There's more to eggs than scrambled breakfast. Poached, fried or soft-boiled, premium eggs are getting serious culinary treatment at some of the finest restaurants these days. They're cracked atop wood-fired pizzas, tossed into pasta, and some are even taking a solo turn as an amuse bouche on some tasting menus.
At Woodside, Calif.'s Village Pub, for example, executive chef Dmitry Elperin's signature glistening poached egg isn't accompanied by bacon or home fries. Rather, it's perched atop house-made spaghettini and served with sauteed artichokes, shaved bottarga and a vegetable nage -- a flavorful French stock -- for dinner.
"Eggs are the most simple form of elegance," says Elperin, who loves serving poached eggs with sweet breads and chicory. "We relate them to caviar. And to our childhoods. They're rich, neutral and simply a great vehicle for transporting flavor."
Eggs have firm roots in classic French cooking, say Elperin and his colleagues, and Americans are catching on -- and adding their own spin.
At Oakland, Calif.'s Marzano and its sister restaurant, Hudson, eggs are cooked to perfection atop artisanal pizzas in wood-fired ovens. Two-year-old Marzano offers nine delicate, blistered, Neapolitan pizzas, including a garlicky meatball marinara, all with the option of an added egg for $2. And on Hudson's opening night in January, executive chef Robert Holt was cracking eggs onto pizzas topped with wild nettles and fresh goat cheese, or spicy pork sausage with braised Tuscan kale.
Eggs may be a simple pleasure, but they're not necessarily easy to cook, Holt says. All chefs have their secrets to avoid wetness or curdles. Holt pulls the pizza from the wood-fired oven halfway through the cooking process, waiting until the hot dough is already beginning to blister before cracking a raw egg into the center and returning it to the heat.
For Valentine's Day, Jonathan Hall at Parcel 104 in Santa Clara, Calif., served eggs as an amuse bouche, topped with whipped, truffle-salted potatoes.
"It'll melt in your mouth," he says.
Another tip for home chefs: Philippe Chevalier, the French-born and trained chef of Lafayette, Calif.'s Chevalier Restaurant, says a few drops of vinegar are a must when poaching an egg in water, chicken stock or red wine. It helps the whites "fix" and gather around the yolk. Also, once the water is boiling, Chevalier advises reducing the heat to medium-high before cracking the egg in the bath.
Cook it for two to three minutes before removing it gently with a slotted spoon. Finally, put the egg in ice water immediately to keep it from cooking more.
"You want your yolk very soft," says Chevalier. Another favorite of his: Oeuf Cocotte Parisian, a quick-baked egg dressed with creme fraiche and any number of mix-ins, from prosciutto to lentils or foie gras.
"Prepared this way, eggs are a classic in France," he says.
> Grilled Broccoli Rabe and Radicchio with Pancetta Dressing and Soft-Cooked Egg
2 slices day-old rustic bread, crusts removed
1/4 pound pancetta, cut into 1/4 -inch dice
1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, roughly chopped
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup diced red onion
1/4 cup finely chopped fennel (about 1/2 bulb)
1 pound young broccoli rabe, leaves removed
2 heads radicchio, cored and leaves separated
2 tablespoons blended olive and grape seed oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
4 large eggs
20 shavings Parmigiano-Reggiano
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly oil and salt the bread; bake until golden brown, 10 minutes. Let cool, tear into pieces, and grind to fine bread crumbs in food processor.
In a medium skillet, cook pancetta over medium-high heat until lightly golden brown, 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels. In a bowl, mix the vinegar, mustard seeds, red pepper flakes, sugar and thyme. Whisk in melted butter; add red onions, fennel and pancetta. Set the pancetta vinaigrette aside.
In a large bowl, toss the broccoli rabe with the radicchio leaves, blended oils, and garlic; season with salt. Heat a grill or grill pan until hot but not smoking. In batches, grill the broccoli rabe and radicchio for 30 seconds, turning frequently, until just wilted; transfer to a large bowl. When done, toss them with 4 tablespoons pancetta vinaigrette.
Bring a medium pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Adjust heat to maintain a simmer and cook eggs for 5 minutes. Plunge eggs into an ice water bath. When cool enough to handle, peel.
To serve, mound the grilled broccoli rabe and radicchio on 4 serving plates. Top each with Parmigiano shavings and a whole soft-cooked egg. Drizzle with remaining vinaigrette and top generously with breadcrumbs.
-- Darryl Estrine and Kelly Kochendorfer, "Harvest to Heat: Cooking with America's Best Chefs, Farmers, and Artisans" (Taunton Press, 304 pp., $40)
> Oeuf Cocotte Parisian
1 ounce prosciutto, lentils or cooked chicken breast
2 ounces mushrooms, sliced
1/2 clove garlic, finely minced
2 teaspoons creme fraiche, divided
Salt, pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon chives, chopped
1 slice white country bread, toasted
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Grease the sides and bottom of a small ramekin with softened butter.
Heat frying pan to medium high. Add olive oil, prosciutto, mushrooms and garlic. Saute 3-4 minutes. Transfer to ramekin and top with 1 teaspoon creme fraiche.
Carefully crack the egg into the center of the ramekin, so you don't break the yoke. Add salt and pepper as desired, then top with second teaspoon of creme fraiche. Bake 5-6 minutes. Garnish with chopped chives and enjoy with toast. Serves 1.
-- Philippe Chevalier, Chevalier Restaurant
> Egg-topped pizza tips
The trick to doing an egg-topped pizza successfully, says Holt and Chez Panisse's Alice Waters, is using a pizza stone and a very hot oven, 500 degrees or more. Wait to add the egg until halfway through the pizza baking time, then continue baking until the white has set, but the yolk is still a little runny. An egg is splendid on nearly any mixture of toppings, but here are two ideas.
* Brush the dough with a mixture of olive oil and minced garlic. Add thinly sliced onion and grated mozzarella and fontina. Halfway through the cooking time, add the egg and finish baking. Garnish with sliced prosciutto, chopped parsley and a drizzle of white truffle or olive oil. ("Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook," Harper Collins 1999)
* Holt tops his favorite pizza with oven-roasted San Marzano tomatoes, spicy house-made pork sausage, braised Tuscan kale and aged provolone, plus an egg. He serves it garnished with Parmesan and flat-leaf parsley.