IF INGREDIENTS WERE TO GET Academy Awards, eggs would be a yearly contender for "Best Supporting Ingredient in a Major Recipe." It's nearly impossible to cook or bake without eggs; they thicken, bind, lighten and emulsify, performing a thousand different parts though rarely grabbing the spotlight in a starring role.
When eggs do get their big break, it is in that short act of the culinary world -- breakfast. But even then, they often feel the restrictions of typecasting. Year after year they appear as "Over Easy," "Sunny Side Up," or "Three-Minute Poached," never given the chance they need to make it to the big time.
Eggs are probably overlooked most often because they are both common and inexpensive. No refrigerator is ever so empty as when it's minus eggs. And when hamburger is selling for well over $1.50 a pound, eggs weigh in as a real bargain at about $.60 per pound. (A dozen of the large grade tips the scales at 1 1/2 pounds.)
Eggs are also a bargain nutritionally. Along with a very digestible form of protein, they supply 13 minerals. And at only 80 to 90 calories each, they are a boon to dieters trying to lose weight. However, heart patients are often advised to avoid eating eggs because of the large amount of cholesterol contained in the yolks.
Because eggs come packed in nature's own disposable container, the eggshell, they keep well under refrigeration and if left in their carton, will stay fresh for four or five weeks. If you prefer to store them on the refrigerator door, be sure to place the large end up and keep them for no longer than three weeks. This is not, however, the best storage method since the eggs will soon absorb refrigerator odors through their porous shells.
It's that porous shell that makes the hard-cooked egg a little unpredictable. Will the eggs peel or won't they? Surprisingly it's the fresh egg that won't peel easily. As an egg ages for several days, the pores in the eggshell allow air to enter. After all, if there were a baby chick inside, it would need oxygen. As the air enters, it changes the pH of the skin that lines the shell, a transformation which reduces the chance of the skin sticking to the shell or the egg white. It's necessary, then, to hard-cook eggs that have been allowed to breathe for several days, not much of a problem considering the length of time it takes an egg to reach the market. However, some egg producers coat their product with a light wash of mineral oil to fill the pores, claiming that this treatment helps to retain freshness longer. The treated eggs also retain large hunks of egg white when peeled. If you suspect that your eggs have been coated, cook one or two as a test. If they are difficult to peel, wash the remaining eggs in soapy water, rinse well and allow to sit out on the counter overnight.
To prepare perfect hard-cooked eggs, first pierce the shell at the large end of the egg where the air pocket is located, using either a pin or an egg puncher designed for this purpose. Pricking the shell will allow the air to escape as the egg expands during cooking. The shell will not crack, and the cooked egg will be more nearly oval. Place eggs in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil. Cover the saucepan and remove from heat. Allow to sit in the hot water for 20 minutes (15 for small, 18 for medium), then cool in very cold water (adding ice will help). Run shell under cold running water. If you are prompt about cooling the eggs, the yolk should not discolor.
Your star is now ready to perform. In nearly every cuisine, there are exciting dishes featuring the hard-cooked egg. Here are just a few to add to your repertoire.
In gasthauses all over Germany, they serve a cold platter that translates as Russian Eggs. It has many variations, but most commonly it is composed of a cold meat salad topped with hard-cooked eggs that have been coated with mayonnaise tinted pink with tomato. Some gasthaus owners, who perhaps harbor old grudges, prefer to call it a Restoration Platter. In all its variations, it makes a pleasant lunch.
RUSSIAN EGGS ALIAS RESTORATION PLATTER (4 servings) 1 pound auffschnitt (an assortment of cold cuts such as ham, bologna, thuringer, salami, etc.) 1 small onion, minced 1 cup celery, thinly sliced 1/2 cup carrots, diced and cooked 1/2 cup chopped sweet pickle 1 cup mayonnaise Salt and pepper to taste 8 hard-cooked eggs 2 tablespoons ketchup 1/4 teaspoon white pepper 1 head leaf lettuce 2 tablespoons caviar (optional) 8 radishes 8 black olives
When you go into a butcher shop in Germany and ask for auffschnitt, the butcher cuts one or two slices of everything in the deli case. If it seems inconvenient for you to buy an assortment of meats, it is possible to make this dish with only one or two types of cold cuts or with cooked cold chicken or pork. Whatever you use, cut the meat in thin julienne strips. Place it in a bowl with the onion, celery, carrots and pickle. Add enough mayonnaise to bind but not overwhelm the ingredients and season with salt and pepper. Hard-cook the eggs, chill and peel them. Mix 1/2 cup mayonnaise with 2 tablespoons catsup to make a pink mayonnaise and season with the white pepper. Line 4 salad plates with lettuce. Divide the meat salad evenly on the plates. Place 2 eggs upright on the salad. Mask each egg with the pink mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon on each egg. Top each egg with a tiny bit of caviar. Garnish with 2 radishes and 2 olives. This may be done ahead.
SMOKED EGG PATE 8 large hard-cooked eggs 1/2 cup soft margarine (must come in a tub, not a stick) 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke flavoring Anchovy filets, stuffed green olives or parsley for garnish
While the eggs are still a little warm, shell them and place in a food processor fitted with a knife blade. Process until smooth. (If you do not have a food processor, push the cooked eggs through a sieve and transfer to a blender before adding other ingredients.) Add the remaining ingredients and combine well. Pack mixture into an oiled mold or small loaf pan lined with waxed paper. Chill. At serving time, unmold and decorate with strips of anchovy filets, slices of stuffed green olives or minced parsley. Serve with crackers, melba rounds or raw vegetables.
Note: I like to make this pa te' with real butter if I'm going to serve it immediately after I make it. However, the butter will become too hard if it must be chilled. This appetizer is so buttery and smooth that you will find dozens of uses for it -- stuffed in celery sticks, spread on tea sandwiches, used with caviar on rye bread. It freezes perfectly for as long as 3 months.
Stuffed eggs, a staple at summertime picnics and church suppers, don't have to be plain janes. Why not try one of the variations offered below as an elegant but inexpensive first course? Serve on a bed of shredded lettuce that has been dressed with a little vinaigrette.
MUSHROOM SURPRISE EGGS (Makes 24) 1 dozen hard-cooked eggs 1/2 pound mushrooms 3 tablespoons oil 1 small onion, minced 1 clove garlic, mashed 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper Pinch nutmeg 1 tablespoon dijon mustard Salt and pepper to taste 1/4 cup sour cream (approximately)
Hard-cook and chill the eggs. Slice the mushrooms very thin, then mince fine. Place the mushrooms in a napkin or dish towel and squeeze all of the water out. This procedure will require a kneading action and a lot of pressure. You will be able to wring out nearly a cup of liquid. Save the juice for a stock or sauce. Heat a skillet or saucepan and add the oil. Don't use butter; it will harden when the mushrooms are chilled. Saute' the onion and garlic in the oil until soft. Add the mushrooms and saute' very slowly until there is no moisture in the pan and the mushrooms are dark. Add the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cut the eggs in half lengthwise and remove the yolks. Place a small spoonful of the mushroom mixture in each egg. Rub the yolks through a sieve. Stir in the mustard, salt and pepper and enough sour cream to make a smooth, thick mixture. Place the yolks in a pastry bag fitted with a star tip and pipe the yolks over the mushrooms in a rosette design. Garnish the tops with a very tiny dot of mushroom mixture.
ROQUEFORT-STUFFED EGGS (Makes 24) 1 dozen hard-cooked eggs 2 ounces roquefort cheese 1/4 teaspoon white pepper Soft margarine (about 1/4 cup) 24 tiny triangles cut from pimiento 24 parsley leaves
Cut the hard-cooked eggs in half lengthwise. Remove the yolks. Place the cheese, yolks and white pepper in a food processor and process until smooth. Add soft margarine and process until smooth. If you don't have a processor, rub the cheese and yolks through a sieve, then stir until smooth. Pipe into the egg whites, using a pastry bag fitted with a number 4 star tip. Top each egg with a triangle of pimiento and a parsley leaf arranged to look like a flower.
STUFFED EGGS MARINA (6 servings) 6 hard-cooked eggs 1 cup finely diced cooked shrimp 1/4 cup homemade mayonnaise (recipe follows) Salt and pepper to taste
Mayonnaise coating 1 1/2 teaspoons gelatin 2 tablespoons cold water 1/4 cup homemade mayonnaise (recipe follows) 1 cup diced cooked carrots 1 cup cooked fresh peas (substitute frozen, thawed peas) 1/2 cup diced cooked celery 2 tablespoons minced onion Mayonnaise to bind Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 teaspoon tarragon 1/2 teaspoon basil 1 head leaf lettuce
Cut the hard-cooked eggs in half lengthwise. Remove the yolks and set aside. Dice the shrimp very fine. Mix with 1/4 cup mayonnaise or just enough to bind it. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stuff the egg whites with this mixture, dividing equally between the 12 whites. Refrigerate to chill. Make the mayonnaise coating: Soften 1 1/2 teaspoons of gelatin in 2 tablespoons of cold water for 1 minute. Place over a low flame and melt the gelatin. Mix the melted gelatin with 1/4 cup mayonnaise. If the mixture is too thick to pour, add a little water. If the gelatin makes the mayonnaise set, warm it gently over hot water. Be careful; too much heat will make the oil separate and you will need to begin again. Spoon about 2 tablespoons of the coating mayonnaise over each egg half. Return to the refrigerator. Place the cooked carrots, peas, celery and onion in a bowl. Add enough mayonnaise to bind the vegetables and season mixture with salt and pepper, tarragon and basil. Mix well. Line each salad plate with lettuce. Make a small mound of vegetable salad in the center of the plate. Place a stuffed egg on either side. Rub the reserved egg yolks through a sieve over the vegetables.
HOMEMADE MAYONNAISE (Makes 1 1/2 to 2 cups) 1 whole egg 1 tablespoon lemon juice Salt and white pepper, to taste 1 1/2 cups salad oil
Place the egg, salt, pepper and lemon juice in a food processor or blender. Turn on and off to mix. Turn motor on and begin adding oil in a thin stream. Continue adding oil until mixture becomes thick.
Note: For a whiter mayonnaise whisk in a tablespoon of water at the end.
HUNGARIAN STUFFED EGGS (6 servings) 9 hard-cooked eggs 4 tablespoons onion, minced very fine 6 tablespoons butter 1/2 teaspoon Hungarian sweet paprika Salt and pepper, to taste 6 medium ripe tomatoes, sliced 1/2 inch thick 6 large slices rye bread, toasted and trimmed 2 tablespoons flour 1 cup heavy cream Zest of 1 lemon 1/4 cup minced parsley
Cut the eggs in half lengthwise. Remove the yolks and rub them through a sieve. Mince the onion very, very fine and saute' it in 4 tablespoons butter. Add the paprika, salt, pepper and the egg yolks and stir. Stuff the egg whites with this mixture. Set aside. Saute' the tomato slices in the same pan used for the onion. Season with salt and pepper. When they are just beginning to soften, remove them from the pan. Place the rye bread slices on a cookie sheet and cover each piece of bread with three slices of tomato. Top each tomato slice with a stuffed egg half. Set aside. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan. When it bubbles, add the flour and cook, stirring, over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the cream and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper and the zest of a lemon. Simmer 2 or 3 minutes, stirring constantly. At serving time, place the eggs in a 375-degree oven for 5 minutes. Pour a little cream sauce over each egg and sprinkle with minced parsley.
EGGS BRETON STYLE (6 servings) 3 leeks, white part only 1/2 pound mushrooms 6 tablespoons butter 1/4 cup chicken stock 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 4 tablespoons flour 1 1/2 cups milk 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 dozen hard-cooked eggs
Clean the leeks and mushrooms and thinly slice. Saute' them in 2 tablespoons of butter until soft. Add the chicken stock, salt, pepper and nutmeg and cover with a lid. Cook 2 minutes. In a 1-quart saucepan, melt 4 tablespoons butter and add the flour. Cook 1 minute, stirring. Gradually stir in the milk and bring to a boil. Cook until the sauce thickens slightly. Season with salt. Add the saute'ed leeks and mushrooms to the sauce. Pour 1/3 of the sauce in the bottom of an ovenproof au gratin dish. Slice the eggs, reserving 3 yolks. Arrange the eggs over the sauce. Cover with the remaining sauce. Heat in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes. Sprinkle with the three egg yolks, which have been sieved, and serve with toast points or rice.