For those of you who know my history in the culinary world, you will know that I have had a constant and abiding love for the egg.
My favorite dish in the world is a poached duck egg with a little shaved parmesan, two single drips of truffle oil, a good dose of Maldon salt, and grilled sourdough bread with sweet cream butter.
Duck egg yolk is phenomenally rich, and thicker than that of a chicken’s egg. It has a meatier taste to it. I assume this comes from the fact that a duck leads a mostly aquatic lifestyle as it feeds while a chicken, unless coerced into doing so, rarely enjoys a good swim. Aside from the yolk, the albumen, which is the white of the egg, is also decidedly more textural than that of a chicken egg. While the albumen of a chicken’s egg is tender, the duck’s egg has a far more noticeable chew to it. You know you’re biting into the white of a duck egg.
Next you have the parmesan. Parmesan, and a great many other cheeses, pair so well with eggs and have for centuries. The rich creamy texture of an egg blends almost perfectly with the sharp bite of a good piece of cheese. The combination is blatantly evident in the simplest of breakfast dishes; the omelet. Good cheese makes a good omelet.
I prefer to use Parmigiano Reggiano as it has a salty quality that compliments the egg white, and it has a bitter fruity tang in the older varieties that bring out the richness of the yolk.
The Italians, and most of Europe, do something that is very different from America. They have a law stating that Product of Origin, or the place where something is produced, is legally protected and that it cannot be produced under that name anywhere else in the world. Parmigiano Reggiano is a prime example of this, being produced exclusively in the regions of Parma, Reggio Emilia, and Bologna. If it’s produced anywhere else, it ain’t Parmigiano Reggiano. You’ll note that Champagne is under the same umbrella. If it’s not produced in Champagne France, it’s just sparkling. The list of items that can be produced only in their specific regions in Europe is very extensive and an area I wish we could see here in the United States. Montana, with is protein rich grass and cold hard winters, produces phenomenally rich beef. The cows fatten up on spring and summer grass then settle in for winter feeding on sweet alfalfa that’s been baled and stored for feeding through the harsh weather. This makes for distinctive flavor in the meat and a delicious outer layer of fat that you won’t find in Southern cattle. There’s nothing wrong with Southern cattle, they just eat differently. The grass in the south tends to be less protein rich and so the cows must consume massive quantities just to keep their bodies functioning. This provides a gamier tasting beef that is commonly leaner than our beef here.
That’s a long digression to simply say, where things come from is important, and Parmigiano Reggiano that comes from Italy with the needled stamp mark on the rind, is perfect for the consumption of duck eggs.
The next addition on my perfect plate is the truffle oil. Truffle oil is a little bit of smoke and mirrors in the restaurant industry. Truffle oil is rarely made by chefs and commonly made by perfumeries. It is more an essence than an oil, but in truth, this is why I like it for this dish. When I cook with truffles, I use truffles; though that is rare because expense and availability make them a coveted item not easy to obtain. But when I sit down to eat in silence at the end of day, I prefer the truffle oil. It’s not really the rich earthy flavor of the truffle I’m looking for, it’s more the deep aromatic breath that wakes up the taste buds and makes the mouth water before even the first bite is taken. I don’t even drip the oil onto anything I’m eating. Just two drops on the warm plate so I can breathe in that scent. If it’s made by a perfumery then it’s meant to be breathed in.
Then comes the salt. For those who are dear friends of mine, they will know I have a decidedly unhealthy addiction to salt. When we have finishing salts of any kind, be they Maldon, Black Salt, Murray River, or occasionally even just plain old Kosher salt; I’ve been known to take a good sized two finger pinch and pour it directly on my tongue. This is not a common practice of mine for two reasons, the first is that consuming overly salted foods is ruinous to the palate. It wipes out your taste buds and then you want more…and more…and more still. Until all your tongue wants to taste is salt. You miss out on too much food if you spend all your time coating it in salt. The second reason I don’t eat it by the handful very often is the simple scientific fact it will kill you; graveyard dead.
When I am struck with the desire to eat copious amounts of salt, which happens at least once a year, I do so until it feels like my nose is going to bleed. That’s when I know I’ve eaten enough and it’s time to lay off.
For this dish I like using Fleur De Sel. This is a slightly wet salt with a fine gritty texture. It tastes…well it tastes salty, but there is a bit more mineraliness to it. Mineraliness being a word I just made up but one that should be in Webster’s and next to it should be a picture of some grains of Fleur De Sel. I light little sprinkling of this over the egg’s yolk is all you need so that when the yolk bursts the grains melt away into the bloom of it and spread their flavor throughout.
The other biggest addition to the plate that really makes the dish stand out is the bread. I prefer sourdough because the natural yeast that we breathe out of the air every day flavors each bite of that bread as well. Our bodies are accustomed to these yeasts. They know them. They are friendly with them. They expect them and welcome them.
For those of you familiar with sourdough you’ll understand this additive. For those unfamiliar, let me familiarize you. Sourdough is simply flour and water allowed to ferment over a period of time until it becomes its own living thing. Once it is alive it must be watched, fed, and depleted so that its life cycle can continue on. You take from this starter and make your bread which will be explosively rich with the flavor from your starter and its life cycle. As the starter ages the flavor becomes stronger and maintains its own permanence. It then becomes “your” starter, and you watch over it as you would a living breathing thing. Woe be to the day you walk in to find your starter has died. You’ll feel like a terrible parent and question what you ever did in this world to deserve such a drab fate. I’ve killed many a starter, but then you start another, and life goes on.
Many people talk about the delicious sour dough starters that San Francisco is famously known for. You can go there, purchase the starter, bring it back home, and keep it alive. And every time you take a bite of the bread you make with this starter you’ll think to yourself how different it tasted down in The City. That’s because it’s not even the same thing anymore. When the California yeasts come up into the cold Montana climate, the Montana yeast arms for battle and pushes the California yeast out, takes over the entire landscape, and the starter is no longer San Fransican, it is now completely Montanan. I have noted this interaction happens outside the yeast community too, but I can’t say I condone it.
One of the oldest sourdough starters in the world is about 120 years old; give or take a decade. It is an east coast starter, and they keep it in its own room with its own temperature thermostat and its own humidifier/dehumidifier. It is gooey, it is yellow, and it is delicious. And it also proves that everything gets better with age. I try to remind myself of this every time I try to stand back up from a kneeling position.
I prefer to grill the bread rather than toast it because the taste of lightly charred bread is unforgettable. The carbon burn across the lightly bubbled surface of tart sourdough bread is a great combination with an egg and mellows the fatty richness of the yolk with its dark lines of flavor.
And of course, how could one forget the butter. Sweet cream butter is my favorite. All the saltiness on our plate, all the sharpness, the richness, the fattiness, it all just cries out for a little sweetness. A good heavy spread of butter across the bread and then let it just sit and melt for a minute, softening the bread, dripping down over the crusted sides of the toast, pooling just beneath the egg and making the sweat beads start to pop up on the shaved cheese, this is a great final touch.
Butter finishes out the mouth feel of the whole dish and leaves every bite a perfect savory combination as you consume your meal.
And there you have the perfect dish. Take a fork and burst the yolk. Watch the beautiful golden color spread across the plate and fill the divot at the bottom of the dish. Cut a section from the egg and place it gently on top of the toast, softened with butter but still with its charcoal-y aftertaste from the grill marks, then add a piece of the shaved and now wilted cheese to the top of that and take a full bite. Tell me that’s not divine. The contrasting textures of the soft rubbery white, the greasy feel of the yolk, the crisp snap of the bread crust with the doughy center rich with sweet butter then the sharp nutty tang of the cheese as it slowly mellows the entire bite. It’s just the perfect dish in my opinion.
Breakfast was jokingly referred to as a lifetime of dedication for the pig, and a minute of work for the chicken. I’m leaving the pig on his own for this one, and I’m giving respect to the fowl that took the minute out of its day to make the perfect dinner for me.
It has been said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I believe that’s true; I just don’t believe in defining when you should have it. Now if you’ll pardon me, I have an egg to poach.