Despite the infinite complexity of cooking, sometimes the hardest things to master are those that appear to be staggeringly simple. Many of the great chefs subscribe to this philosophy.
‘You can tell how good a cook is by how well he does the simple things, says Marco Pierre White in White Heat.
Thomas Keller’s eulogy to the quiche in his book Bouchon is a study in eloquence that manages to list the perfect attributes that all go into making the superficially simple bistro classic. Pastry and batter – this is all there is but it is ‘the essence of luxury, a great delicacy using the most common ingredients.’ A great quiche is, he says, ‘almost sexual.’
Where there are no trinkets or trifles, there is no-where to hide.
Daniel Boulud writes in Letters to a Young Chef of the importance of being able to cook a perfect omelette and how André Soltner would never look at a resume. ‘Instead he would say “make me an omelet (sic).” He figured he could tell a lot simply from watching the way the applicant beat the eggs, handled the pan and tasted for seasoning.’
But it is in the simple done well that true satisfaction resides. It’s my view that the greatest dishes contain no more than three ingredients: a chicken roasted with nothing more than salt and pepper, a potato fried in goose fat with a light dusting of sea salt, a slice of fresh bread containing flour, yeast and water, a wafer thin pizza topped with tomato, basil and mozzarella (OK, technically that’s four, but you get the point).
Scrambled eggs is one such dish. Done badly it is frustratingly disappointing – dry, hard, rubbery eggs cooked too quickly over a high heat or, heaven forbid in a microwave, unseasoned and anaemic in colour. This is not an appetising dish.
Done well, however, it is a wonder to behold. Contrary to residing orthodoxy, it isn’t a convenience dish. It is something to be nurtured and appreciated, cooked slowly and stirred into creamy richness.
According to the legendary chef Auguste Escoffier, eggs should be scrambled for forty minutes, lovingly stirred at regular intervals to prevent the formation of any hard lumps. While most of us don’t have such temporal luxury, ten to fifteen minutes should be enough to create a dish to behold.
Eggs, butter, salt and pepper are all that is necessary – no need for cream, milk or any other additions. If you have good eggs, and this dish is all about the eggs, let them shine.
Crack them into a pan, add a few cubes of butter and cook them over a low heat, stirring regularly until the butter melts into the eggs and they start to set. Don’t take your eyes off them, don’t stop stirring – this is the crucial moment. Most importantly take them off the heat before they are cooked, the residual heat in the pan will be enough to set them to the desired texture.
Season with salt and pepper (always salt eggs at the end of cooking, something to do with the coagulation of proteins), stir for one final time and turn out onto freshly toasted bread. Simple? Perhaps. Easy? Nothing of the sort.
Slightly off topic, but still on the subject of simplicity and perfection, the kittens are doing well. I look like I’ve taken up self-harm thanks to the vast number of scratches covering my arms and legs but they are so much fun that it’s worth every claw mark.
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