Saturday, August 21, 2010

"Poached by an Angel"

A perfect poached egg is a thing of beauty—an aesthetic and nutritional miracle that is, happily, within anyone’s reach. The technique is simple, and even the priciest organic chicken eggs cost less than a quarter apiece. One would be hard-pressed to name a more versatile and inexpensive delicacy.

Recently I served a poached egg to my friend Susan. She looked at the egg perched on it’s mound of hash browns and said, “It looks like it was poached by an angel.”

Alas, for every angelically-poached egg, there are many thousands of less-than-heavenly poached eggs.

The phrase “perfect poached eggs” gets about half a million hits on Google. There are a lot of people who think they know how to do it. I have looked at all 500,000 of these sites, and I am sorry to report that nearly all of them are flat-out wrong.

I have poached a lot of eggs, using every technique available to me, including adding vinegar and/or salt to the water, swirling the water before adding the egg, using water at various temperatures and pans of various sizes, bringing the eggs to room temperature before poaching, and employing assorted mechanical poaching devices. I have poached eggs individually and en masse. I have poached medium, large, extra-large, and jumbo eggs. I have poached eggs in the oven, on the stovetop, and in a microwave. I have poached emu eggs in the outback. Okay, not true about the emu eggs, but I have poached.

My first few hundred attempts were not perfect, but over the past few years I have developed a simple technique that produces a perfect or near-perfect poached egg most of the time.

The egg: Of course, if you have access to a good farmers’ market—or better yet, if you have chickens—freshness will not be an issue. The happier the chickens are, the better their eggs will taste.Freshness is the key. Learn to read and interpret the date on the egg carton. In the U.S., there is a three-digit number on the carton that tells you when the egg was packed. This number, from 001 to 365, is the “Julian date,” with 001 representing January 1, and 365 (or 366, during leap years) indicating December 31. The “sell by date” is usually thirty days after the “pack date,” or about five weeks after the egg leaves the hen. For poaching purposes you want an egg that is not more than two weeks old. If the egg is older than that, make yourself an omelet.

The grade of the egg is somewhat important. Grade A eggs can be fine for poaching, but Grade AA eggs usually work better. Egg grading is an arcane business, but it does take into account the firmness of the albumen (the white), and that makes a big difference to the appearance and texture of the final product. Shell color, however, is irrelevant—that depends entirely on the breed of hen, and is no indication of quality. Any size egg will work—keeping in mind that the bigger the egg, the longer it will take to cook. I usually buy whichever size has the most recent date on the carton.

The pan: I use a ten-inch non-stick skillet. A smaller pan will work, but its lesser volume means that the water will cool more quickly when you add the eggs. Adjust cooking time accordingly.

The water: Use plain tap water. No vinegar or salt! I don’t know what it is with these vinegar-adders. Acidulating the water does nothing good for the egg’s texture or appearance, and everything bad for the taste.

The cooking: Fill the pan to within ½ inch of the top and heat the water. When it reaches a boil, turn it off and let it sit for a minute while you prepare the egg for immersion.

Your egg should be cold, straight from the fridge. Anyone who tells you different is wrong. A cold egg will hold its shape better. Crack the egg into a small bowl. It is important here to understand the structure of the egg. (This is not biology class, so don't worry - I’m not going to get into a discussion of the chalazae and vitelline membrane and so forth.) I think of an egg as being composed of four parts: the shell, the firm white, the loose white, and the yolk. The “firm white” is the thicker albumen that surrounds the yolk. In a fresh egg, this will comprise most of the white. The “loose white” is the thinner, more liquid albumen—the part that spreads out around the edge like a frill when an egg is sautéed. The older the egg, the more the “firm white” breaks down to become “loose white.”

When cracking the egg into the bowl, take care that the sharp edges of the shell do not tear into the firm white. This is important! Tearing into the “firm white” will produce a lopsided end result. Be gentle. Respect the egg.

Carefully lower the egg into the hot water. The water temperature will be somewhere around 180-190° F. Believe it or not, the precise water temperature is not that important, so long as it is at least 160°, and less than boiling.

If you have performed your task well, and if the egg is fresh, it will look something like this:

Once the egg is in the water, do something else for five or six minutes. Fry some potatoes, slice some bread, make a cup of coffee, check your email—whatever. Now look at your egg. The white will be opaque. The loose white will have spread out a bit. Carefully trim the loose white away with your spatula. Slide the edge of the spatula between the egg and the bottom of the pan. The egg will be quite jiggly. At this point, the process becomes very personal. It’s between you and the egg. If you like your egg quite loose, lift it carefully from the water and serve at once. If you like it on the firm side, you can turn on the heat for a few minutes. Not too hot though—the water should never boil. If your water gets too hot, the egg white will become unpleasantly firm.

I mentioned before that the exact water temperature is unimportant. I lied a little. Sorry. The final texture of the egg can vary tremendously depending on time and temperature, but because one person’s perfectly poached egg is another person’s slimy nightmare, I cannot make specific recommendations. David Chang (Momofuku) poaches his eggs for thirty minutes at 160°. Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) poaches eggs at about 205° (a simmer) for less than two minutes. Two completely different approaches, both producing excellent, albeit different, results.

IMHO, the slower the poach, the nicer the texture. It is possible to slow-poach an egg to the point where the yolk is nearly (but not quite) solid, while the white remains soft and yielding. This is the Momofuku ideal. A fast poaching results in a much firmer white contrasting with a runny yolk, as preferred by Thomas Keller. I like an egg that is somewhere in between.

Like I said, it’s personal. I considered giving exact water temperature, timing, egg size, and water volume…but really, this is worth learning to do by feel. There are so many variables—altitude, egg temperature, cookware material and weight, barometric pressure, moon phase, pollen count, etc.—that the more precise the instructions, the more likely you are to fail.

To test the doneness of your egg, lift it from the water with a slotted spatula** and look at it. Experience is important here. After a few tries, you will learn to gauge the doneness of the egg by the way it behaves on the spatula.

Cooking more than one egg at a time: Some cooks recommend lowering each egg into the water individually. Bah. That is counterproductive and completely unnecessary. You can crack two, three, or four eggs into a bowl together and slip them all into the water bath at once (gently, please). The eggs will not stick together, and they will all get done at the same time. One thing to watch out for though, is that multiple eggs will lower the water temperature more quickly, so you will have to add more time or more heat than you would for a single egg.

Serving: Recently, I have been enjoying my poached eggs on hash browns.* They are also quite nice on toasted bread, or eaten with a spoon from a small cup. You could swing out and make Eggs Benedict, or even serve them cooled to room temperature on a green salad.

Concerning perfection: Not every poached egg will come out perfect. Sometimes you will tear the albumen when cracking the egg, and get a lop-sided result. Sometimes the white will be too runny, and your egg will come out looking like a shallow disc with the yolk jutting up from the middle. These eggs will taste just fine, despite their lack of visual appeal.

“We aspire to perfection, but we do not insist upon it.”

* My article on “Perfect Hash Browns” will be coming soon.

** The slotted spatula will make it easier to keep the egg from sliding off as you lift it out of the water.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Egg and I

I am delighted to report that my fifteen seconds of internet fame have nearly expired. My part in the Humble, Texas affair is mostly over, and I hereby return this blog to its weirdly eclectic mix of food, mushrooms, writing, and other distantly-related topics.

Many years ago, when I was in my twenties, a friend of mine told me he was looking for a mentor—an older, more experienced man who would help him in his career and in other aspects of his life. I asked him how he planned to find such a person.

He said, “It’s easy. These old dudes, when they get into their fifties and sixties, they realize that they have learned a lot of stuff over the years, and that they might be dead soon. It’s like a biological imperative—they don’t want their knowledge to die with them, so they look for a younger guy to share it with.”

I thought that was an odd way to look at it. But now that I am well into my fifties, I find myself experiencing that urge to share. Therefore, tomorrow, I am going to tell everyone who visits this blog how to properly poach a freaking egg. Stay tuned!

Speaking of eggs, Part One of my “Blank Confession” video will be posted here very soon—I'm aiming for a week from Monday.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Nasty Thing in the Corner, Part Two

Wow, that’s a lot of comments! Thank you for your supportive words.

And thank you also to those who took the time to post their dissents. Allow me to respond to a few:

To “A Teen Librarian”: I agree that teens should not have to pay for the political battles of their elders. But they do, every day, in more ways than I can count. I wish I could have figured out a way to attend TLF without hating myself for doing so, but I could not.

To “Paul”: I understand what you are saying and I respect your point of view, although I disagree. BTW, I have deleted no posts here—your insinuation is gratuitous.

To “Nate”: You are technically correct about my misuse of the term “censorship.” My use of the term is deliberate. We all know that the “uninviting” of Ellen H. was not literally censorship. It would be more accurate to say it was “the active suppression of an author to discourage teens from reading her books.” (Can we find an acronym in that? Wait a sec…okay, how about Activist School Suppression of Hopkins’ Access to Teens. I’m sure there’s an acronym in there someplace!) In any case, elephant or mastodon, it’s still a pachyderm. We all know what we're talking about. They may not have literally “censored” Ellen Hopkins, but their actions point to a similar intent.

To “Whoa Nelly”: First, I love your handle. And you are right in what you say, however, I believe that each of us has a point at which we must say, “Whoa, Nelly! I’ve had enough! I have run out of cheeks to turn! It’s time for some melodrama!” I reached that point last week.

Hey, I’m not sure, but I think the Thing in the Corner got a little smaller today!

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Nasty Thing in the Corner

I don’t often talk about censorship for much the same reason I don’t often talk about creationism, dog fighting, or Rush Limbaugh. Despite a lifetime of contrary evidence, there is still a part of me that believes that if you ignore that nasty thing squatting in the corner of the room, it will go away.

It does not go away.

Last week I received an email from wildly-popular YA author Ellen Hopkins (Crank, Impulse) letting me know that she had been “uninvited” to the 2011 Teen Lit Fest in Humble, Texas. Ellen made it clear that she was majorly pissed-off about it.

The biennial Teen Lit Fest (TLF) in Humble (a suburb of Houston) has become one of the premier teen literature festivals in the country. By all accounts, it is a friendly, well-organized event where teens can meet their favorite authors, and authors can connect with their teen readers. The high school and middle school librarians behind the event are a passionate and dedicated group with a deep love of teen literature.

Events like TLF are one of the best ways to encourage reading in teens, and they are important to authors as a way to get exposure for their books. When I was invited to be one of the featured authors at TLF 2011, and offered a generous honorarium to do so, I was thrilled.

Then I got that email from Ellen.

Censorship of children’s literature can take many forms. In its most blatant incarnation, books are removed from classrooms and libraries. Thankfully, this does not happen often. But there are more insidious forms of censorship.

In Ellen Hopkins’ case, she was invited to TLF, she accepted…and then, a few months later, the invitation was rescinded. Apparently, “several” parents were disturbed by the content of Ellen’s books, and objected to having her at the festival. They brought their concerns to the festival organizers, and one (one!) school librarian agreed with their concerns, and recommended to the school superintendent that Ellen be asked not to come. The superintendent went along with the one (one!) librarian’s recommendation. I believe that virtually every other librarian in the Humble ISD was embarrassed and furious over this decision.

Although Ellen might understandably take this matter very personally, it really has nothing whatsoever to do with the content or quality of her work. Whether she writes well or responsibly is immaterial. I wrote a post a couple of years ago addressing that issue.

What is important is that a handful of people – the superintendent, the one (one!) librarian, and “several” (three? five?) parents – took it upon themselves to overrule the vast majority of teachers and librarians and students who had chosen one of the most popular YA authors in America to be their headliner.

That is a form of censorship as damaging and inexcusable as setting fire to a library.

Over the past fifteen years of visiting schools and libraries I have been “uninvited” on two occasions. It is a terrible thing to be told by educators that your life’s work is “inappropriate” for its intended audience. In both cases, I did nothing. I didn’t want to further embarrass the librarians who had invited me - they were already mortified. I just wanted to leave a sour experience behind and get on with the next thing.

I now believe that was a mistake. The political and philosophical problem of censorship, in all its forms, harms all of us, and each of us has a responsibility to fight it. I cannot help but think that those same people who objected to Ellen Hopkins’ work might find some of my books equally disturbing.

And you know what’s really scary? Here is how the Humble ISD superintendent responded to a letter from one of the librarians who objected to his decision:

“…there are more authors that we would want at our Teen Lit Fest than we could ever have enough Teen Lit Fests to accommodate.”

Apparently he subscribes to the commodities model of educating our children. Creeps me out something fierce.

A few years ago, at a National Book Awards banquet, I met Judy Blume. She had just delivered a passionate speech about censorship. I joked, “Hey Judy, how do I get MY books challenged? I think it would be good for sales.” Judy was not amused. She looked at me and said, in a voice as dry as ash, “It will happen, and you will not like it.” She was right on both counts.

And so, as one of the other participating authors, I felt that the right thing to do was to withdraw from the festival, and so I did.

At least one of the other authors, Melissa de la Cruz, has also withdrawn from the festival. I don’t yet know about the other five.*

This whole business makes me sad. There are, I don’t know, maybe a hundred thousand or more good people in the Humble school district. They should be mad as hell, every one of them.

*UPDATE (8/16): Tara Lynn Childs has also withdrawn from the festival.

UPDATE (8/17): Matt de la Pena has withdrawn.

UPDATE: Festival canceled. Very sad.

UPDATE: I have decided to give up writing to become an actor. Click here for a sample.

The illustration above was created in five minutes on my iPad using a really cool little app called Brushes.

Friday, August 13, 2010

BLANK CONFESSION

I just watched the rough cuts of the BLANK CONFESSION videos. Philip Seymour Hoffman, you have nothing to fear!
Not even Keanu Reeves needs to worry.
Fortunately, I'm working with professionals whose job it is to make me look good. I'll be posting the first video in late August.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Sweetblood Trailer

Just in time for the reissue of Sweetblood, here's an impressive trailer I ran across on YouTube. Nice job, Margo!