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The Egg and Us: My Love Affair with the Much Maligned Ovum

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It is a sorry state of affairs for the gastronome who is faced with the very early middle age fact that her favorite comfort food may be considered by her cardiologist to be along the same healthful and life-giving lines as, say, arsenic.

The poor egg -- so acutely maligned, so profoundly misunderstood. This greatest of protein providers enjoys the dubious honor of being both a perfect food as well as a cholesterol-laden albatross around the necks of us who have to keep an eye on our tickers (like me, my mother, my late grandmother, my late grandfather, my late father, my late stepfather, my mother-in-law, my late father-in-law, and Dick Cheney): it manages to be cheap, filling, delicious when cooked properly (and passable when not), and wildly flexible. Unfortunately, it also frightens the health-conscious population witless.

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Like many of us, I am an adult who grew up eating eggs nearly every morning; my father and I would sit next to each other in our kitchen, scoop a soft-boiled egg out of its shell and onto a piece of un-toasted white bread, and sprinkle it with salt. Sheer bliss, this bit of nursery food started our days (mine at preschool, Dad's at the office) in the same manner: with love and comfort and the assurance that all would be well in the hours that would follow. Years later, having read British food writer Elizabeth David's An Omelette and A Glass of Wine, my egg eating evolved and became very grown-up: for simple, summertime suppers, I enjoyed eggs perfectly poached, dusted with freshly ground black pepper and set atop a fresh frisée salad scattered with lardons (pancetta or salt pork that has been cubed, its fat rendered away). In England, I ate them cooked hard and rubbery enough to be used as a squash ball, then wrapped in sausage meat, rolled in bread crumbs, and lightly fried; it's a wonder that I am still alive, after spending four months at Cambridge, subsisting on little more than the inexpensive, weirdly delicious Scotch Egg. Today, many of my leftovers are set into a deep sauté pan, bathed in eggs and herbs, sprinkled with Parmigiano Reggiano and baked at a high temperature before being quickly browned under the broiler: sliced in wedges and served hot, cold, or room temperature, the frittata -- an open-faced, rustic Italian omelette -- is an utterly scrumptious way to make the stuff that clogs up the works in your refrigerator go the distance.

From elegant to peasant, from fine bone china plate to nursery bowl, the egg's sullied reputation stems largely from the fact that everywhere in life there exists that which invariably gets bullied: generally, it's the benign, decent, and mild-mannered child who gets pushed around the schoolyard and knocked to the ground. The egg is everyone's favorite culinary punching bag, the victim of wildly inaccurate and distorted claims that have served to desecrate its humble beauty. Is it packed with cholesterol? Yes, absolutely. (But so is beef, dark meat chicken and turkey, ham, lamb, spam, shrimp, salmon, lobster, and a host of other edibles that no one ever obsesses over.) Is it packed with fat? Absolutely not. In fact, the fats that it is high in -- monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats -- are the good, heart-protecting sort (Omega 3 and Omega 6) that doctors near and far are praising and insisting that some of us take in supplements. Rich in folate, high in antioxidants, and burdened with so many vitamins that it could actually qualify as "health food," the magnificent egg must be re-considered, re-examined, and enjoyed with the kind of moderation that we naturally afford most foods (how many of us eat the same exact thing, every single day?).

If you have high cholesterol like I do (and even if you don't), learn how to cook this perfect food well and enjoy the egg only once a week, for dinner (over a salad, or in spaghetti carbonara, or as a frittata); for lunch (in traditional egg salad gently spiced with a dash of hot curry powder, or gently coddled and then dumped out onto a piece of sourdough garlic toast); or for breakfast (scrambled or sunny-side up or down, with a few pieces of bacon). Where and how you buy your eggs is your own personal business, like religion and politics; I prefer organic eggs that drop out of free-range chickens -- they seem to have a brighter flavor, and a darker, firmer yolk, although I have also had very good mass-produced ones. You, on the other hand, may be satisfied with a supermarket brand, and that's fine. Wherever you buy them, just make sure that they are fresh, store them in the coldest part of your refrigerator (not the door), and if you have the slightest sense that they're even remotely off, out they go.

"The egg, that perfect, pristine, primal object -- we may not gobble it up as profusely now as we used to, but every mouthful should be memorable," said Julia Child, in The Way to Cook. The Queen spoke, and I couldn't agree more.

*****

The Perfect Poached Egg

Forget about those little metal egg-shaped contraptions that you lower into a pot of simmering water. For this fool-proof recipe, all you need is the back end of a wooden spoon. Serve it on toast or on pile of fresh salad greens, for a simple and delicious mid-summer dinner.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons white vinegar

4 large eggs

Tools You'll Need:

* 1 medium saucepan with tight-fitting lid
* wooden spoon
* 4 small glass custard dishes
* slotted spoon
* timer

1. Fill saucepan ¾ of the way to the top with water, and bring to a simmer.

2. Add vinegar.

3. Crack eggs, one into each custard cup, taking care not to break the yolks.

4. Holding the custard cups very close to the surface of the water, carefully slip each egg into the simmering water, one at a time.

5. Using the dowel end of the wooden spoon, gently and quickly "fold" the whites over their respective yolks.

6. Cover the saucepan, remove it from the heat, and do not peek for 3 and a half minutes.

7. Using a slotted spoon, remove each egg, and serve immediately on toast, or on a fresh frisée salad.

Serves 2

Vegetable Frittata

Make this savory, mouthwatering and inexpensive dish for brunch or dinner; wrapped well and kept cold, it also makes perfect picnic food, but can be just as easily served hot, or at room temperature. A good quality stick-proof sauté pan that is also oven proof (no plastic handles) is a must for this dish.

Note: If your egg intake is seriously restricted, reduce the number of eggs in this dish by half, and add the egg-substitute or egg-white equivalent of 4 eggs. And remember that although the dish is made with 8 or 4 eggs, you won't be eating all of the eggs yourself.

Ingredients

8 eggs, beaten well and seasoned with a pinch of salt and pepper (or 4 beaten eggs blended together with the egg-substitute or egg-white equivalent of 4 eggs)

Unflavored cooking spray or extra virgin olive oil

2 cups chopped vegetables, leftover or fresh: zucchini, summer squash, tomatoes, asparagus, spinach, kale, onion

1 cup parmigiana reggiano, freshly grated

Good quality extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Coarsely ground black pepper, to taste

Tools You'll Need:

8" heavy duty stick-proof, oven proof sauté pan

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Coat sauté pan with cooking spray, and set over a medium flame. Add vegetables, and if fresh, sauté until soft; if you're using leftovers, heat the vegetables through.

3. Distribute the vegetables evenly in the pan, and pour in the eggs. DO NOT SHAKE THE PAN. Let the eggs cook around the vegetables, until they are "set."

4. Sprinkle the cheese evenly over the surface of the eggs, and carefully place in the hot oven for approximately 8-10 minutes, until the eggs have slightly pulled away from the sides of the pan.

5. Turn the up to at least 500 (or broil) degrees, and broil carefully until the top of the frittata is golden brown.

6. Remove pan from oven, and run a knife around the perimeter of the frittata, loosening it from the pan. Place a heat-proof dinner plate over the surface of the eggs, and carefully invert the sauté pan, so that the frittata is now on the plate, upside down. Invert again onto another plate, drizzle with good quality extra virgin olive oil, and shower with freshly ground black pepper and fresh parsley sprisg.

7. Cut into wedges, and serve with a lightly dressed salad.

Serves 4

Optional ingredients:

* Sausage (meatless or traditional): chop coarsely and add prior to the vegetables
* Leftover pasta: add prior to the vegetables
* Baby new potatoes: sliced in half, add prior to the vegetables, and increase cooking time on top of the stove by 6 minutes.
* A hefty dollop of pesto sauce blended together with the eggs
* Goat cheese or ricotta blended together with the eggs

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