FOOD FOR THOUGHT: The One and Only Egg

For better or for worse I have always been the type of person who likes to ponder things (some may erroneously mistake this as daydreaming). Readers of this column may already realize this personal trait of mine, and luckily I am able to share some of these musings publicly. The aforementioned said, one such subject that I have considered in the past-and at some length-is the question of the ubiquitous egg. More specifically, the aged old question as to which came first-the chicken or the egg.

At first thought the answer seems obvious: of course it was the egg. After all, the original chicken had to hatch from something. But then there's the question of what actually laid that first egg. Supposedly, if you trace back the heritage of an egg in your refrigerator it would be something like this: this egg was born of a chicken which was hatched from an egg which was born of a chicken which was hatched from an egg and so on. It would eventually be traced back through some bizarre evolutionary channel until it would reach some sort of an ancestral chicken-type animal that was not born of an egg at all, but more likely through a series of cell divisions and conglomerations, which would actually make the chicken first. An egg, of course, could not simple appear out of thin air, unless it was originally created through a series of cell divisions...which, in that case, would make the egg first.

With many cultures and religions the topic of the original egg is a serious subject. A devout Christian, of course, would not abide by the evolutionary theory, but by that of creation. Specifically, the Bible (Genesis 1:19-20) states that fish and fowl were created on the fourth day. This suggests that it was the chicken that came first. And some ancient cultures based their very existence on an egg -- a very big egg, in fact.

The ancient Phoenicians, for example, believed that it was a primeval egg that split open and formed the earth and heavens above, and certain Native Americans believe the earth was created by the Great Spirit which, herself, had burst forth from a giant egg. (Interestingly, many believe that the type of egg-laying fowl that we now know was introduced to North America through Columbus, during his early explorations in the fifteenth century.) The Egyptians, on the other hand, believed that their God, Ptah, used the sun and the moon to create the egg, which in there eyes clearly states it was the egg that came first.

The egg has even found its way into the modern day English language. A person that is known for their intellect is sometimes be call an "egghead," and to "egg someone on" is to incite some sort of action, often an argument; and depending on how a person is viewed they can either be called a good or bad egg, or even worse, a rotten egg. And whatever you do don't "put all your eggs in one basket."

In recent years eggs have acquired somewhat of a bad reputation because of their cholesterol content. While it is true the yolk of an egg contains a large amount of cholesterol (most of an eggs nutrients are also located in the yolk), eggs can be safely included into a "healthy diet" when eaten with moderation. According to the American Egg Board a person with a healthy diet can safely consume up to four eggs a week. This doesn't, I would assume, mean that an individual should consume the allotted four eggs all in one sitting. Again, the key is moderation. Maybe I'm wrong (and I often am), but it seems to me that it makes a whole lot more sense to periodically consume something as natural and wholesome as an egg, than it does to eat any number of the blitz-marketed products available with the word(s) "lite," "low-fat," or "no cholesterol" attached to them, while at the same time the ingredient list is a paragraph long and carries unpronounceable words. (I won't even get into the subject of "synthetic fats" in junk foods.)

Eggs are an all natural food, and their versatility and uses are literally amazing. Imagine for a minute life without this incredible food. Automatically one may think of the obvious eggs and omelets at breakfast. But what about the moist cakes that are partially leavened by eggs, and chocolate chip cookies that are so cherished by this author? There would be no mayonnaise. Soufflés would lay as lifeless and sullen as the Titanic, and other delectable desserts such as crème caramel, crème broûlet and crêpes would be no more. The finish on many baked goods would have a dull, lackluster appearance, and ravioli would separate spilling their delectable fillings into the boiling water. This is a culinary world I personally hope we never have to endure.

The humble egg is commonplace in virtually every corner of the world and has often been adapted into recipes in place of meet during meager times. It is not uncommon, for example, to find a person of Sicilian decent to cook hard-boiled eggs in their tomato sauce for added protein, and the frugal Cajuns originally added eggs to their famous turtle soup not only to enrich it with flavor, but also nutrients. And, of course, when money is scarce, or if you've simply neglected to go grocery shopping, eggs for dinner make a nutritious, inexpensive and delicious meal (the other night I made a delicious frittata for dinner for my wife and son utilizing leftover spaghetti and green beans from our garden).

Eggs have always held equally high status in households as well as the kitchens of great restaurants. In fact, legend has it that the 100 pleats that makeup the traditional chef's toque are said to represent the 100 ways in which a professional chef is able to prepare and egg. And in the famous tome, Le Guide de Culinaire, written by the great chef Auguste Escoffier, there are more than 140 recipes for egg cookery. During the 1950's, the infamous chef Fernand Point (who laid the groundwork for Cuisine Nouvelle) would actually judge the skill of a chef on how well they could fry an egg. He took this to such an extreme that he was known to enter a restaurant and simply tell the waiter that Monsieur Point was here and he would like an egg for dinner. Madeleine Kamman, famed chef, teacher, author and culinary inspiration, views eggs so important that she unconventionally lists egg cookery towards the beginnings of her books. She also makes note of the importance of eggs in all cuisines and often refers to them as a "miracle in a shell."

When purchasing eggs look for ones with clean, uncracked shells; cracked or leaking eggs are not fit for consumption. Buy only enough eggs that you will use within three or four weeks. Eggs, of course, need to be refrigerated-an egg at room temperature loses as much quality in one day as it would in an entire week if refrigerated. The shell of an egg is porous and can contain as many as 17,000 microscopic pores in its surface. These pores offer perfect opportunity for flavors and aromas to pass through, and because of this eggs should be stored away from strong-smelling foods. Store eggs in their original container on a shelf in a refrigeration; do not transfer them to the "egg holders" that are built-in to many refrigerator doors-the jostling of the eggs in the doors, combined with the often temperature changes from the door opening wide, can be very detrimental to the shelf life of an egg. The carton that eggs come in act as an insulator, and also helps slow any moisture loss.

Tortilla Española (Spanish Potato Omelet) Yield: 4 servings

1/2 cup olive oil

2 large potatoes, peeled and sliced thin

1 medium onion, peeled and sliced thin

2 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

In a medium non-stick skillet, heat the olive oil to approximately 300-325 degrees Fahrenheit. Add the potato and onions to the hot oil alternately, in layers. (The oil should be hot enough that the potatoes will begin to bubble immediately, but not so hot as they will brown; the potatoes are being somewhat poached in the oil, rather than fried.)

Cook the potatoes and onion, over medium heat for approximately 5 minute, just until the potatoes are beginning to soften and the onion is translucent. Drain the potatoes and onion through a colander, reserve the oil and allow the vegetables to cool somewhat.

Beat the eggs with the salt and pepper and add the cooked potatoes and onion to the egg. Gently fold and mix the potato and onion with the egg until everything is thoroughly coated.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the reserved oil, over medium-high heat, in the same non-stick skillet. (The remaining reserved oil can be kept refrigerated for future use; the onions and potato impart a delicious flavor into the oil.) Add the omelet mixture to the skillet and gently press down on the potatoes to form a cake.

When the tortilla begins to become firm, it should be flipped; this can be in a variety of ways. If you feel comfortable, flipping it free-hand is most desirable. Otherwise, you can slide it onto a clean plate and invert the plate onto the hot skillet, or you may simply attempt this feat with an ordinary spatula. Turn the tortilla a few times-it gets easier-to complete the cooking process.

When the tortilla is cooked, remove it to a clean plate. This omelet can be eaten hot, but the textures and flavors improve if left to stand for a few minutes and cool to room temperature.

Flourless Chocolate Cake Yield: 1 cake

1 pound bittersweet chocolate

1/2 pound unsalted butter

9 egg yolks

1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus 1/4 teaspoon

9 egg whites

1/8 teaspoon salt

Preheat an oven to 325 Fahrenheit.

Melt the chocolate and butter in a double boiler, remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.

Beat the egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar until creamy, are pale yellow in color and form a ribbon when poured. Beat the egg whites, 1/8 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon sugar until they form stiff peaks. Fold the egg yolk mixture into the chocolate mixture, then, very carefully, fold the whipped egg whites into the chocolate yolk mixture.

Prepare a 10 inch spring-form pan by lightly buttering it then pour the batter into the pan. Bake in a pre-heated 325 degree Fahrenheit oven for 30 minutes, or until the cake has risen considerably and the center is of pudding like consistency. Remove the pan from the oven and allow the cake to cool in the pan, while resting on a wire rack, for at least 15 minutes. While the cake is cooling it will fall considerably.

For best results, serve warm dusted with cocoa and powdered sugar.

Aïoli (Aïoli makes a great dip for shrimp or other seafood, and is also an excellent spread on any sandwich.) Makes 2 cups

6-10 peeled garlic cloves

1 tablespoon cold water

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 egg yolks

2 cups olive oil

Combine the garlic, water, lemon juice and salt in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth. Add the egg yolks and continue to process until the yolks become frothy and much lighter in color. With the machine running, begin to pour the olive oil through the feeder tube in a thin steady stream until all of the oil is incorporated into the aïoli. Store the aïoli in a refrigerated and covered container for up to 3 days.

Baked Scotch Eggs Makes 8 servings

1 pound pork sausage, raw

1/2 cup fine cornmeal

8 hard-cooked eggs, shells removed

Preheat an oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. If the sausage is in its casing, split the casing and remove the sausage. Divide the sausage into 8 portions. Lightly dust a work surface with some of the cornmeal, and place the sausage portions on the cornmeal. Flatten the sausage pieces until they are large enough in diameter to encompass the eggs. Wrap the sausages around each of the eggs, pressing the edges together to seal completely. Roll the sausage-coated eggs in the remainder of the cornmeal, and place them on a baking sheet. Bake the eggs in the preheated oven for about 20 minutes, or until the sausage is cooked and lightly browned.

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