Appetites: A Cookbook - Anthony Bourdain (2016)
I am a very good breakfast and brunch cook. This was, during the darker periods of my employment history, both a blessing and a curse.
No matter how bad things were, how messed up I might have been, however disgraced, however unemployable by polite society, I could always get a job as a brunch cook.
And while it’s nice to know that I can, in a pinch, fall back on a reliable income stream, the smell of breakfast to me will always be the smell of defeat and remind me of the low points of my life when I’d wake up early on Saturdays and Sundays to cook off the bacon, put up the home fries, beat up a shitload of hollandaise, and then sling eggs by the hundreds.
It is because of all those bad associations that, for a long time, I avoided cooking breakfast—at all.
I’ve lately had to draw frequently on those experiences, because I’m the father of an eight-year-old, who, like most eight-year-olds, digs pancakes, and breakfast in general. So now that I’m cooking for an eight-year-old and her friends, I’ve acquired more joyous associations with that meal.
For instance, I’m frequently called upon these days to provide efficient pancake service to sleepover parties involving numerous children. And on vacation, I’m more inclined than not to have breakfast ready for houseguests.
So, after all those years of cooking what was essentially—and often literally—short order breakfasts, here is what I’ve learned.
Escoffier was said to beat his eggs for scrambling with a fork, a secret clove of garlic affixed to the tines. I don’t do that. I believe in eggs, salt, black pepper, and the whole butter that the eggs are cooked in. No milk or cream—or added water—will make a properly cooked order of scrambled eggs any better. I do, however, use a fork.
On a foodie message board a while back, some insufferable food nerd was commenting on an episode of one of Jacques Pépin’s PBS cooking shows, in which Jacques had cooked scrambled eggs in a nonstick pan and stirred them with a fork. The offended poster worried out loud that the metal fork would be destructive to the nonstick pan’s surface.
You know what? If Jacques Pépin tells you this is how you make a fucking egg? The matter is settled, fuck nuts. Now go back to arguing about Bundt cake recipes.
Here’s how to scramble an egg: Break a fresh egg against a flat surface, like a cutting board, and empty it from its shell into a bowl so that you can inspect it for bits of shell, which you should of course remove and discard. Beat it lightly with a fork, dragging the yellow and white through each other. Heat whole butter in a pan. Pour in the egg and work your fork through. Not too vigorously; you want to gently pile the layers as they cook. When the egg is fluffy yet still moist, plate it quickly and serve it immediately. Remember, the eggs will continue to cook out of the pan.
Use fresh eggs, and as with scrambled eggs, break them on a flat surface and into a small bowl. Season with salt and freshly cracked pepper. I do not add milk or water. Just before cooking, and not a moment before, beat the eggs vigorously with a fork, but don’t overdo it. Texturally, you want a rippling effect between yolk and albumen—not strips of visible egg white running through your omelet (which you want in scrambled eggs), but not a homogenous, totally smooth consistency either. Beat just until uniformly yellow. No more.
In a nonstick pan, heat a little whole butter. Do not brown.
When butter is bubbling, add the eggs and immediately move them around. I use a (relatively) heat-resistant rubber spatula. Jacques Pépin uses a fork. Whatever utensil you use, move it in a figure-eight pattern, drawing the wet eggs to the center and north (twelve o’clock) of the pan, letting the empty spaces that you’ve created become filled in with wet egg. Incorporate any egg splatter from the edges, not allowing anything to get crisp or more cooked than any other part. Do not flip an omelet.
The center of the omelet should still be moist and a tiny bit wet when you remove it from the heat—what the French call baveuse.
Plating your omelet is a very important step, and while it looks tricky, it’s actually not.
Using a towel to protect your hand from heat, grasp the pan’s handle from underneath in a V grip with one hand. Lift it up. Holding your plate in the other hand, tilt the pan onto the plate like a closing door, flopping the omelet onto the plate so it folds shut on itself.
If it looks like a pile of crap, not to worry. Lay a clean paper towel over the omelet like a blanket—like you’re putting a child to bed. With hands together almost like praying, shape the omelet into a neat crescent: fat in the center, narrower at both ends. This will also sop up any excess butter or oozing egg.
If you’re using fillings in your omelet, cook “dry” ingredients like onions, peppers, or ham in the butter in the pan before adding the egg, incorporating them into the actual omelet. Cheese, or anything else soft and likely to ooze, should be gently laid into the center of the cooking eggs just before removing from the fire and plating.
You should be able to make two omelets at once. Probably no more. Unless you’re like me.
A couple of tips on eggs Benedict:
Toast your goddamn muffins. Everybody fucks up the muffin. Lazy line cooks everywhere neglect to toast their English muffins on both sides—they pop them under the salamander, broiling them on one side, and leaving the other side raw, spongy, cold, and tasting of the refrigerator. I hate that. Don’t do it. It’s a terrible food crime.
Be sure to grill or at least pan sear your Canadian bacon.
Make your hollandaise comfortably ahead of time—and store it, warm, in a wide-mouthed thermos for service. Nothing’s more frustrating than having your hollandaise either break on you, or get too cold. (See Hollandaise.)
Poaching eggs is a challenge for most home cooks, and a lot of that stress and failure is due to the making of some bush-league mistakes, so:
Use a wide-based pot for your poaching water, not a deep one. A sautoir is perfect. You want to reach into your pot with your slotted spoon at a comfortable angle and lift the eggs out. You’re not bobbing for apples.
Add about ½ teaspoon white vinegar to the water. It will help the egg whites coagulate and the egg to keep its generally roundish form once poaching.
Do not drop the eggs into the water. When the water is at a gentle simmer, slide your already-opened eggs, in individual cups, one after the other, into the water, gently, from the surface. Tilt the cup and let the eggs slowly and gently slide sideways into the water. When done, which is to say cooked until fully formed but still runny in the center, lift each egg gently out of the water with a slotted spoon and serve immediately. . . .
Unless you have made the hubristic decision to serve eggs fucking Benedict to a party of ten guests in your home. Presumably, your guests will want to be served all at the same time, or reasonably close to that ideal. And unless you’re a mastermind of brunch with a lot of short-order experience, it’s unlikely you will be able to successfully drill out twenty perfectly poached eggs in under two minutes. So what to do?
Now, I’m not saying you should do what I’m about to tell you. I’m just saying you can do it. I may or may not have done it when serving six hundred brunches (many of which included eggs bennies) during a three-hour period.
I may or may not have prepoached a shitload of eggs—undercooking them as much as humanly possible—just before service, then floated them in a bus pan filled with ice water.
For service, I’d finish them in seconds—or might have finished them in seconds—by giving them a long dip in simmering water.
You can do this successfully and still serve perfectly cooked eggs. It does make serving a whole lot of them at a time easier—and removes much of the risk factor.
But, of course, morally, it’s just . . . wrong.
What does everyone want from bacon? The overwhelming likelihood is that they want it, above all other things, crisp. And not burnt.
In my experience, the best way to cook bacon is slightly in advance—in the oven. Set your oven at 350˚F. Resist the temptation to set it hotter. Bacon takes a while, but when it starts going, it goes from raw to cooked to shit real quick.
Separate the bacon onto brown baking paper on a sheet pan.
Put in oven. Check often. Chances are, your oven has hot spots. Move the pan around from time to time, rotating, to account for this. If necessary, turn the bacon over, using tongs or a metal spatula. Remove just prior to desired doneness. You can finish it, returning it to the oven if necessary, while your eggs or other items cook.
Hold cooked bacon on the interior pages of the newspaper of record, which have been proven to be among the most hygienic, bacteria-free surfaces you can find anywhere. Really. If you ever need to deliver a baby unexpectedly, just reach for a nearby New York Times Styles section. You can be pretty sure nobody has touched that.
Home fries almost always suck. They are a perfunctory add-on to most restaurant brunches only because they are cheap, filling, and take up a lot of room on the plate. They are relatively indestructible, meaning that they suck just as much after sitting around for four hours as they do when fresh.
Hash browns are a better idea. But the best idea is no potatoes at all. In my view, a few well-toasted, heavily buttered slices of bread are the perfect accompaniment to an egg breakfast. The combination of runny yolk and buttered, toasted bread is far better than invariably cold, starchy potatoes.
They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Maybe.
But the notion that you need a heaping gutload of eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, and bread is grotesque. If you have a hard time tying your shoes after breakfast, or you feel like you really, really need a nap—when you only just woke up an hour ago—there’s something wrong.