Like any good magician, favorite uncle, or birthday-party clown, every cook has a trademark parlor trick: a sleight-of-hand something, a secret weapon guaranteed to amuse and delight even the most discerning of audiences. Take, for example, my friend Nicho, who slips a glug of Newman’s Own salad dressing into nearly everything vegetal that lands on his stovetop. Each time he sautés or stir-fries, he is met with murmurs of pleasure and full-mouthed praise, while his secret weapon sits in plain sight next to the stove, with no one the wiser. Then there’s Kate, number one spokeswoman for the School of Whipped Cream, able to convince even the most careful of dessert eaters to throw caution to the wind with a single seductive spoonful. And as for me, my parlor trick is a humble one, without celebrities or sex appeal, and conveniently packaged to fit in the palm of my hand. When in doubt, I put an egg on it.
If you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes—or computer screen, as it were—of Orangette, chances are, it involves an egg. Within the four walls of my kitchen, I’ve found few things that do not stand to benefit from a broken eggshell or two, or a slow, sweet rivulet of runny yolk. Braised green cabbage is only the beginning. Those leeks going limp in the crisper drawer? I’m liable to slow-cook them with a pinch of sugar and fold them into a frittata. Those French fingerling potatoes, tossed with apple cider vinegar and olive oil? Why, I’ll wash them down with eggs à la française, softly scrambled in a saucepan. Those spears of roasted asparagus in the fridge? I’ll line them up like a raft on the still sea of a ceramic plate, and set a soft-boiled egg afloat on top. And when a loaf of something freshly baked follows me home, I treat it to breakfast, American-style: scrambled eggs, large-curded and lumpy like an old down pillow. My parlor trick is pretty predictable, but when I want to make something disappear, it works like a dream.
As I’ve recently discovered, I’m not the only one adept at this sleight of hand. In fact, it seems that “slip ‘em an egg” is one of the oldest tricks in the book. One recent evening, as I settled under the sheets with a new issue of Gourmet, my eye brushed against a recipe titled “Bouillabaisse of Peas,” a soup of sorts originally printed in 1967 and featuring not the seafood that one might expect, but a poached egg instead, perched atop a bowl of clear broth, potatoes, and peas.
The caption cutely explained that this was “an ancient Provençal way of dressing up little green peas”—or rather, as I read right through it, an ancient Provençal parlor trick. Boil a few herbs in a pot of plain water; add onions, garlic, peas, and potatoes; and sure, you’ve got something edible. But add a slice of oil-crisped toast and a poached egg, and you’ve got something eminently edible: earthy and soothing, a rich yolk running to meet sweet, garlicky broth, inviting slurps, burps, and other lapses in decorum. I’d swallow every trick in the book, if they all tasted like this.
Aromatic Broth with Peas, Potatoes, and a Poached Egg
Adapted from Gourmet, January 2006
This bare-bones beauty is very adaptable. It can easily be doubled to feed six, or, if you’re supping solo, you can make a full batch of broth, but prepare only one egg and one slice of bread. Stash leftover broth in the fridge for future meals, rewarming it gently while you toast a piece of bread and poach your egg.
For bouquet garni:
1 two-inch piece celery
1 small Turkish bay leaf
1 fresh thyme sprig, about 3 inches long
1 fresh Italian parsley sprig, about 3 inches long
4 black peppercorns
1/8 tsp slightly crushed fennel seeds
2 cups water
2 Tbs good-quality olive oil
3 slices baguette, preferably day-old, each 1 inch thick
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
½ pound waxy potatoes, such as fingerling, cut into 1/3-inch-thick slices
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
5 ounces frozen peas (not thawed)
¾ tsp salt
A few grinds black pepper
3 large eggs, poached according to the directions here
First, make the bouquet garni. Cut a rectangle of cheesecloth measuring about 8” by 16.” Fold it in half to make a double-thick 8” square. Place the celery, bay leaf, thyme, parsley, peppercorns, and fennel seeds in the center; then gather the cheesecloth around the herbs like a little bag. Tie the mouth of the bag with cotton kitchen string, making sure that it is securely closed.
Place the bouquet garni in a medium saucepan with the water, and bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, heat ½ Tbs oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add the baguette slices, and toast, flipping once, until golden, a few minutes. Transfer the bread to a plate or cutting board. Add the remaining 1 ½ Tbs oil to the skillet, along with the onion. Cook the onion over medium heat, stirring regularly, until it softens and begins to look translucent. Add the potatoes, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about five minutes.
Add the garlic, peas, salt, pepper, and hot water with bouquet garni. Cover the skillet, and simmer the mixture until the potatoes are tender, about 7-10 minutes. Discard the bouquet garni.
Pour a small ladleful of broth, potatoes, and peas into each of 3 bowls. Place 1 slice of toasted bread atop the broth and vegetables in each bowl, and place 1 egg atop each slice of bread. Divide the rest of the broth and vegetables among the bowls. Serve immediately, with additional salt and pepper for the eggs.
Yield: 3 servings