Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The basics

Or, In Praise of the Yolk

I've never been much of a breakfast eater. When I was younger, much younger, mornings before school usually started out with me being called two, three, four times from bed by my father. When I finally did rouse myself, the kitchen counter would already be set with a box of cereal (the kind with little to no sugar; I had very strict parents in this regard), an empty bowl, and a carton of milk. The routine was simple, functional. My father moved about the kitchen, making coffee for himself and my mother, and making lunch for me. I crunched quietly, reading the cereal box, solving the same puzzles over and over, day after day.

You can imagine, I didn't develop any strong sentiments for weekday breakfasts. (Weekends were another story: bacon and pancakes and lots and lots of syrup, all my early-morning sugar deprivation accumulated the previous five days bursting, finally, in bright brass.) As I grew older, heading into high school and then college, early-morning fare became even more sparse -- just a banana here, maybe a bagel there, but usually I was running on empty, so to speak, until lunch.

This isn't necessarily a Bad Thing, I think, though you will most often hear otherwise from people who are, well, much wiser than me. I, however, do believe that feeding yourself is more than following a strict, Three Meals A Day regimen. It's about learning to listen to your body, about understanding when you need nourishment, and just how much. I find I am most satisfied when eating when on just the brink of hunger, and stopping when just on the brink of being full. This brings me back to breakfast: when skipping breakfast, I wasn't necessarily listening to what my body wanted, or needed. I was too busy, or too silly, to feed myself. Lunch then was often out of desperation, not pleasure. Two meals a day (out of however many you find you like to have), wasted!

Lately, I have come to learn the importance of the basics. The basics of cooking, of creating nourishment from nothing pre-wrapped, pre-packaged, pre-preserved. (Though things of that manner can be so wonderful, too, in their proper places.) The basics of starting off my day with something so simple, its elegance is easily overlooked: the soft runny gold of a soft-boiled egg yolk.

I'm not sure if it's that I'm here, in Argentina, learning to love the morning perfection that is a soft-boiled egg on toast, or if the difference really is tangible, but: I have never seen egg yolks so golden. I buy my eggs, in packs of six wrapped in newspaper, from the butcher (Luis!) down the block. I'd like to think they are eggs from organic, free-range, happy chickens who do nothing but eat golden grain and chatter to one another all day, but really, I have no idea where these eggs come from. (Another often-cited, and reasonably so, Bad Thing.) Maybe one day I'll ask Luis. In the meantime, I am happy to buy my little treasures from him as they are, room temperature, as all the eggs are here in this country -- something natural and reminiscent of farm freshness, which I smile over as I stick them in the back of my refrigerator.

Which leads me to my boiling technique: I've seen the magic number for the perfect soft-boiled egg in many places. Four minutes in boiling water. Such a precise time frame kind of freaks me out, when it comes to something as simple as an egg. What I do, then, is take four cold eggs from the fridge (two for me, two for B), put them in my saucepan, fill the pan with cold water just above the level of the eggs, and put it over medium-high heat. I put on water for tea, and pull out the toaster. I put a few slices of bread in to toast, get out the pale ceramic cups, and three bowls. Bennett sets the table with spoons and salt and pepper, and takes the bread out of the toaster. I pour hot water into our cups, and bring our tea to the table. About this time, maybe ten minutes, the water for the eggs has become hot and bothered -- not quite breaking the surface with big bubbles, but small globes cling to the sides of the pan and the eggs, and a few escape to fresh air. I turn off the stove, drain the hot water from the pan, add cold, swish it around to stop the eggs from cooking and make the handling of them much more pleasant. These are placed in a bowl, next to ours. We sit down and delve in.

A quiet often settles in, as our spoons crack the shells. I like to hit mine right in the middle, the egg's little equator. This affords me equal pleasure at scooping out the barely-cooked whites from each side. Dropped on toast, sprinkled with a bit of salt and pepper, a soft-boiled egg is such a happy pleasure. The first time we made soft-boiled eggs together for breakfast, halfway through eating, Bennett said, "We forgot the butter!", and then, shaking his head and running his finger along the yellow yolk in his bowl, and bringing the finger to his lips, "But, they don't really need it, do they?"

You've got to admit (even if you do like butter with your breakfast), that's a pretty good way of summing up an egg.

And the next best thing (not next-best as in second-best, but as in "coming up next") is that this is the type of meal that will sustain you all throughout your weekday morning, through phone calls and faxes and city blocks and coughing buses, until you decide, at your leisure (because that is so rare, on weekdays), when and what you would like to have for lunch.

Very basic, indeed.

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