Quiche Me, You Fool!

I’ve spoken before on the wonderful ability of eggs to bind together various leftovers, whether in a scramble or an omelet. But recently, my favorite egg-based application is the quiche, and after a few trial runs, I feel like I’ve got my technique pretty much down pat.

First of all, I admit, I use pre-made, store-bought, frozen pie crusts. Yes, that’s arguably cheating, but until I get the hang of making a crust from scratch — and there will be a post on that, when it happens — I prefer to focus on the payload instead of the delivery system.

So with that said, I like a 9″ deep crust. You’ll also need two eggs and a cup of half-and-half, plus whatever goodies you’re putting into the quiche itself. If you’re making a dinner quiche, set your crust to thaw in the refigerator that morning; for a breakfast quiche, start it thawing the night before. When you’re ready to start your preparation, go ahead and get the crust out and let it start coming to room temperature, along with your eggs.

Now, a word about those goodies. As a starting point, if you’ve never made a quiche before, I’d say take your favorite omelet fillings — and if you’ve been following this blog for awhile, hopefully you’ve got some m@d l33t omelet skillz0r5 — and try them in a quiche. Really, anything that you’d put in an omelet, a quiche can handle. You’ll want to think in larger portions, since the quiche just has to bind all those goodies together, but doesn’t have to safely enfold them.

(Theoretically, the relationship also works in reverse — any set of quiche fillings can be used in an omelet. The counter-example suggested by a long-time reader is broccoli and cheese, and yeah, I’m not sure how well that would work in an omelet.)

The quiche has another major advantage over its crustless, trifold cousin: while an omelet cooks quickly, a quiche takes over an hour, between baking and resting. So you can be doing other things once the quiche is in the oven, while omelets demand more continual attention. As faithful readers know, I’m a huge proponent of multitasking, so at least at the moment I prefer making quiches to omelets.

Now, that being said, I don’t advocate tossing raw meat or an entire crudités platter into your quiche. You still want all the fillings to be cooked through, and warm (but not hot) when they meet up with your eggs and dairy. If you’re using aromatic veggies — and why wouldn’t you? — then I really recommend sweating them as thoroughly as you can, just so you don’t end up with a soggy-crusted, watery quiche.

By the way, while you’re sweating those aromatics? That’s a great time to start the oven preheating to 400 degrees. Also, if you’re adding meat, you may want to cook it through first, then sweat with whatever fat rendered out. You’ll want to drain both meat and veg before adding them to the crust, because just as you don’t want a soggy crust, you don’t want a lake of oil in the quiche, either.

Of course, you can take out a bit of insurance against a soggy crust by sprinkling some of your cheese (oh, sorry, were you planning a quiche without cheese? Yeah, that’s not happening) into the crust while it’s coming up to room temperature. Also, if you’re planning to use garlic (and again, why wouldn’t you?) I’d recommend dicing it up and just sprinkling it into the crust raw. Finely diced garlic doesn’t take long at all to cook, and you REALLY don’t want to overcook garlic. That’s like crossing the streams, but without the positive side-effect of banishing Gozer. Anyway, the other ingredients will easily cook the garlic when they settle atop it.

Okay, when your filling goodies are cooked through, set the aside to cool for a few minutes. In the meantime, measure out that cup of half-and-half, add the eggs, and whisk; I like doing this in a pint measuring cup, preferably one with a spout. When your other ingredients have cooled to comfortable handle-with-fingers temperature, start adding them to the crust. I like alternating layers of cheese and other fillings, let the warm ingredients get a head start on melting the cheese.

Once all your filling ingredients have been added, it’s time to SLOWLY pour in the eggs and dairy, letting it percolate through all the layers. If you just dump it in, you’ll (a) probably end up with spillage, and (b) create air bubbles. Y’know what happens when you heat an air pocket? So yeah, pour slowly. Give the pie pan a gentle jiggle to make sure everything’s settled in, then slide into an aluminum baking sheet and into your 400 degree oven.

Set your timer for 45 minutes, then do the ‘knife test’ for doneness. It’ll probably come out a little wet, but otherwise clean. At this point, kill the oven and allow the hot air to escape, then close the door and leave the quiche alone for another 10 minutes. At that point, pull from the oven and allow to rest on the counter for, yes, another 10 minutes.

Okay, your quiche is rested, and should be nicely set at this point. Keep in mind that, like any pie the first slice probably isn’t going to come out cleanly. Just accept it, the first slide or two will be ugly. Once you’ve got a little more clearance and can get your pie server underneath a slice from the side, you’ll have better luck.

By the way, that combination of eggs and dairy? That’s what the French call a “royale”. Which means, yes, you’ve just made a “royale with cheese”. And you didn’t even have to recover a glowing MacGuffin.

Stocking Stuffers: Risotto

The local weather is turning colder, FINALLY, and so it’s time to start looking at some cold-weather dishes. I’ll want to look at casseroles in a later post, but for today, let’s continue a theme I started awhile back: uses for chicken stock.

We’ve already talked about soups, which are definitely the more natural choice, especially if your stock is good and gelatinous. But what can you do with stock that doesn’t have much in the way of wobble? Well, I recommend an application in which the stock is there to provide some chicken flavor, and of course liquid, but doesn’t really need that tongue-coating mouth feel.

My favorite such application, especially for cold weather, is risotto. Actually, risotto almost qualifies as a casserole, in that it’s prepared and served in the same vessel; but proper casseroles are baked in the oven, not prepared on the stovetop. But like many casseroles, risotto is useful for using up leftovers that happen to be hanging around the pantry or refrigerator; it’s what some call “refrigerator Velcro”, a category that also includes eggs, mashed potatoes, pasta, et al.

I tend to use arborio rice, which makes for a slightly chewy risotto, and thus a longer “hang time” in the mouth for flavors; with that in mind, you may want to avoid overly spicy or pungent flavors. The next time I make up a batch, in fact, I might include a good olive tapenade; tapenade is highly flavorful, but requires so little chewing it’s almost a soup, and so might benefit from a chewier co-star.

Okay, so aside from arborio (or any other short- or medium-grain rice that’s high in starch) and the aforementioned chicken stock (or whatever stock or broth you have on hand), what else do you need for just a basic risotto? You’ll need at least one aromatic vegetable, typically an onion, and a good wine, typically white. As noted in my wine post, consider the ingredients you’ll be adding on when choosing your wine; I’d recommend going with a basic chardonnay when you’re first starting out. Finally, you’ll need parmesan cheese, lemon zest, and fresh grated nutmeg.

Here’s my method, largely pilfered from Alton Brown. It makes 4-6 portions.

First, figure out what sort of add-ons you’ll be tossing in. Get those prepped ahead of time and set aside. They need to be fully cooked and at least at room temperature. Risotto is like an omelet, or really, any other leftovers utilization method; it has enough to worry about just getting itself cooked through without having to serve as a cooking medium for other ingredients.

In either an electric kettle* or a tall, narrow vessel**, bring to a gentle simmer six cups of stock or broth and one cup of wine. While that’s coming up to temperature, finely dice half an onion and set aside. In a large vessel, gently melt two pats of butter, then add two cups of yoru rice of choice and stir for a few minutes over low heat, until the tips of the rice grains become translucent. Stir in the onion and a pinch or two of kosher salt.

Once the liquid is up to temperature, ladle in enough to cover the rice and bring the heat under that vessel up to medium-low. You want to maintain a continual, lazy bubbling, not a rolling boil; the idea is to let the rice — really, its starch — absorb the liquid, not boil it away. And since that starch can’t thicken the liquid into a rich gravy if it’s still stuck to the rice grains, stir regularly every few minutes and give the pan a good shake as well to help dislodge the starch.

When you can scrape a path through the rice to the bottom of the pan, it’s time to add more of the liquid, again just enough to cover the rice each time. Continue to stir, shake, and periodically replenish the liquid as the rice drinks it up. When you’ve added the last of the liquid, grate up some good parmesan cheese, maybe 1/4 cup total, and have that standing by. With a microplane grater, or rasper, zest one lemon and grate…let’s say maybe 1/2 teaspoon of fresh nutmeg. Once the last dose of liquid is almost absorbed, add the cheese, zest and nutmeg and stir in. Kill the heat and go ahead and stir in your add-ons. Allow to cool for ten minutes or so, then serve.

Amendment:
I thought it might be helpful to talk a little bit about some of the risotto add-ons I’ve used over the years, just as a starting point. As noted above, this is a great way to use up leftovers, so I don’t want to get into specific combinations, but with risotto as with other such applications, consider flavors that play well together. That said, here are a few guidelines that I’ve found useful.

You want at least one source of protein, or at least an “authentic meat surrogate” like mushrooms***. Keep in mind that the classical risotto calls for parmesan, otherwise known as “salt with a high cheese content”, so I would recommend against salty meats like cured pork products; this doesn’t mean you can’t put bacon or sausage in your risotto, just that you might want to switch to another cheese. I recommend going with a good melting cheese, like cheddar or any of the classic fondue cheeses, like emmental or gruyere; generally you want a cheese that will be easily incorporated.

For vegetables, I recommend augmenting the classical onion with at least one other aromatic, possibly one or two colors of bell pepper. You can cook those until soft or leave them with a little bit of crunch; they’re your groceries, as I’ve said before. I tend to favor a complete deflation of the plant cells, as crunchiness isn’t really a texture I like in this dish. That said, I’ve seen risotto recipes that call for asparagus, and completely limp asparagus is an ugly thing; do yourself a favor and keep the pieces, especially the stem end, trimmed short (if not flat-out slivered). This is good advice for any other fibrous or “stringy” vegetable, like celery.

As with an omelet, you want to steer clear of the “pizza with the works” mentality; limit your add-ons. I’d say no more than three amendments to the basic recipe, not counting spices or herbs. You want “rice and something else”, not “entire contents of refrigerator and pantry, guest-starring rice”.

* Alton recommends an electric kettle, but I’ve had mixed results with mine. The stock always boils over, despite the kettle’s auto-shutoff feature, and I hate wasting chicken stock. If you go this route, I’d recommend only heating up half of your liquid at a time. After all, you’re not going to pour it all in at once anyway.

** Why tall and narrow? Because that will limit evaporation.

*** IIRC, mushrooms contain glutamic acid, which can work just like MSG to help boost the flavors of other ingredients, so I generally include mushrooms in every batch of risotto, even when there’s actual meat involved.

“Instant” Dessert

You’ve just had dinner. It was wonderful, of course, because you’ve been following this blog.

But now you find yourself wanting a little something sweet. If you’ve prepared something ahead of time, great. But let’s say you didn’t. Let’s assume you don’t have a pie cooling on the windowsill, or a cake finishing up in the oven.

Well, if you have any fruit on hand, then you’ve got a fairly fast and foolproof dessert option. Yes, there’s some extra prep work, but it’s something you can do while dinner is coming together. The largest chunk of time you’ll have to invest is an hour, and you can estimate most of that will be spent finishing prep for and then consuming dinner.

So what is this miracle dessert?
Crepes, with fruit in syrup.

The crepe batter is from Good Eats, recipe available via this transcript. Alton recommends resting the batter for an hour in the refridgerator, so go ahead and blend the batter together once you’re ready to start cooking dinner, and set your timer.

Okay, since I’m swiping from a cooking show for this entry, it’s only appropriate that I employ one of the classic cooking show tropes: skipping ahead in time.

So, it’s now after dinner, and you’re wanting dessert. You’ve probably got some time left on that hour, so we’ll use that to get the fruit and syrup ready. Slice up one piece of out-of-hand-eating fruit (like an apple or banana; avoid citrus fruits for this application) per diner; for berries, figure 1/4-1/3 cup per diner. Note that if you’re using apples or any other fruit that tends to brown once it’s cut, you’ll probably want to stash the sliced pieces in a bowl of acidulated water — that’s water with a little lemon juice — as a preventative measure.

Now, I mentioned syrup, which is just sugar dissolved in some liquid. The most basic is known, appropriately, as “simple syrup”, and consists of two parts syrup to one part water, by volume, brought to a boil to fully dissolve the sugar, then allowed to reduce to the desired consistency. The precise amounts of sugar and liquid don’t matter, so long as there’s enough liquid to hold however much sugar you’re using.

For this application, we’ll be using brown sugar, about 1/8 cup per diner, and “enough” dark spiced rum to dissolve it in a shallow skillet. Don’t use your nonstick skillet for this, as that’s going to be busy with the crepes shortly; plus, you’ll be doing something in this pan that you should never do in a non-stick. Stir over low heat until the sugar has melted into the rum, then add your fruit. Continue to stir over medium-low heat as the fruit (a) softens and (b) gets coated with the syrup.

By now, your crepe batter is probably fully rested. Go ahead and make yourself up two crepes per diner, using Mr. Brown’s methods, above. Set the cooked crepes aside and allow them to cool while you’re finishing up the fruit.

Once the fruit is sufficiently softened, boost the heat to high so the fruit can take on a bit of surface caramelization, and so the syrup can reduce further.

This would also be the time to invite your dinner guests into the kitchen and dim the light slightly, because you’re going to flambé. Once the fruit is done and the syrup reduced, evacuate the fruit to a separate vessel and kill the heat under your skillet. Add a shot of rum and, with your trusty firestick, ignite the fumes. Let your guests oooh and aaah at the flames, then swirl the skillet until they go out. Add a pat of butter per diner and return to medium heat. Once the butter is melted and stirred in, kill the heat. Fold each diner’s crepes into fourths and dredge each portion in the syrup before plating and topping with fruit. Once all portions are plated, evenly distribute the remaining syrup and serve.

You may want to do a few practice runs at this before doing it with an audience, just to get a feel for how fast things really do come together. But once you’re confident, by all means, show off! Crepes have an undeservedly fancy, fussy reputation, and this dessert looks like it takes far more work than it does. I mean, it involves crepes AND flambé!

I say, if you’ve already made ’em dinner, then let your guests be impressed with dessert. You’ve earned it.

Souped Up

Okay, I’m making up another batch of chicken stock, so this seems like a good time to look at some good uses for the stuff. I’ve already talked about making gravy, and I might look at risotto (for a long time, my go-to for potlucks) in a future post, so today I’d like to look at soup.

By far, the most important ingredient in a soup is the flavorful liquid base. If you’re not motivated to soak up the last few drops in your bowl with a crust of bread, then something is seriously wrong — especially considering the etymological kinship between “sop” and “soup”. Obviously, if you’re using homemade stock (which is not just flavorful, but has that wonderful quality we call “mouth feel”), then you’re set to go. Of course, you can also use broth, which doesn’t have the same gelatinous texture (being made without bones), but does have plenty of flavor. And yes, you can use milk or cream (as in a chowder or just about any variation of potato soup), but while those do have SOME flavor of their own, you’re primarily using the fat content as a flavor carrier for other ingredients.

So, cooking up a soup with chicken stock. You want to begin by sweating your aromatic vegetables in a large soup pot (I like using my stock pot for this), then adding your chicken stock. Note that I’d recommend soft, quick-cooking aromatics at this point, like onions, garlic, and leeks (all members of the lily family); sturdier veggies like carrots can wait. How much chicken stock should you use? Figure probably a cup of stock per serving, plus an extra cup to make up for water lost to evaporation.

Speaking of evaporation, start bringing the stock up to a boil. Unless you’re just making a vegetable soup (and hey, nothing wrong with that), this would probably be a good time to start preparing whatever meat you’ll be adding. Unless the protein cooks fairly quickly (e.g. shrimp, which can almost cook at room temperature), you’ll want to go ahead and cook it before it hits the soup pot. You’ll be adding this when the soup is nearly done, so overcooking isn’t a huge risk. That said, you want the pieces to be bite-sized and, ideally, cut across the grain of the meat; that way, even if the protein does end up slightly overcooked, it should still be sufficiently tender.

If your protein’s already cooked, just warm it through in a non-stick skillet over low heat; if you’re adding something that could benefit from a light sear (like, say, smoked sausage cut into rounds), then use an ordinary skillet and deglaze afterward with a bit of wine if necessary (I’d recommend white, since we’re using chicken stock, but it’s your kitchen); go ahead and add the resultant fond to the soup pot now, so the alcohol taste has a chance to smooth out, and so the bright acidity of the wine can start mingling with the other flavors.

NOTE: Elsewhere, an objection was raised to using more than one cooking vessel for making soup. If you have the extra time, you can go ahead and do your meat searing and subsequent deglazing in the soup pot itself before you begin. If your protein has already been cooked and just needs to be warmed through, you can just let it spend a couple extra minutes in the soup pot before service, especially if it’s already at room temperature by that point. Either will add to your cooking time (the first option also increases the time needed for sweating, since you’ll have to evaporate the wine’s water as well as the veggies’), but keep you from dirtying an extra pan. Personally, I favor saving prep time over cleanup time, but as I’ve said before, it’s your kitchen.

Set your now-prepped meat aside and return your attention to the soup pot. If you’d like to add herbs and/or spices, now would be a good time to do so. I recommend dried herbs for this, since they’ll have plenty of time to steep. Think about the soup’s other ingredients when selecting your herbs; if you’re not sure about a flavor combination, taste a small pinch of the herb and try to imagine it next to everything else in the soup. Same thing with spices — take a single whole seed (because you’re not buying ground spices anymore, right?) and taste it, then grind and add to the soup pot. I don’t recommend more than about a half teaspoon of total ground spices per bowl, and maybe a teaspoon for the herbs. And if you don’t want to bother with herbs or spices for now, that’s fine, the soup will still be tasty.

Okay, next comes the remaining vegetation, in the same order you’d use for a sweat — that is, the hardier, longer-cooking stuff first. Once you’ve achieved a boil, let the soup pot burble away for about five minutes, then start checking your vegetables for doneness every minute thereafter. When you can pierce them with a fork, but still encounter some resistance, you can reduce the heat to a simmer and start adding faster-cooking ingredients, such as corn kernels or small cubes of potato. As always, the smaller the piece, the faster the cooking time.

Once the last batch of vegetation is cooked through, it’s time to add your meat, if any, and let it simmer along for another couple of minutes. Again, the meat is already cooked at this point, so you don’t want to leave it in there for too long before killing the burner. Water, like cast iron, holds onto heat well, so the soup will remain at a suitably hot serving temperature for at least five minutes (depending on how much soup you’re making, of course) before starting to cool noticeably.

Now is the time for any corrective seasoning or other flavor amendments, such as a squeeze of lemon juice for acidic brightness. Add salt if needed, but keep in mind you already salted the sweat, and the stock itself should have been salted when it was made (and your meat, if any, was seasoned when you cooked it, right?), so taste before you salt. Oversalting a soup is one of the worst mistakes to make, because it’s pretty much impossible to correct. A few grinds of black pepper will nearly always be welcome, but let each diner handle that on a per-bowl basis.

Of course, they can’t do that until the bowls are in front of them, so ladle up and enjoy, and I’ll see you next time.

Appropos of Aperitifs

We’re once again delving into the world of booze, specifically cocktails, so teetotalers beware.

A cocktail, of course, is a combination of alcoholic spirits with other, less potent potables, sometimes with additional flavoring agents. You’re probably familiar with a few cocktails, like the bloody mary, the tequila sunrise, and my favorite, the martini.

Let’s take a look at that last one, and let’s get something out of the way right up front.

Putting something in a martini glass — i.e. a stemmed vessel with a conical bowl — does not make it a martini. A martini is composed of gin, vermouth, and a green olive (with a few drops of its brine). Anything else served in a martini glass is some other cocktail.

What about James Bond’s famous vodka martini (shaken, not stirred)? Well, the reason it’s referred to as a vodka martini is that it’s not a real martini.

Vodka, unlike gin, has no actual flavor; it’s colorless, odorless, tasteless. “Vodka” is actually the diminutive form of the Slavic word for water, “voda”. As far as I’m concerned, this spirit is really only good for extracting alcohol-soluble flavors from other things, like tomatoes or lemon zest; this is why many liquor stores have begun carrying flavored vodka. In fact, I just made up a batch of tomato vodka, which makes for a great bloody mary.

But no, I don’t put vodka in my martinis. If you want to drink vodka and vermouth, go ahead, but please, don’t invite me over for happy hour.

So, the proper martini provides a nice lesson in cocktail theory. First, there’s the gin, which a bartender would call a “base”, i.e. a spirit upon which the rest of the cocktail is built. I tend to prefer cocktails built on bases that actually taste like something (hence the tomato vodka), so I’ll drink a julep (bourbon), a daiquiri (rum), or a tequila sunrise (guess), but eschew mixes based on spirits that offer nothing but alcohol.

Now, I like gin, but I wouldn’t drink an entire martini glass of the stuff, even a small one. That’s a little too dry, even for me. So unlike Winston Churchill, I’ll add a little vermouth to my gin, rather than just look at a picture of a bottle. Vermouth, a fortified wine, is considered a “mixer”. These tend to be less potent liquids, many of them (like fruit juices, seltzer, or cola) devoid of alcohol entirely. In some cases, a mixer makes up the majority of a cocktail’s volume, as with the bloody mary or the tequila sunrise; in others, like the martini, it’s more of a backup singer. In any case, the mixer is there to round off some of the harsher edges of the base spirit, and ideally, to compliment it.

But a martini isn’t complete without a green olive (and again, hopefully with a few drops of brine — or more than a few, as I like my martinis “dirty”), which would be considered an “accent”. These are finishing touches, like the hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce in a bloody mary, that give a drink that little bit of extra zing. Think of adding a squeeze of lemon to a lovely fried catfish filet, and you’ve got the basic idea. Of course, some cocktails like the classic rum-and-Coke get by without any accents at all.

There’s three more ingredients in every cocktail, and they’re interrelated. The first of these is ice, or more accurately, cold. Cocktails should be served cold, possibly to numb the tongue slightly so the more unpleasant taste of alcohol itself is less prominent. However you integrate ice (more on that in a moment), some of will melt into the drink proper and help the other flavors to meld.

The next ingredient is the drinking vessel itself. If a cocktail is to be served “on the rocks” (i.e. with ice), you can serve it in a short glass (e.g. mint julep) or a tumbler (e.g. bloody mary). On the other hand, if a cocktail is to be served without ice (or “straight up”), you need stemware, either a champagne flute or a martini glass; this prevents the heat from your hand from warming up the chilled drink.

(Incidentally, the reason you sometimes see an oenophile holding his wine glass by the bowl is specifically to warm up the wine and make the flavors easier to detect. Same thing with brandy snifters.)

One last note on cocktail vessels, regarding size. American restaurant portion sizes have grown over the years (and Americans have grown along with them), and this is lamentably true of the glasses restaurants use to serve cocktails. Nobody needs a 16-oz. daiquiri or martini. Again, I like gin, but I can’t face a Big Gulp of the stuff. A cocktail in the 4-6 oz. range is far more civilized, and if you’re entertaining a crowd, makes you a more responsible host; so does making sure everyone has a completely sober ride home.

The final ingredient is the method of mixing. As noted above, James Bond likes his martinis “shaken, not stirred”, but that’s no way to make a martini. Shaking chills a drink far more than is necessary for a good martini, deadening the flavor of the gin. Plus, leads to a cloudy cocktail, and a martini shouldn’t be cloudy. Stir your gin and vermouth (and olive brine, if you’re making a dirty martini) with ice while you chill down the martini glass itself separately; the glass needs to be chilled to keep the drink itself cold, and because glass is an insulator, once it gets cold, it STAYS cold.

So when should you shake and not stir? Well, if you’re making a daiquiri — by which I mean rum, lime juice, and simple syrup, not a blenderized mass of ice, bananas and booze — then shaking is called for. A daiquiri doesn’t mind a bit of cloudiness, or froth, and the additional chill (and small ice chips) produced by shaking is welcome. Why does shaking make a drink colder? Convection is a remarkably efficient means of transferring heat, so the more the ice moves around, the more heat it will suck out of the cocktail. Of course, you’ll still want to chill the glass itself.

For cocktails served on the rocks, one should never shake, and stirring is often optional, as mixing will occur as the ingredients are poured into the waiting glass. Indeed, some mixers (like seltzer) will “stir” up the cocktail all by themselves. Seltzer, of course, reminds me of mint juleps, and that brings us to a final mixing technique: muddling.

If a cocktail includes herbs (like mint) or other ingredients with flavorful oils (like lemon zest), you want to get those tasty compounds into your glass without having to wait for the alcohol to leach them out (that tomato vodka I mentioned above? That took the better part of a week to prepare). So take a cue from my post about spices and start grinding with the aid of a muddler, which is basically a drinking glass-friendly pestle. Lacking its mortar counterpart to grind against, the muddler is often used in drinks that call for sugar or a similarly grainy, gritty component; in the preparation of a mint julep, the muddler and sugar work together to shred the mint leaves into paste, making their flavor much more accessible.

And on that note, I hope I’ve helped make cocktails more accessible to you. Enjoy responsibly, of course, and I’ll see you next time.

Om-Nom-Nom

Ah, the omelet (or if you want to be fancy, “omelette”). While most people can handle making scrambled eggs at home (and you can, too, if you’ve been following this blog for awhile), the omelet is more intimidating. You’ve got to cook the eggs through, fold them over the filling, and somehow get everything onto a plate; and even if you manage that, you’re still likely to end up with a mess of eggs and filling rather than a classic, pretty omelet.

Let’s go ahead and dispense with that last one right now. Your first few omelets are going to end up messy. Just accept it. Practice will help, but I’ve made a lot of omelets in the last few years, and even this morning, they didn’t come out as perfect little tri-fold beauties. One of them even split its side, filling spilling out. Y’know what? That’s okay. It was still an omelet, it was still tasty, and I was still fine with serving it.

James Beard has been quoted as saying “The only thing that will make a soufflé fall is if it knows you are afraid of it.” Omelets can also sense fear, so you must approach them without worry.

Now, you can make an omelet without any filling at all. And if you want to make a few of those for the sake of practice, that’s fine. Certainly, it would be good practice for making crepes, which will have to be its own post. A little butter on top, maybe some chopped herbs to garnish (chives go very nicely with eggs), and you’re good to go. But the day will come when you want to make a filled omelet, even if it’s just a basic omelette au fromage, so we’ll be looking at guidelines for worry-free (or at least, worry-reduced) filled omelets.

Now, I mentioned crepes, so this would be a good moment to point out that the style of omelet I’m going for, here, is one that is crepe-thin, little more than a sheet of egg wrapped around the filling. If you prefer a fluffy omelet, that will have to wait for a separate post, which in turn will have to wait for me to get my fluffy-omelet technique down. Okay, with that said, on to some guidelines.

First, don’t overcomplicate things. I don’t recommend going beyond 3-4 ingredients, and that’s including cheese. For one thing, you want there to be enough of any one item that your diners can taste it; if you have too many ingredients, that will mean overfilling the omelette, which makes the above “mess of eggs and filling” scenario much more likely. For another, it adds to your prep time.

And that brings us to the second rule of omelets: all your fillings (except the cheese, obviously) should be cooked before the eggs hit the skillet, and ideally, they should be warm when added. Vegetables should at least be lightly sweated, as crunchiness isn’t a quality often desired in omelets. Set your cooked filling goodies aside, where you can get to them easily when the time comes to add them to the eggs; once the eggs hit the skillet, you’ll have very little time to mess around. Omelets cook FAST, so you should take a cue from short-order cooks and get your mise en place together ahead of time.

(Mise en place also includes tools and utensils, not just ingredients. For example, my breakfast mise includes a cup of coffee.)

What I like to do is portion out each omelet’s filling allotment into its own prep bowl, so that I can start the eggs cooking, add the fillings at the appropriate moment, and plate up shortly thereafter. This has the added benefit of keeping me from overfilling the omelet, as there’s only so much that will fit in my prep bowls; for a three-egg omelet, I like no more than a cup of fillings (again excluding the cheese, which can happily ride atop the plated omelet).

So what kind of fillings should you put in your omelet? The short answer is “whatever you want”, obviously, but here are some guidelines I’ve found helpful. Think about ingredients that go well together, things that support each other or have some commonality. This morning, for example, I made an omelet with maple breakfast sausage, carrot, and tomato; because the sausage and carrot both contributed a sweet note, they paired nicely, and the tomato added a nice acidic brightness. Generally, I would recommend starting with your meat (or meat-like ingredient, like mushrooms) and looking for things that will work with it, usually of a vegetable nature. If you’re musically inclined, think of the protein as the first note of a major chord, then figure out the other two.

(Yes, you can do an omelet that’s just filled with meat and cheese. If you want to make a “porkapalooza” with ham, bacon, and sausage, that’s fine. It’s your kitchen, they’re your groceries, and they’re your arteries.)

Okay, so what about those eggs? Well, as mentioned above, I usually make a three-egg omelet; that seems a good portion size, especially if you’re not serving anything on the side. Before you start cooking up your mise, take out your eggs and start them coming up to room temperature. Part of omelet success for me involves fast, hot cooking; if the eggs are cold when they hit the pan, they’ll take longer to cook, and probably burn before they’re sufficiently done. I like letting the eggs sit in a bowl of warm water while I’m getting everything else together. Once your fillings are ready, crack each omelet’s egg allowance into its own bowl, pierce the yolks with a fork, and lightly beat (just as you would for scrambled eggs).

In a good non-stick skillet — and if you still don’t have one, stop right there, because we can’t go any further. Yes, you can make an omelet in a cast-iron skillet that’s got a good solid cure on it, but honestly, a non-stick skillet makes this much easier, especially when it comes time to plate up.

So: In a good non-stick skillet, melt a small pat of butter (or whatever lubricating fat you like, but as noted in another post, eggs and butter are natural partners) over gentle heat; while it’s melting, get your plate ready, because things are going to happen very quickly. Once it’s melted, turn the heat up to high and pour in the eggs, swirling them briefly around the pan to spread them out; again, we’re after a thin layer of eggs. The edges will cook through almost immediately; once they have, use a non-metal spatula to peel them away from the pan and give the skillet a gentle shake to dislodge the center mass (and to coax some of the uncooked egg out to the sides, where it can quickly cook up), which hopefully will have started to set into a solid sheet of egg.

While the center is still a little runny, go ahead and add your fillings and spread them out lengthwise. I mentally divide the omelet into thirds (again, lengthwise, not like a pie chart) and deposit the fillings on the third nearest to me. Then, start scooting the egg away from you with short, pan-jerking motions, ideally making the far lip start to fold over. Switch to an underhand grip on the skillet, then half slide, half flip the omelet onto your waiting plate. With luck, it’ll end up with the eggs facing upward and all the fillings inside. Set that plate off to the side, turn the heat back down to low for the next pat of butter, and start on the next omelet. Again, this happens amazingly quickly, so you can churn out a tableful of omelets in very (ahem) “short order”.

As each omelet is plated, I like to go ahead and sprinkle the top with cheese while the butter is melting for the next omelet in line. This gives the cheese a chance to melt while the omelet is resting. And hey, if the egg tore while you were plating, and you’ve got a hemorrhage of fillings looking up at you, that cheese will not only conceal the damage but help hold the omelet together. I promise you, nobody in the dining room is going to peel back the cheese to see if your omelet came out flawlessly. As I’ve mentioned before, many a culinary tradition began with improvisation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the cheese-topped omelet was inspired by just such a CYA moment.

That’s all for now, so good luck with your omelets. With apologies to the theatre, break an egg!

Screaming for a Good ‘Nache

Well, it’s summertime, and the weather is high. That must mean it’s time to make some ice cream. My basic recipe is stolen shamelessly from Good Eats, specifically the episode “Churn, Baby, Churn“, but I’ve churned several variations on that basic theme. And since “variations on a theme” is a major part of my cooking philosophy, it seems only fitting I share one of them here.

Now, you’re going to need an ice cream maker. You can still find hand-cranked models, but honestly, that’s more physical labor than I’m willing to put in. And I just this morning plowed my way through a fair bit of aromatic vegetation to make a breakfast hash. So I’d say go with an electric model. Depending on your needs, there are two basic options available.

The first is suitable for making a gallon of ice cream, and it’s definitely the more old-school of the two. It uses a large bucket and a smaller container that holds the actual ice cream. The space in between is filled with ice and rock salt — marketed in some areas as “ice cream salt”, so as not to be confused with the stuff you’d sprinkle on your driveway in winter — and a motor drives a rotating paddle within the smaller container. This is the model I use, and the internal container can be used to store your ice cream afterward. Just be careful not to get any of the rock salt into it. Follow your manufacturer’s instructions of course, but I’d recommend getting your ice cream base into the canister and turning the motor on before adding the ice and salt; otherwise you run the risk of freezing the dairy before the paddle can work any air into it.

The second type is for smaller batches, typically in the quart range, and uses a special canister that you pre-freeze. Built like a thermal carafe, this double-walled canister contains a special liquid solution that will freeze up below 32F and stay good and cold long enough to turn your dairy mixture into a soft-serve treat. Look for a model that will allow you to pour in the dairy while the motorized churn is turning. Not only will this prevent premature freezing, but you’ll also be able to add extra goodies to be folded in as the ice cream freezes — things like, say, chocolate chips or small pieces of fruit. Why small? Because otherwise you’ll clog the paddle.

Regardless of which kind of ice cream maker you use, leave it churning for however long the instructions recommend, OR until you hear it starting to struggle. That’s your cue that the dairy has at least reached soft-serve consistency. At that point, you should the dairy to its penultimate resting place and allow it to harden for a few hours in the freezer. I like to make up my ice cream base the night before, churn it in the morning, and then serve it after dinner that evening.

Okay, enough talk about specialized equipment, time for a recipe. I’ve been a fan of chocolate-covered cherries for a very, VERY long time now, so a few weeks ago I made up a batch of ice cream with just that flavor profile. The proportions below are for a gallon-capacity ice cream maker, so adjust accordingly if you have one of the smaller ice cream makers.

When I make ice cream, I use a 2:1 ration of half & half to heavy whipping cream as the starting point. For this recipe, that means a quart and a pint. “Whoa,” I hear some of you saying. “I thought this made a gallon of ice cream. That’s not even a half gallon of liquid.” And you’re right, but just wait. We’re not done with the incredients list yet. Besides, the finished product will be about a gallon by volume, and will include a fair bit of air that’s been worked in. Ice cream isn’t just frozen dairy and flavorings, otherwise it’d be a solid, unscoopable block.

Next on the parts list: one 14-oz. bag of semisweet chocolate morsels (a.k.a. “chocolate chips”), 54 oz. cherry preserves (or three 18-oz. jars), and about four tablespoons of cocoa powder. I’d originally purchased FOUR jars of cherry preserves, but decided to just go with three when I started putting the mix together. I’m using the fourth to make a lovely cherry topping for the ice cream itself. Have I mentioned I like cherries? Okay, good.

Empty your cherry preserves into a large pot over medium-low heat and stir occasionally. You want to basically melt them down into cherry chunks in a heavy, pectin-filled syrup. That pectin, by the way, will help the ice cream to set. Whenever I make a fruit-based ice cream, I always use fruit preserves, and I never add sugar. When the preserves start to loosen up a bit, go ahead and add the quart of half & half and bring up the heat to medium, stirring occasionally to integrate.

Combine all the chocolate in a saucepan, add just a tiny pinch of salt, and bring the pint of cream up to a simmer in a separate container. I admit, I used the microwave for this, so I can’t give an exact temperature. You want the cream to be hot, let’s leave it at that. Pour that cream onto the chocolate and just leave it alone for about thirty seconds, then start whisking it. The chocolate should finish melting and combine with the cream to create a smooth, shiny liquid.

And what is that liquid called? Well, when you mix equal parts (by weight) of chocolate and hot cream and allow the latter to melt the former, you’ve got a lovely thing called “ganache”. This scrumptious substance is suitable for making chocolate truffles, “fudge-sicles”, incredibly rich hot cocoa, a coating for fruit…really, it’s a powerful force. And not only does it produce a fine, fine chocolate ice cream, it can even provide a touch of stupidity insurance, but *ahem* moron that later.

Okay, you’ve got your ganache, and your cherries and dairy should be warmed through at this point. Go ahead and add the former to the latter and whisk to combine. Then, I recommend another piece of hardware, the stick or immersion blender. Use this to purée your ice cream base, which will prevent large chunks of cherry from gumming up the churn’s paddle; it’ll also help to spread out the cherry flavor. Speaking of flavor, if you were to taste this mixture, you’d probably find it incredibly strong. Keep in mind that it’ll be cold when consumed, so the flavor needs to be pretty strong.

Allow your ice cream base to cool to room temperature, decant into container of sufficient size, and refrigerate for at least six hours. As I said above, I like to make up my base and let it set in the fridge overnight. You want the mixture to be pretty cold when it meets the churn, but you also want the mix to age slightly. Scalding dairy introduces all kinds of flavor changes, and you need to give those flavors time to meld.

Okay, at this point, there’s not really anything to do but give the ice cream base some time with your churn, again in accordance with said machine’s instructions. Once you’ve reached soft-serve consistency, move the ice cream into a canister with a lid and stash in the freezer to harden for a few hours. Serve topped with a spoonful of fruit preserves, lightly warmed, and enjoy.

Now, confession time. About a week ago, I left my chocolate ice cream sitting on the counter. Overnight. Obviously, it melted completely. Hoping for the best, I put the canister back in the freezer. When I checked it that evening, it had set up perfectly. The ice cream was just as good as before, with a mouthfeel that reminds me of a Black Forest sundae. Now, if it hadn’t set back up so nicely, I’d have just allowed it to melt again and re-churned; in this case, I think the wonderful combination of ganache and pectin saved me.

Now go, get to churning!