Sometimes the most delicious creations are organic: one element on the plate leading to another, which suggests a third, which makes that fourth and final seem practically inevitable. Such was the case Wednesday morning for us. The weekend and beginning of the week had been consumed with preparing and distributing our second Winter CSA: harvesting carrots, spinach, and baby bok choy from the greenhouse, setting up our distribution area, and greeting our members as they came to pick up their shares. Then, when we returned home Tuesday night, our friends Brendan and Katia rolled in from Massachusetts. They were in the neighborhood on a cow buying expedition and had brought with them their four-year-old Alister and two-year-old John.
Now, not to play favorites, but Alister has got to be one of the coolest four-year-old’s I’ve ever met. He’s actually helpful. Not always, of course (he is only four!), but he’s the kind of kid who WANTS to carry firewood in or take laundry out to the line. When Andrew and I lived and worked with Brendan and Katia, Alister was forever pulling a chair over to the stove to watch me cook and to ask me the reasons for everything that I did. (Andrew claims that I remember this more fondly than I sometimes experienced it.)
Wednesday morning, as Brendan and Katia prepared their truck for the cow acquisition, Alister and I caught up. He showed me the rocks in his pocket, and I showed him my new lemon tree. We were deep in a game of indoor kickball when Brendan and Katia announced their immanent departure, so Alister decided to stay with us (the novelty of exploring a new milking parlor was lost on him). Soon after, I asked Alister if he wanted to help me make breakfast.
At that point, I had gotten no farther in menu planning than ham biscuits. I was quite proud of a whole ham I had cured and smoked earlier in the week, and knowing the carnivorous propensities of the Holmes family men, I planned to stuff them with homemade ham. Alister was happy to help. Like most kids his age, Alister likes machines with buttons, so we used the Cuisinart to cut butter into the dry ingredients. Then we added yogurt to form a stiff dough, floured our long butcher block kitchen table, and set about kneading, rolling, and cutting. At first, I directed our progress, declaring the dough sufficiently thin or adding flour to our massive rolling pin. But gradually I handed the reins over to Alister, and he began a running monologue on his craft.
Meanwhile, Andrew had entered the scene and was contemplating his own contribution to our meal. We were short on olive oil for making mayonnaise, so Andrew opted to try a new recipe, for Hollandaise (basically, mayonnaise made with butter). Looking at the fluffy biscuits, the savory ham, and the creamy hollandaise sauce, I knew that to forgo poached eggs would be to forever regret my own lack of initiative.
I’ve never poached an egg before, so I approached the stove with trepidation. I’d always heard that poaching an egg requires a combination of craft and luck that I was unsure I possessed. But Alister was busy with biscuits, and I needed something to do.
Allow me to digress for a moment. My lovely sister-in-law gifted me this year with the perfect book: An Everlasting Meal, a by Tamar Adler that is much in the spirit of MFK Fisher’s How to Eat a Wolf. An Everlasting Meal is a cookbook without recipes, an eloquent conversation with a very good cook on the essence of sincere food and economical cooking. It is a book not of “food porn” (as I think of so many contemporary cookbooks, with their stylized, glossy pictures of perfect dishes) but of comfort reading that edifies even as it piques your appetite. The second chapter, “How to Teach an Egg to Fly” would have been required reading for me, had I known in advance that I would poach eggs that day.
In clear, unadorned language, Tamar introduces the pleasures of poaching, “…to poach eggs is to understand egg cooking as you can’t when you cook them any other way. A boiled egg stays secret until its cooked, and a frying egg sizzles in fat, too hot to touch. But poached eggs are cracked out of their shells and cooked directly in barely simmering liquid, which means you can literally feel them as they cook.” Then she lays out the steps: bringing a pot of water to a simmer, adding salt and vinegar (for taste and resilient whites, respectively), and then gently sliding the egg in to cook. Three minutes later, lift them out with a slotted spoon; the white will be cooked, though the yolk will still spill golden goodness onto whatever it is served atop.
Despite my lack of proper coaching, my own poached eggs behaved precisely as they should have. They bobbed in the pot, small fronds of white swirling like seaweed around the tight ball of the egg proper. As I removed them to a plate, I could feel the gentle give of the warm yokes.
Upon Brendan and Katia’s return, we proudly served up our eggs benedict, which we all ate with yolky, hammy, biscuit-crumbed fingers.