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Walking on shells
In what was rather nice timing, a little before Easter, a friend presented me with a state-of-the-art egg timer. Not the old fashioned, hour-glass kind but something strictly space age, that Ford Prefect might carry in his satchel - along with the Babel fish, a towel and the Guide - as he hitchhikes his way across the galaxy. It resembles a red rubbery egg with one flat side. On the curved transparent surface there is a graduated scale, one end of which reads "soft", the other "hard", and "medium" is inscribed in the centre. You place it with the eggs in boiling water and wait for it to gradually darken, the passage of the shadow, as it moves along the scale, indicating the degree to which the eggs are done. It's mysterious, magical, and works with thrilling accuracy every time!
My friend shares my love - bordering on addiction - for kitchen gadgets. She also knows that eggs are my favorite food group - as long as there are eggs in the house, no meal poses a problem. With eggs, your imagination is truly the only limit to a deeply satisfying, endless culinary experimentation.
But boiling an egg to that precise degree of desired doneness has always posed a challenge - no amount of stop watches, water temperature controls et al seems to guarantee accuracy. Yet, I've always yearned to master this art because it unveils worlds of culinary possibilities. And so, naturally, I'm delighted with my latest kitchen gizmo.
The beauty of boiled eggs is each stage of doneness - from just-this-side-of-raw to hard-core hard-boiled, and every phase in-between - that gives you a distinct food experience. If you doubt this, just hold an informal poll amongst family and friends asking them how they like their boiled egg for breakfast. "Oh! I'm not fussy" is a response you'll rarely hear - for when it comes to eggs everyone is remarkably exact. There are those (and I'm one of them) who look forward to starting the day with an egg that's just at the point when the white is starting to cloud and enjoy their quarter-boiled egg broken into a bowl with hot toast (buttered if in an extravagant mood) cut into little pieces and swirled around. Others prefer their egg served in an egg cup, the white firm (and here again there's a matter of subtle calibrations), enclosing a pool of golden yolk where warm crisp soldiers can be conveniently dipped. And some can't bear a hint of wobble in either white or yolk, demanding an egg that's unequivocally cooked through, with plenty of bite in every spoonful.
Moreover, every stage of boiled egg with its distinct sensations of taste, texture and appearance, embodies an exciting ingredient that can dramatically transform a dish by adding panache and the element of surprise.
For a Cesar Salad, for instance, when you break in the eggs, you want the whites runny, the yolks liquid sunshine, so that the crisp lettuce, biscuit-brown croutons and smoky bits of bacon are tossed through with this final ingredient. And the delicious taste of the just-cooked egg and garlicky French dressing creates a burst of sensation on your palate.
The roadside sandwich shops near Kolkata's New Market offer a treat whose USP is a perfectly cooked egg. Soft pau is split in half, buttered generously and grilled lightly on the tawa. One half is topped with cheese slices, and piled with julienned veggies (tomatoes, onions, carrots, green capsicum) and on this crunchy, gaily-coloured tangle a warm soft-boiled egg is deftly split, before the remaining half of pau is slapped on. The egg is perfect: The white firm but with enough of a wobble to be squashed, and the yolk a rich liquid gold that spreads obligingly when the second layer of bread is put on, yet not so runny as to drip down the sides. It's the boiling of the egg that's let me down every time I've attempted to recreate this sarnie at home. Inevitably, I mistime the moment when the egg needs to come out of the boiling water, resulting in it being disappointingly over- or under-done. But now, armed with my brand new egg timer, I can at last claim success.
Salads with a Middle-Eastern accent are always happy to accommodate eggs that are almost full boiled - resilient whites, yolks still soft but firm. For instance, topping a salad of tossed garlic-scented, olive oil-slicked couscous, plump black olives, roasted red and yellow peppers and some crumbled feta, with halved eggs and a shower of mint creates a dish that's beautiful to look at and quite delicious.
Once again, my new kitchen toy is proving hugely helpful. Eggs cooked to this point are also perfect additions to a summer dish where a smoky layer of baba ganoush is garnished with oven-roasted green capsicum then painted with a thick coat of tahini-rich, olive-oil mellowed yoghurt. Just press the halved eggs on top, add a handful of mint and you have a tasty ensemble that's a canvas of colours - earthy brown eggplant, charred jade-green pepper, creamy white tahini, golden egg yolks and the verdant sprigs of mint.
And of course, with the egg timer, I can ensure that hard-boiled eggs - essential for such finger food favourites like devilled eggs - never overcook to turn rubbery and tasteless.
The egg timer has also proved invaluable for preparing duck and quail eggs. The latter is especially tricky, since you really do want to achieve the firm white-soft yolk stage to truly bring out the best of these delicacy items. And for me that's always been a bit of a hit or miss affair. But no longer: Now whether it's an aragula salad with soft-boiled quail egg, or a bite-sized package of mirin-scented sushi rice, tied with a ribbon of deep green nori, and containing in its wasabi-coated core, a tiny liquid-yolked whole quail egg, or a starter of quail egg nesting prettily in a bed of Hollandaisecloaked fresh asparagus, the timer helps to cook the eggs perfectly.
Duck eggs, with their deep orange yolk, can make a wonderful and unusual starter. Cook them just short of the hard-boiled stage (that would be about 5-6 minutes). While the eggs boil, heat some oil and sautê chopped onion, garlic, coriander, dash of soy sauce and pinch of sugar. Plunge the cooked eggs in ice water, shell and then shallow fry them in the onion mix, moving around continuously till they are well-coated. Take off heat, halve, and arrange on a plate. Sprinkle with sesame oil and some chopped spring onion. If cooked to the right degree, the yolk should be firm, but just about.
And, it goes without saying, that this Easter weekend, armed with my incredible egg thermometer, I'm planning a brunch where each guest will get a prettily painted boiled egg cooked, I hope, precisely to his or her liking!
QUAIL EGG VOL-AU-VENT
12 vol-au-vent cases liver pate 12 quail eggs fresh dill
Cook the eggs till the whites become firm, but the yolks remain runny. Shell. Heat vol-au-vent cases and fill with pate. Gently press one egg into each case so that it is embedded in the pate. Using a sharp knife or scissors, make an incision in the egg white so that the yolk is just visible. Garnish each case with a sprig of dill before serving
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