Thursday, October 1, 2009

Poaches and Pouches

There is a section of the Desiderata that gives the following advice: “If you compare yourself to others, you may become vain and bitter, for there will always be greater and lesser people than yourself.”

This advice was perfectly exemplified by my recent foray into Eggs Benedict. And the recipe brought into focus certain issues that have been percolating in the background of my cooking journey.

Eggs Benedict is my favorite breakfast, by far. I eat it whenever I can. So, I decided that I wanted to make it for myself and my adoring cabana boy, um crap wait, my wonderful husband. The ingredients are fairly simple: English muffins, Canadian bacon, eggs, sauce. There are two potentially tricky parts, however—the eggs need to be poached, and the sauce is…well…Hollandaise. Quick—list the ingredients in a Hollandaise sauce……..Time’s up. Don’t feel bad, I wasn’t able to do it either.

Around the time I was contemplating making this recipe, I started to read Julie Powell’s blog (the Julie/Julia Project blog; I’d read her book previously, but not the original blog). I quickly got to the part of the blog where she talks about her nightmare experiences trying to poach eggs. She talks about trying to poach egg after egg, with disastrous results—stuff that looked like egg-drop soup, congealed messes, ruined eggs that resulted in too few eggs for too many people. She talked about techniques, like using a spoon to keep the shape of the egg as it poaches. She talked about finally thinking she’d gotten egg poaching down, only to completely fail at it the next time she tried it.

As you can imagine, I became more and more alarmed as I read this. I also became confused. I could have sworn that I remembered poaching eggs years before (really, how often does one need to poach eggs in this day and age?), all without any serious tragedies or traumas. But maybe I was misremembering? I turned to one of Julia Child’s books, which had ‘tips’ that made my blood run cold. Push a straight pin into the large end of the egg to puncture the air sack, otherwise the egg will crack (but…aren’t you supposed to crack the egg into the water anyway?). Make sure to poach the egg for EXACTLY four minutes, otherwise a worm-hole will open up in your kitchen and transport you to an alternate universe where evil, vindictive eggs will attempt to poach *you*. Great—I just don’t have time for that today. So, I turned to the internets (hey, Steven Colbert says it that way, and everyone knows he’s never wrong). More ominous suggestions about the difficulties of poaching eggs.

I have a stubborn side (yes, I know, most of you will need to take a moment to recover from the shock of that revelation). As I looked at the screen of my computer, I suddenly blurted out the non-sequitur ‘It can’t be that difficult!’ to the mild disconcertion of my roommate. We discussed the issue briefly, and she agreed with me that poaching eggs was not difficult, and told me that I could buy egg-poaching thingies that would make the process very easy indeed.

My stubborn side is, luckily, balanced out by a practical side. So, I decided that while I would rage against The Machine, I would put some safety-net precautions in place just in case The Machine was right. So, I bought the egg-poaching thingies over the internets, and decided that while I was waiting for them to arrive, I would try poaching just *one* egg.

The reason for the *one* is that my husband and I have switched to buying eggs laid by cage-free chickens. After reading Omnivore’s Dilemma, the extra 90 cents that it costs me to buy these at Trader Joe’s seems very much worth it to avoid the cruelty inflicted on industrial laying hens who are not cage-free. However, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna ruin a dozen of them in freak poaching accidents. There are limits.

So, I poached my *one* egg. I added a splash of vinegar to my boiling water to cut the surface tension of the water, reduced my heat to simmer, picked up my egg, and pierced the large end with a straight pin to break the air sack. The egg promptly cracked lengthwise in my hand. I have never in all of my 29 years (yes, I said 29…is there a problem?) had an egg crack *lengthwise*. WTF was that?? Thanks, Julia, for adding a surreal dimension to my day.

But no worries, I’m nobody’s fool. I can handle a crisis. So, I went with it, and split the egg lengthwise, letting it flow into the water.

Here’s where I admit that when I thought that I had turned down the heat on the pot from boil to simmer…I actually had turned the heat down on the wrong burner. So, my egg-poaching pot was still on full boil. If you need proof that a PhD has little to do with simple, plain intelligence, there you go. Feel free to cite me.

So, my prematurely cracked egg went into inappropriately effusively boiling water. At that point, it’s safe to say the odds were not on my side.

And yet—my egg poached perfectly.

I was skeptical. This must have been a freak accident of fate. So I poached a second egg: again, perfection.

But no, Michelle, don’t get excited…remember, Julie thought she had it down, too! And then the next time she tried, it all went to hell. So please, do not get ahead of yourself.

The next day, I made faux Egg Mcmuffins for hubby for breakfast; just like regular Egg Mcmuffins, but with poached eggs (I decided to abandon the pin-piercing technique because, really, who needs that crap?). Four poached eggs, perfectly executed and beautiful to behold.

Next came the final test: the actual Benedict. Just to make things a little crazy, I also tried to simultaneously make cheesy hash browns. Not only did the eggs poach perfectly, my timing brought out all of the food hot at the same time. That *never* happens—I should have instantly gone out and bought a lottery ticket on the spot. For whatever reason, I can only conclude that poaching eggs just happens to come naturally to me. Some people can predict the growth of stocks. Others can convince anyone to follow their leadership. I can poach eggs. Damn—somebody stop me!

I mentioned that this recipe brought into focus some issues that have come up as I’ve moved forward on my cooking journey. You’ll remember that I told you at the beginning of this project that I can cook. And I can. But as I’ve explored and cooked, I’ve come to understand that no matter how good a cook/chef you are, there is always more to learn. Even master chefs routinely learn new techniques, and challenge themselves. Even the great Julia Child knew better than to believe she knew all there was to know, and was always humble about learning something new.

With this recipe, it became important for me to make some decisions about what my goals are with this project. Julia Child wanted to learn to become a Cordon-Bleu-skilled French chef; this meant mastering the art of French cooking. Julie Powell wanted something different than this; not necessarily to become a professional chef, but to prove that she could push through and finish something she had started. So, she was not so much concerned with mastering the techniques themselves, and who says she should have been? Any culinary prowess that she picked up along the way was icing on the cake.

So what do *I* want from this?

When I committed to making Eggs Benedict, I necessarily committed to making Hollandaise sauce. I wasn’t looking forward to it…Lots of mixing of ingredients carefully so that they don’t separate/cook prematurely/spontaneously combust. So many things that can go wrong. So much stress.

And then it happened—when looking to pick up another McCormick’s stroganoff pouch, I saw it. A pouch of Knorr’s Hollandaise sauce mix. I looked to my right and then to my left to make sure no one was watching me looking at the pouch…feeling as guilty as though I were looking at pornography. I read the pouch… Just add milk and butter. No muss, no fuss, a modern day solution to an old problem… Oooohhhhh baby, say that again…*slowly*...

I stood there for a moment staring intently at the Hollandaise pouch. The angel on my left shoulder, the one who expresses my masochistically perfectionist side spoke first. “That’s cheating!” She said. The devil on my right, the one that routinely convinces me that free food has no calories, took over. “Wait…why is it cheating?” The angel answered, “ Because no self-respecting chef would...” The devil interrupted. “But you’re not a chef! Do you even *want* to be a chef?”

And that’s when it hit me. No, I don’t want to be a chef. I don’t even want to be a ‘cook’ in the professional sense. I just want to be someone who can cook up some grimace proportions, within the limited time available to them by the demands of their lifestyle. And if Knorr’s can help me do that, what’s the problem? Forcing myself to make Hollandaise from scratch is the equivalent of using an abacus when you have a calculator in your other hand. Perfect if your priest has ordered you to do penance, otherwise not so realistic or necessary.

With that, a huge looming burden dropped from my shoulders. I would not have to master the 5 different classes of sauces used in French cooking…unless at some point I decided it would be fun to do so. Otherwise, I would allow myself to learn necessary techniques (for example, poaching eggs—there is no pouch you can buy that will poach eggs for you), but not tax myself unnecessarily when there was an easier way--that's just being efficient. And with *that* realization came another related realization…Why should I behave otherwise in any other area of my life? Doing things in a more efficient way isn't cheating, it's surviving, as long as there is no loss of quality. And we could all use as much help with that, couldn’t we?

So, I will not be smug about the fact that poaching eggs comes more naturally to me than to others. And I will not berate myself because I haven’t taken the time to master making Hollandaise sauce from scratch. I will not allow myself to become vain or bitter by comparing myself to others…instead, I will allow myself to live and enjoy my life, and use what tools I can to make the best, most efficient Eggs Benedict possible. And I will apply these lessons to other areas of my life, and cut myself just a teensy bit of slack, channeling effort where it needs to go.

And I hereby give you permission to do the same.

© Michelle M. Chouinard 2007 All rights reserved.