It’s so easy to overlook the egg tray, and it’s even easier to think about scrambling, frying or boiling an egg -- rather than poaching one.
But here’s one of my secrets: Poached eggs are a wonderfully simple meal. And here’s another: Of the many ways to fix eggs, poaching is one of the quickest.
These recipes elevate the poached egg beyond the heaviness of your basic hollandaise sauce or the drab predictability of old-time recipes. These speak of spring. In one, fresh tarragon flavors a light cream sauce; in another, an asparagus variation on hollandaise tops poached eggs on toasted brioche. In a third, poached eggs rest on watercress tossed with a tangy Dijon mustard vinaigrette, scattered with fresh herbs.
What sends many cooks scrambling -- rather than poaching -- is the act itself. Poaching can be intimidating. But if you follow a few basics, you’ll find it not difficult at all.
Start with the freshest possible eggs for a thicker white that will hold its shape during poaching and not scatter in the water. Also, unlike when you bake, poached eggs should come right from the refrigerator. The whites of warm eggs have a thinner consistency and do not hold up as well as cold eggs. Add a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice to the poaching water to help the eggs set up quickly and retain their round shape in the water.
You can buy special egg-poaching pans, but I much prefer a nonstick skillet. The eggs will lightly cling to the bottom without sticking -- which is what you want -- rather than bobbing around in the water or sticking like gum to the pan’s surface. If you use a skillet without a nonstick coating, spray the bottom with nonstick spray before filling it with water.
The water should come to within an inch from top of the skillet; the eggs must be completely immersed. The simmer is important -- if the water is not simmering hard enough, the white of the egg will spread out before it sets; if the water is boiling, it will cause the egg to toughen and break up during cooking. The water should be bubbling gently around the edges of the pan.
Then, break an egg into a small custard cup or bowl, tilt the bowl just over the surface of the water and slip in the egg. Cracking the egg directly into the pan can cause the egg to lose its shape in the water, or break the yolk. Be sure not to overcrowd the pan: Poach no more than three or four eggs at a time, and spoon warm water over the tops as they cook. If your eggs do get raggedy edges, remember you can always trim them when you’re done. (Or, if you’re patient enough, cook just one egg at a time: Whirl the water to create a little funnel, then slip the egg into the vortex.)
The rest goes quickly -- just three to four minutes for a perfectly poached egg. Check for doneness by gently lifting the egg from the water with a slotted spatula. The white should be set but not hard or rubbery, while the yolk should be soft and not hard-cooked. If you have any doubts, cut into the white with a knife. It should look cooked and be set in the center. Otherwise, slip it back into the water for a little more poaching.
Use a slotted spatula to remove the eggs, holding them over the pan to let any excess water drain off. A spatula works better than a spoon, I think, at keeping the egg whole.
The eggs with tarragon cream can actually be made ahead; poach the eggs the day before serving and immerse them in a big bowl of cold water and refrigerate. Make the cream sauce too and refrigerate it, and shred the cheese and fix the bread crumbs. When you’re ready to assemble the dish, gently lift the eggs from the water and drain them on a paper towel before adding them to the ramekins. Be sure to increase the baking time by a few minutes so the eggs are heated through.
In the poached egg with prosciutto recipe, I use white asparagus, which adds a fresh, light flavor to a traditional hollandaise sauce. (The asparagus is shielded from sunlight and doesn’t turn green.) The same recipe calls for brioche rolls; if you can’t find them, it’s OK to substitute brioche bread. Brioche has a nice airy texture yet a rich flavor.
Finally, serve the herbed eggs to anyone used to the basic old poached egg. The peppery watercress stands up to the mustard dressing, making a bed for the eggs that are sprinkled with herbs. You couldn’t ask for a better presentation of spring on a plate.