There’s something about the name of the old-fashioned French dish Oeufs à la Tripe that makes me smile. You’d think it would turn out to be eggs with tripe, and if you saw it on a menu you might not order it (though I probably would).
In fact, the traditional version is a friendly, easy-on-the-mind gratin of creamed onions with hard-cooked eggs, possibly given its name because tripe is often cooked with onions, and, if you have a vivid imagination, you might mistake the slices of egg white for ribbons of tripe. Or perhaps an ancestor of the dish actually contained tripe.
On a recent trip to Paris, my wife, Jackie, her sister and I had dinner at a fairly new restaurant called Terroir Parisien, set up in spring 2012 by Yannick Alléno, the three-Michelin-star chef whose main restaurant is in the Hôtel Meurice. Taken as a whole, the meal was nice: first courses and desserts were terrific while main dishes were rather flat; not an uncommon pattern, when you think about it. But the place is happy and not terribly expensive, so I think we’ll be back on a future trip.
One of those excellent first courses was a delicious take on oeufs à la tripe. Bland, milk-cooked onions were replaced by zippy ones with a nice hit of acidity; there were plenty of hard-cooked eggs in and atop the dish. I knew the minute I tasted it that this was something we would have at home. But I didn’t immediately know exactly what form it would take or how it would fit into our plans for a dinner party.
At the restaurant, the mixture was simply served in a little bowl, and there was, of course, bread on the table to round it out and to add a little crusty crunch. At home, even when there’s company, we rarely serve bread, so I needed to make the onions and eggs into something a little more like a standalone first course. One of our favorite classes of starter is onion tart in just about any form (quichelike; pizzalike; you name it), and it seemed to me that placing the onion-egg mixture in a pastry shell would be a good approach.
The first thing I did was discard the idea of making individual three- or four-inch tartlets: too much work, plus there’s no flexibility in serving size for either first or second helpings; I opted for a single 11-inch tart. The second was to decide that all elements — onions, eggs and empty pastry shell — would be fully cooked before assembly, which would provide flexibility in timing as well as portion size. (Putting a filling in a fully baked pastry shell keeps its temperature down even in a hot oven, so there’s no danger that it will burn on reheating.)
Early in the day, I cooked 10 medium onions, sliced around 1/8-inch thick, in butter with plenty of salt and pepper and maybe 1/8 teaspoon of sugar. This produced far more than I would need, but cooked onions are a useful thing to have in the refrigerator. I didn’t let them brown, and I didn’t let them lose 100 percent of their crunch; just, say, 80 percent. They needed to be tender yet not mushy. For the tart, I needed a scant two cups of cooked onions; these I segregated and continued to cook with a couple of teaspoons of sherry vinegar for a gentle note of acidity and finally loosened them with two tablespoons of chicken stock.
I hard-cooked five eggs — but not too hard. To do so, I pierced the rounded ends with a pushpin, put them in a small saucepan with cool water to cover, brought this to the boil and cooked them for about a minute and a half, then covered the pan and left it off the heat for another 11 minutes. I then immediately chilled the eggs in cold water, rolling each one on the work surface to crack the shell all over, then peeled and held the eggs until needed.
For the pastry, I food-processed about 10 ounces of flour and six ounces of butter, plus salt and finely minced fresh rosemary, then added ice water a little at a time until the dough just started to come together. I wrapped the dough in plastic and let it rest in the fridge for half an hour. I rolled out the pastry then used it to line an 11-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. I lined that, in turn, with aluminum foil and put it in the freezer while the oven preheated to 400 degrees. I added pie weights (the same dried beans I’ve been using since about 1975) and baked the shell for 20 minutes, then removed the foil and beans and continued to bake at 375 degrees until the tart shell was brown and crisp. I removed it from its pan and left it to cool on a wire rack. (I had rerolled the pastry trimmings with Parmesan cheese and made them into little palmiers to serve with pre-dinner drinks.)
A quarter-hour before serving, I warmed the onions, checked them for seasoning and vinegar and folded in four of the eggs, halved then sliced into semicircles on one of those wire egg slicers; the fifth egg I sliced into rounds without first halving it and set it aside. I placed the tart shell on a baking sheet, spread it with an even layer of onion-egg mixture and baked it at 375 degrees for 10 minutes to heat through. I cut as many slices as I needed and topped each one with a round of egg, which warmed from the heat of the tart.
It was even more fun than it had been in Paris — not because my onion-egg mixture was better (it wasn’t, not by a long shot), but because the very crisp, rosemary-scented pastry added an appealing texture and aroma that, by design, weren’t part of the original dish. And somehow, during that final 10 minutes in the oven, the pastry and the onion-egg-filling came together as a coherent tart.
Alléno’s version was already once removed from the traditional dish; mine was once removed from his. But Jackie and I still couldn’t resist (briefly) scaring our guests with one daunting word: tripe.
Schneider’s Cooking Off the Cuff appears Fridays in All We Can Eat. Follow him on Twitter @TimeToCook.