09 May 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 12



Soft-boiled eggs. — A veal cutlet cooked on the grill. — Order and cleanliness in the kitchen.

I thought I knew very well how to cook soft-boiled eggs, but now I perceive that I wasn’t at all knowledgeable on this point. Once again, it’s Tante Victoire who, from her armchair, instructed me in the correct manner.

“How are you getting along, little one?” she said to me when she saw me putting a small saucepan of water on the fire.

“Auntie, I’m waiting for the water to boil. When it’s reached a high boil, I’ll put in the eggs, and an instant later, I’ll take them out.”

“’An instant later,’ what does that mean? How long does that last, ‘an instant’?”

“I don’t know, Auntie; it’s about … whenever I think the eggs are cooked.”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” said Tante Victoire, “it’s not by ‘about’ that we practice good cooking. Everything must be regulated. Give me my watch that you see hanging there, by my bed.”

I took the watch and gave it to Tante Victoire.

“Now,” she said, “warn me when the water is really bubbling.”

Precisely when the water began to boil, I warned Tante Victoire.

“Put the eggs in a spoon big enough to contain them both. Gently plunge the spoon into the water; remove it while leaving the eggs behind, cover the saucepan…. Now let’s wait.”

A minute and a half passed, according to Tante Victoire’s watch.

“Remove the saucepan from the fire, place it to one side on the stove, then let’s wait longer….”

A minute and a half passed.

“…Now remove the eggs, both at once if possible, and place them on the plate. You’ll see, when I eat them, how they’ll be.”

I served the eggs to Tante Victoire and, when she had broken the end of one shell, she showed me that the albumen had become milky, such that one could easily mix it with the yolk using the little spoon.

“You see,” she said, “that’s how we can tell the eggs are properly cooked. The albumen should never be transparent, but neither should it be hard or stuck to the eggshell. We get eggs to be milky this way by allowing them to finish cooking off of the fire. Now, my dear, get busy with the cutlet.”*

“Cutlets are my glory,” I said to myself, “and I certainly don’t need Tante Victoire’s advice in order to succeed.” So I took the cutlet, I trimmed it by removing all of the film that covered the strip of fat that surrounded it; with a stroke of a cleaver I shortened the bone, then I flattened the meat by hitting on it with the flat side of a cutting knife. Then I salted the cutlet on both sides with fine salt, then I roled it in breadcrumbs and I placed it delicately on the grill.

All the while chatting with Tante Victoire, who watched me make my little preparations and who sampled her soft-boiled eggs with gusto, I brought to the front of the hearth several bright-red coals that I placed on a bed of cinders.

The coal being nicely arranged and fiery, I placed the grill on top of it, and I watched the cooking of the cutlet, “a dish so delicate when it’s carefully prepared,” Tante Victoire says, “and so awful when it’s badly cooked.”

During this time, Tante Victoire continued to give me advice: “Fan the coal with this newspaper that I put there for this purpose,” she said to me. “You will see that the coal will not blacken under the influence of the grease that’s falling from the meat.”

And since I began to fan very hard: “Now, now, not so hard!” she added. “Don’t you see that you must proceed gently and with care, otherwise you’ll raise a cloud of cinders with your fanning, it will fly everywhere and land on the meat…. Now lift the cutlet with the end of your fork and don’t turn it over unless it’s quite browned on the bottom.”

Perfectly: it would give you pleasure to see how browned the meat was. I turned the cutlet over, all the while following Tante Victoire’s advice and feeling a bit embarrassed to have needed it, I who believed myself to be so capable in the art of grilling meat. And I thought, “How funny! One thinks oneself quite knowledgeable just because one knows how to make one or two or three dishes; one imagines that one has nothing left to learn; one is ready to pride oneself in knowing so much, and then one fine day one realizes that one doesn’t know everything and that persons of age and experience are much more knowledgeable than we. How we ought to consider ourselves lucky to receive their good advice!”

The juice began to bead up on the surface of the cutlet: this was the sign that it was completely cooked. I served the cutlet to Tante Victoire and I began to put away in the kitchen the diverse utensils I’d used.

My mother has taught me that the kitchen must never be cluttered and that objects should be put away as soon as one has used them. The grill was placed on a little table, near the sink, where the breakfast dishes had just taken their place. The forks and spoons that I had used now joined them; with a rag that I have the habit of hanging from my belt, I wiped the knives, then returned them to a drawer of the buffet. I used this same rag to give a lick to the table where I’d placed these diverse objects and prepared the cutlet, and I gave a lick of the broom to the hearth to make the fire look nice again and to sweep up the scattered cinders, and voilà, the kitchen was in order, just as if I hadn’t made lunch.

Tante Victoire paid me a compliment for these good habits and made me promise to uphold them always: “You wouldn’t believe,” she said, “how much all these little precautions, this good order and this habitual cleanliness can save time. There are housewives who waste all their time in sweeping and cleaning. You understand, don’t you, that it’s far preferable not to need so much cleaning, and to do that, the foremost of all methods to employ, is to avoid making a mess, that is, to return each thing to its place when you are done with it. There’s a whole art in not cluttering up the kitchen with dirty dishes and pots and cooking tools. I see that you know this, that makes me happy and permits me to predict very well what you will do later, when you have greater age and experience. Alas, ma petite!” she added with a sigh. “That will come too quickly, too soon. You’ll see.”

These last words of Tante Victoire made me feel suddenly tender toward her. I guessed without much realizing what she meant. Poor Tante Victoire, so alone in life, so kind, so helpful! And here she was feeling unwell now… I hope it’s nothing serious! Oh! How I’m going to continue to take good care of her, so that she’ll get back on her feet as soon as possible, and I’ll help her chase away her sadness.

Tante Victoire having finished her lunch, I relieved her of her plate, her silverware, her napkin; I put away all of this, too, then I took up my needlework and sat beside her to keep her company for several hours.


[To copy and keep]

1. When I prepare soft-boiled eggs, I will leave them for one and a half minutes in boiling water on the fire and one and a half minutes in this same water off the fire, the saucepan remaining covered in both cases.

2. I will plunge them carefully into the boiling water to avoid cracking them.

3. I will not forget to salt and to bread a cutlet that I am going to place on the grill.

4. I will fan the coals on which the cutlet will cook, so that the fire will always be quite hot.

5. I will know that a cutlet is cooked when the juice beads up on the surface.

6. I will put away the cooking utensils as soon as they are no longer needed and I will not allow pots and dirty dishes to make a clutter.

7. I will always wear an apron to protect my dress from stains and I will carry a rag hanging from my belt while I am cooking.

8. It’s with this rag, and not with my apron, that I will wipe my knife, the table, and even my hands.

Next time: Soup! Beautiful soup!

*TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Using the word “côtelette,” our dear author, L. Ch.-Desmaisons, doesn’t specify the kind of meat in question. I don’t know how general this tendency is today, though I’ve noticed in the work of other authors, around the time of the publication of La Première Année, that a “côtelette” is always presumed to be veal unless otherwise specified. (This is especially true in Zola’s novels, in which the côtelette is the single-most frequently consumed dish, most especially among members of the Rougon family.) My other reading informs me that, in some parts of the English-speaking world, a “cutlet” is also called a “chop.”


ABC in WFT said...

Tell us about the portrait of the egg-poacher, please. I can't find it in my tiny mental catalogue of the History of Art 101, 201,or 301.

William V. Madison said...

It's Old Woman Frying Eggs by Velásquez, and it hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland. Since I've never set foot in Scotland, I've never seen it; I found the image on the Internet.

Sadly, Velásquez's much-praised Old Woman Watching Intently and Giving Plentiful Advice While Little Girl Soft-Boils Two Eggs has been lost, so I had to settle for this as an illustration, instead.

Br. Jonathan said...

It was only a few years ago that I learned how to prepare a soft-boiled egg properly. And even more recently, Julia's omelette.
It's no wonder she has an entire chapter on eggs.
Lovely post!