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Love of their lives

Chefs have fallen for the egg, of all things. Treating it with tenderness, they've elevated it to a real luxury.

March 14, 2007|Betty Hallock | Times Staff Writer

A coddled Maran egg served in its dark-chocolate-colored shell, a sunny-side-up duck egg nestled into a salad, a slowly, slowly cooked egg -- with its yolk bright and creamy and the white barely opaque and tender -- dropped into a steaming bowl of noodle soup.

At long last, chefs are celebrating the egg. They're just as likely to highlight a beautiful, starkly simple egg in a dish as they would braised pork belly or smoked eel or hamachi sashimi. Chefs love eggs not just for the emulsifiers in their yolks or the way their whites can be transformed into billowy foam, but as a luxury ingredient on their own.

And not just white eggs, brown eggs or those popular Araucana blue-green eggs. They've cracked open all kinds of farm fresh eggs -- dappled turkey eggs, big duck eggs, tiny quail eggs, "heirloom" eggs from French or Egyptian chicken breeds -- that have been raised locally (and increasingly are available at farmers market stands).

Eggs' new currency may be thanks to one egg in particular: the 65-degree egg. Eggs cooked at a very low temperature -- 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees Fahrenheit) -- for a long time have been the subject of much discussion in culinary circles around the world.

French molecular gastronomist Herve This dubbed it l'oeuf a soixante-cinq degres, "the egg at 65 degrees," and wrote about it in his 2002 correspondence with Michelin three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire. (The letters, which begin "Mon cher Pierre," are posted on Gagnaire's website, www.pierregagnaire.com.) The idea seems to have reverberated from there.

Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 in New York has served his slow-cooked eggs (an immersion circulator used for cooking sous vide comes in handy) in a bowl with Parmigiano broth, Indian chickpea noodles, tomato powder and micro chives.

"It's a chef obsession of the moment," Lucques and A.O.C. chef-owner Suzanne Goin says of slow-cooking eggs. "We've been playing around with a slow-cooking egg technique.... We had trouble figuring it out. When you crack them open, at first you think they're undercooked. The white where it meets the shell is not firm."

But, properly executed, it's a delicious, custardy egg, the yolk bright and creamy and the whites tender and almost pudding-like -- an egg lover's egg.

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Gently cooked

IT'S a technique Goin says she recently heard about from Border Grill co-owner Mary Sue Milliken (who said she learned of it from food writer Paula Wolfert, among others). Milliken says she lays an inverted saucer in a saucepan (so the bottom doesn't get too hot), places a layer of eggs from the refrigerator onto the saucer, pours boiling water over them, sticks a thermometer in, and once the temperature gets down to 145 degrees, maintains that temperature for at least 45 minutes. It's tricky keeping the temperature constant at such a low setting. (For those without a super-low setting on their stove, it means turning the heat on and off.)

It's similar to what chef David Chang does with his eggs at wildly popular Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York. He says his is "like a perfect poached egg, a little more viscous, a little runnier." His technique is based on an ancient Japanese method for onsen eggs, traditionally cooked in hot springs. "It's the one egg method that the Japanese probably created before the French," he says.

Chang, who cooks dozens of eggs a day to add to his noodle soups or to spring dishes such as pan-roasted asparagus with miso butter or pickled and roasted ramps with bacon, says his onsen-style eggs add a luxurious mouth-feel to a dish. "A lot of our dishes don't have dairy, but the creaminess of the eggs makes a natural luxury sauce," he says.

But the slow-cooked egg isn't the only one showing up on menus. Soft-boiled, coddled, poached or lightly fried -- fabulous eggs, with their distinct whites and yolks, have also captivated chefs.

David Kinch at Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif., has long served as an amuse bouche a coddled egg served in the shell with maple syrup, sherry vinegar and a little whipped cream, based on an egg that French chef Alain Passard serves at L'Arpege, his restaurant in Paris. Kinch's eggs are from a new flock of about 75 chickens raised at his restaurant garden in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

At Ame restaurant in the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco, Hiro Sone tops a tangle of spaghetti and tender, young rapini with a sunny-side-up egg, showered with bottarga (dried tuna roe). Soon after he puts the eggs in the hot pan, just when the edges begin to foam and color, he adds a little water and covers them, allowing the steam to barely cook the top of the egg.

"The idea is to mix it all together," Sone says, "the warm egg yolk into the pasta. So when you cook the egg, make sure the yolk remains runny."

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