Monday, October 3, 2011

An Omelette and a Glass of Wine

Omelettes cooking on the hearth at
La Mere Poulard

Most people tend to believe that all French cooks are born knowing how to make a wonderful omelette. This, of course, is not true, but it is true that most French cooks are quite adept at turning out a delicious omelette, which to many Americans, accustomed to what passes for the same in most restaurants here, can well be a revelation.   An omelette, well cooked, is a lyrical dish, which bears little resemblance to the rubbery mass of eggs stuffed to the point of exhaustion, often served in the United States. My first reaction, when seeing such a dish served, is lack of appetite, for the abundance from which it was born, was neither disciplined nor showed the least restraint, leaving one to wonder if everything handy in the refer was tossed in for good measure.  Like Pizzas, and pasta, the omelette is a sublime creation that embodies the maxim that less is often more. That said, there are endless variations, and the simple omelette can be made to satisfy nearly any craving for a satisfying meal.  For an appetizing use of leftovers, there is no equal, and as Narcisse Chamberlain says in her delightful little book on the subject: "For economy in extending small luxuries to their utmost it has no peer." What more could recommend it, yes?  When someone arrives just at dinnertime (a fairly regular occurrence at the House which Shall be Unnamed), and dinner planned for the use of limited "restes," the omelette is the perfect answer. Even a loaf of stale bread can be converted into a delicious filling for an omelette, which I will describe. 

The chef, gastronome, author and friend of Escoffier, M. Phileas Gilbert, in his treatise Variations sur l'Omelette, perhaps described best the great attraction of the omelette: "Depending upon the point of view, an omelette may be really nothing, or else it may be grandeur itself.  Some explain it in two lines of vulgar prose; others judge it unworthy of their pen; for myself, I would like an entire book to describe it. And to describe the gastronomic merits of the omelette, I  call to my assistance the full support of the protecting divinities whose shadows hover over the temples of good fare, where their priests officiate--white coiffed and scabbard at side--before altars of glowing coals...The dish means nothing to you? Profane one that you are!"  I wonder if you have ever heard such a liturgy of the omelette, or such an impassioned evangelism?  Sometimes I think that if we were to speak in this manner about our 'protecting Divinity,' with a similar passion (for what is life or Life without passion?), the empty pews in many churches these days would be filled to bursting!  Doctine aside, and instructive homilies notwithstanding, there is nothing so all-embracing as a life of passionate love for the Lord of All creation, for the Christ who lived among us and died on our behalf, that we might Live truly. And the humble omelette is a fitting simile for this life of passionate devotion, restrained by discipline, such that it is might yield something sublime.

In this spirit, the first thing I taught my twelve year-old son to cook was an omelette. He is amazingly proficient at making them now, and regularly tells me, teasingly, that his skills have exceeded my own, which may well be the case.  He enjoys tremendously making omelettes for a light Saturday lunch, served with a salad and a bottle of Rose from Provence, or for a simple supper. My son's friend, who also likes to cook and has practiced many things he has learned chez nous, learned to make them at my house as well, and regularly cooks them for his family on nights when the adults are weary. In this way, he is able to give his family the gift of a lovely dinner, the sweetest of offerings.  Now that both boys have mastered one technique, it is time they learned some more, and so can vary their offerings according to the mood and inclination of those for whom they are cooking. A good friend, whom I have been teaching to cook for some time now, learned to make omelettes with his daughter one delightful evening, and they each made enough to become quite adept at their technique.  An omelette, cooked properly, is more than a fall-back dinner plan; it is thoroughly splendid fare, and in the annals of culinary history, is hard to better for the sheer pleasure it brings those who sit down to dine and enjoy it.  With all due respect to the artistry of much restaurant food, or the culinary artistry of the would be "chef," aiming to impress his or her guests, stacked, teased and sauced as it may be (and I do not cast any aspersion on this), nonetheless, not unlike soup, of which we have spoken, the ability to make a splendid meal of simple things is the mark of a truly accomplished cook.  I am determined that my own children, and their friends if they are willing, should be masters of the art of a simple meal, exceptionally well executed.  With these skills, they should be able to branch into any culinary adventure they choose to pursue.

When first I arrive in Paris, I like best to drop my bags,  find a cafe, order a glass of red wine, an omelette and a simple dish of haricots verts and a salad with a delicious vinaigrette. Served with a crusty baguette, there can surely be no better meal, nor a better foil for jet lag and airline food (which I rarely eat and fast instead).  Tourist attraction though it may be, one of my favorite places to enjoy such a lunch is the Cafe Marly, which is situated on the edge of the Cour Napoleon, the courtyard of the Louvre, and looks out on that famous I.M. Pei glass pyramid. I nearly always find some way to walk through the Tuilleries, and soak up one of the loveliest promenades in the world, and truth be told, having passed at least eight hours in the recycled air of a plane, I am not anxious to be or eat indoors. Even in late autumn or early Spring, the outdoor seating that rings the courtyard is the perfect answer.  While there are certainly better places to eat in Paris, there is no place better suited to a light lunch after the cab ride into town from the airport and bags dropped at the apartment. By this time it is usually about 11:00 in the morning, and the leisurely hour stroll to Cafe Marly from my lodgings in the seventh arrondisement could not be a finer complement to such a delightful lunch.  The omelette arrives, light as air, still creamy on the inside, and often perfumed with just the hint of fines herbs I love so well.  All is well with the world, and any lingering travel weariness I might feel, seems to ebb away.

Once, during a trip to Paris together with my sister, we dined for lunch at that gastronomic temple, Taillevent. Arguably, once the best restaurant in the world, we wanted to eat there during our history, music and gastronomic fortnight.  Having worked too many hours to think about, right up until the time of our departure, she in completing her Doctorate, and I in my business career, we were a little light on preparation for the trip.  But since we both had travelled extensively in Europe, and both spoke French, we were not too concerned. Seated along a banquette the first night at one of my favorite haunts, Au Bon Acceuil, in the seventh arrondisement (a wonderful restaurant), we were lamenting to each other that we had not been more organized and made prior arrangements for a lunch or dinner seating at Taillevent. We had called them upon arrival, of course, only to be told they were "complet," full all week,  as we were in Paris during a major international event. A lovely woman, seated next to our small table on the banquette, leaned into our space, and in the most lyrical French I have ever heard spoken, said gently that she could not help having overheard our conversation and did we still wish to visit the restaurant, since she could most likely arrange at least a lunch for us?  We thanked her, delighted, and of course said, yes, we were longing to go. She excused herself and returned a minute later, just as she and her friend were leaving the restaurant, handed us her card, and said we should arrive at 1:00 p.m. the next day, simply give the concierge her card, and all would be well.  When we examined her elegant card, after she had departed, we noticed that she was a baroness, and the card bore her family crest. Wondering if we would live up to her expectations, and quite sure she would receive a report, we considered our travel wardrobe for suitable attire. We opted for simple and elegant, however we defined this at the time. Dutifully, and pinching ourselves at our good fortune and her kindness, we arrived at the restaurant by cab the next day, and what followed was more like a fairy tale than a luncheon. We were treated like princesses, and our lunch, which I will describe in a post to follow, was almost otherworldly (and came with an otherworldly price, too!).  Perhaps for the first time, I felt I was experiencing a taste of heaven's table.  We had a splendid lunch, many courses, but what makes this story fitting in this post, is that my sister chose an ambrosial lemon souffled omelette for dessert.  Up until this point, I had many times eaten souffled omelettes, but this was unlike anything I have ever tasted, and since that day, I have been relentless in my efforts to recreate it. I think at last, perhaps, I have.

I remember, when I was a little girl, hearing my mother describe with some reverence a place in France she visited with her parents where the proprietress cooked souffled omelettes in copper pans in an open fire, and how delicious she had found them. As Narcisse Chamberlain writes, in her book on the omelette (all of the books she wrote, some together with her husband Samuel, are utterly delightful), probably the most famous name ever associated with the omelette is that of Mme Poulard, of Mont-Saint Michel on the coast of France.  Together with her husband, she rennovated the Hotel Saint-Michel Tete d'Or, and once the causeway to the mainland was built, M. et Mme Poulard often found themselves swamped by crowds of hungry and impatient travelers who arrived at unexpected moments.  Mme. Poulard astutely recognized that the omelette was the answer to her difficulties.  Travelers were greeted by the warm and motherly Madame, and their hunger was quickly stilled by the savory omelettes made before their eyes on the open hearth, just as they are today.  The fame of these delicious omelettes spread, but her secret was nothing more than local eggs, modestly beaten in a copper bowl, the best butter, salt and pepper, and the long handled pan moved continuously back and forth over the coals.  More recently, her descendents have altered the original recipe, beating the omelettes to a foamy froth.  The result, that of which my mother often spoke, was light and of great delicacy, but not necessarily better or worse than the original, so I have been told, simply different.  I have eaten these omelettes myself, and they were indeed delicious.

Of course, there are many variations on omelettes. The Italians have long made superb frittatas, and the Spanish graced their tapas bars and lunch and dinner tables with their delicious tortillas espanolas, often filled with potatoes and onions. I especially love the Crespeou of Provence, that layered cake of omelettes cooked flat, and filled with various complementary fillings, each layer distinct, and then sliced like a cake. As Elizabeth David says, "as everybody knows, there is only one infallible recipe for the perfect omelette: your own." Why not try one for dinner tonight?  If you make a rolled omelette, you can slit the omelette with one line down the middle and put the filling in for a beautiful presentation. This is especially appealing with a little herbed tomato filling or mushroom filling. Often, I make a simple omelette aux fines herbs, which is simply eggs, salt, pepper, a bit of cream lightly mixed with the eggs (don't mix too much or you will toughen the eggs) and sprinkled with a mixture of chives, tarragon and thyme.  The tricks to omelettes are few, and you can use whatever technique you prefer. I myself use different approaches, depending upon my inclination and how I want the finished omelette to look.  Often, I use a method very similar to making a crepe, swirling the egg in a medium high, but not over hot pan, or using the flat of a fork to lightly scramble it as you move it around on the heat.  Heat your pan until evenly heated, but not too quickly, and add some butter, waiting until it foams.  Once the butter has begun to foam but not brown, add the eggs and swirl until just set, and then switching the direction of your grip on the pan tap the pan against the range until the omelette rests into the lower half of the pan (or you can use a little fork or spatula to roll the omelette if you would rather not use the little blows of the pan), before rolling it out onto a waiting warm plate. For one person, an omelette such as this takes less than a minute start to finish. If you have a larger omelette, you can tilt your pan, lifting the edges of the omelette to let the more liquid part run underneath. You can shape it with your clean hands if the appearance is less than ideal, once it comes out of the pan and is warm. The center should still be creamy and just set.  You can put anything you like in for a filling: a little ham, some shaved truffles, some potatoes sauteed in duck fat, a little leftover meat, some bacon or asparagus, whatever you like. But remember, that the filling should not be the main event, and should be in very small proportion to the eggs. Don't overbeat the eggs, just use a little fork, or two if you like, and lightly beat them. I like to add a little cream and some salt and pepper. I use a 10 inch non stick omelette pan (with rounded, sloping sides), though I have often used a copper omelette pan as well.

Tonight, I plan to make a very simple omelette in honor of my friend Vicki, who has begun to cook with duck fat, and has recently discovered how magic are Pommes de terre (potatoes) Sardalaises, that delicious dish from the Southwest of France, which can hardly be matched, and which my family adores. She told me she recently made this dish, but added a twist of her own: she sprinkled them with truffle salt just before serving them, and they were received with accolades, accompanying a splendid dinner.  I plan to make a variation of this, which I learned from the wonderful book Goose Fat and Garlic, by Jeanne Strang.  I will first make some delicious little croutons with some day old levain bread, cubed, crusts removed, and sauteed and seasoned in duck fat.  These I will add to a simple omelette, served with a glass of red wine, a butter lettuce and heirloom tomato salad with dijon-sherry-shallot vinaigrette, and a baguette with some French butter. What could be better?

With a nod to Elizabeth David, a wonderful armchair mentor, to whom I am indebted for the title of this blog, taken from her book of the same name, a collection of culinary essays.  Let me know how you are making out with your cooking, and if you would like to have the recipe for the souffled omelettes at La Mere Poulard in a subsequent post. (In this omelette, the eggs receive a Much longer beating until ethereal and frothy, and the omelette is Never overcooked).  Happy Cooking, mes amis. A Bientot!

1 comment:

  1. I remember making these omelettes with Dad when we were the only two at home, some precious Father-Daughter time. They were delightful, I think I will try them again, though the company will not be quite the same this time round!