Saturday, May 24, 2008

Omelet Over a Gas Flame

I have observed many omelets (also spelled omelettes) in the wild. They can be scary and dangerous, and they come in a wide variety of plumage. Before one attempts to domesticate them, one should be aware that there are two basic species of this not-very-rare bird - indeed, this very-well-done-at-an-early-age bird.

First, there is the type I first learned to tame while cooking at the Kountry Kettle Kafe in Krosby (whoops, I mean Crosby), Minnesota, back in the mid-1990s. Actually I had assayed some clumsy attempts to bring this bird to hand even earlier, resulting mainly in a trail of sticky wreckage from one end of the kitchen to the other. At the Kountry Kettle I had the advantage of a large, flat grill and the right tools for the job. Plus, you know, advice from experienced cooks who wanted to see me succeed.

Type I omelets are the type that give eggrolls their name. The idea is to take two or three eggs just shy of their best-by date (so that they lie down flat on the grill), whisk them just enough to mix the yolk in with the white, and pour it over a puddle of butter-flavored oil on a flat grill. Use scrapers (like spatulas, only with the handle on the long edge) to confine the egg to its fair share of the grill's surface area, otherwise it will spread until it covers everything. As the egg cooks, fold in the edges until it assumes a more regular shape. Before executing the last fold or two, top it with other ingredients which, in some cases, may have been browning on a separate area of the grill - such as diced onions, peppers, ham, shredded cheese, etc. - then tuck in the top and bottom edges, fold the sides of the egg over the top of the mound of fillings, top with a little extra cheese (which will melt as the omelet cools), and scrape the lot onto a plate next to a rectangular pile of crispy hash browns and a pile of buttery toast. This is the type of omelet you can buy at Perkins' and IHOP.

Type II omelets astonished me when I discovered them later. Served to order at buffet-style brunch banquets and at certain particular restaurants - such as Waffle House, the Larry Byrd Experience in Terre Haute, and a 24-hour Greek place near my alma mater - this type of omelet is made from room-temperature eggs, blended with a tiny bit of starch in a high-speed drink mixer, then cooked in a smallish, round, oil-soused pan held over a flame. The add-ins may be browned first, and the eggs added over the top of them so that they cook right in to one upright-standing, airy puff of egg. The cook will know a trick of flipping the egg at just the right moment, using a shrewd flick of the panhandle without so much as touching a spatula. For a finishing touch it may be folded in half so that the cheese (sprinkled on top) melts in the center of a fluffy, eggy, breadless sandwich that towers over everything else on your plate.

The nearest I could approach to bringing the Type II omelet home, without investing in a milkshake blender and swapping my electric stove for a gas one, was to buy a novelty omelet pan made of two half-moon-shaped segments, hinged in the center, with a handle at one end. The idea was to cook a little egg in each half, lifting up the edges of the cooked egg so that the raw egg on top would run underneath, then piling the toppings onto the segment nearest the handle before flipping the other side over on top of it. If the egg has been properly loosened from the far side of the pan, it should then drop down onto the near side and the two halves finish cooking in the now steamy environment of the closed cooker.

The results of this process were often fairly satisfactory. But since I moved to an apartment with a gas range I have been, once again, stymied. The gas burners are not large enough to heat the omelet cooker properly. So until today, I had given up on having Type II omelets and settled for eggs over easy instead.

Today, I decided to try a new approach, inspired by those geniuses at Waffle House, but without the drink mixer. First I broke two eggs into a 9-ounce plastic cup. I added a squirt of warm water and a dash each of paprika and turmeric, then began whipping the eggs with a plastic fork. I didn't leave off whipping even while the pat of margarine was melting in a smallish, round frying pan over "medium" heat - What do I know what kind of heat it was? All I know is that I kept turning the flame down until it didn't hiss up the sides of the pan. When the margarine was melted and sizzling nicely, I stopped whipping the eggs and poured them in. They immediately started puffing up in a gratifying way. While most of the egg on top was still fluid but the egg on the bottom had cooked, I lifted up the edges of the egg - first on one side, the on the other - and let the liquid run underneath. Finally, when I judged the bottom was done enough, I made my best effort to flip the egg over so that the top would cook as well. I weakened and used a spatula; don't hold it against me.

For toppings I sprinkled on a bit of feta cheese - perhaps as much as a quarter of a cup's worth - and some crushed dillweed. I folded the fluffy full-moon into an even thicker half-moon and, quite soon after adding the cheese, slid it all onto a plate. The cheese did most of its melting while the egg cooled on the plate. I knew from experience - particularly the spiritually transporting experience of a spinach-and-feta omelet that visited me in the aforementioned Greek place - that the yumminess curve would drop sharply after the cheese began to re-congeal, so I dug in immediately. My tastebuds applauded.

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