. This was no ball-and-chain for our spontaneity. One morning, with no time to make crusts, we decided on quiches for lunch. So we made naked quiches, and they were beautiful.

These are called frittatas. (My Italian friend Olli says that’s what his gay cousin calls a roofie.) Most frittatas are just fried potatoes and eggs, the most basic dish imaginable. It’s also substantial (i.e., heavy), so unless you’re a real trencherman, a little goes a long way. I always add cheese, usually that Italian blend; if you’re a purist, freshly-grated Romano or Parmesan works, but anything will do in a pinch. This recipe is best made in a 9-in. skillet.

Peel and dice two waxy potatoes; you want about two cups. You can either pan fry these in hot olive oil with a minced clove of garlic or parboil, drain, and then fry. Either way, you want potato chunks that are cooked through and a bit crusty. Beat four eggs quite well, add to oiled skillet, and when eggs begin to bubble, sprinkle in the potatoes, stirring gently. At this point, I always add sweet peppers or spinach, then the cheese. Keep fiddling about until everything is mixed well, then pop in a hot over for about ten minutes.

 

Egg Foo Young

In my book—albeit unpublished—Sundays are occasions for substantial egg dishes, quiches, omelets, Benedicts and their ilk, which are on the whole light, versatile and easily prepared. This old Asian fusion dish—Chinese-Indonesian /British/American, what have you—fits the bill. The name derives from Cantonese for “hibiscus egg”, and in Asia is usually served with a sweet-and-sour sauce, in the western hemisphere more often with a simple brown gravy.

For each serving, beat two large eggs, pour into a pool of hot oil and–working quickly with a fork–pull the eggs apart as they cook until the mixture is almost firm. Then add your ingredients. I like shrimp, scallions, and bean sprouts, but ham or chicken, cabbage, and mushrooms are often used. After the additions have cooked into the surface of the eggs, flip and cook to a light browning. Serve with brown gravy made on the thin side.

A Mother and Child Reunion

I once heard that Paul Simon got the title “Mother and Child Reunion” from a chicken and egg sandwich—which in diner lingo is known as a mother and child reunion. But I discovered recently that the title came from the Say Eng Look Restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown district.

In a 1972 Rolling Stone interview Simon said, “Know where the words came from on that? I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It’s chicken and eggs.” Known as “mother/child” or “mother/daughter reunion” these are common menu items at Chinese restaurants, and another version—oyakodon: mother/daughter bowl—is Japanese “soul food.” As with basic dishes, oyakodon is made in many ways as there are cooks to make it. Here’s my version, which varies with available ingredients. I’ll often add chopped mild thin-walled peppers (not a fan of bell peppers at all; more about that later), sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, and bacon.

Cube a boneless breast of chicken, dust with fresh pepper, and fry in vegetable oil until browned. Then poach these chicken pieces in a good chicken broth until tender. Doesn’t take long. Drain the chicken, reserving the broth, and stir-fry/saute  with sliced onions and whatever else you’re adding (green onions are a must). Then pour in enough broth to cover the chicken pieces by half, add a couple of dashes of good soy and rice wine, bring to a hard boil, and dribble in two or three lightly beaten eggs in sort of a figure 8. Cover and steam until the egg is just cooked through. Top with chopped green onions. Slide into a bowl of rice.

Shirred Eggs

Once upon a time, you could buy an oven dish for eggs called a shirrer, and while you can’t buy a shirrer anymore (Williams-Sonoma might have one for all I know), shirring is what you do when you bake eggs. Now, you can bake eggs by themselves, or you can bake eggs on top of things. One of the most popular shirred egg dishes is ranch eggs, huervos rancheros. Simply line a shallow dish with salsa, crack eggs into it (be artistic), and bake at high heat to however you like to eat your eggs. I like mine done through, but with a soft center. If you crack and bake eggs over spinach sauce, you can call them eggs Florentine. If you crack and bake over grits, they’re angels in the clouds.

Lost Bread

Every family has a picky eater; in mine it was my brother, Tom. His hamburgers were “mayonnaise only”, his salads “honeymoon” (lettuce alone), and steaks not medium well, but well. Breakfasts were a particular trial; the merest fleck of white in a serving of scrambled eggs would send him into a sour sulk, complete with crossed arms, a lowered head, and a puckered brow. Bacon had to be evenly cooked, but not crisp, and his biscuits had to come from the center of the pan. I wish I’d asked him why.

These specifications presented a challenge to our mother, whose patience was as limited as Tom’s stubbornness was infinite. Fortunately, she hit upon a dish that Tom adored so much that it was all he ate for breakfast until he entered high school. She’d still make it for his breakfast when he’d come to visit twenty years later.

We called it French toast, but this simple recipe of bread dipped in beaten eggs and milk then fried, is very old and is known by many names, most notably pain perdu, “lost bread”. French toast is most often served as a sweet dish much like pancakes or waffles with powdered sugar, syrup and fruit, but Tom—and I, among others—prefer it savory, simply seasoned with salt and pepper. We usually made it with white sandwich bread, but it makes a much more substantial dish with a thick cut wheat or sourdough.

Beat three eggs in a cup of milk or—even better—half-and-half. Season with a little salt and pepper; you can add a little vanilla if you plan to serve it with sugar or syrup. Sop dried bread slices cut to about a half an inch in egg/milk mixture and pan-fry in butter until nicely browned.