Oeufs en Meurette
And in just under the wire... a post for March. Is the entire month gone already? I just can't keep track anymore. But if it is, and that is precisely what my calendar is telling me, then winter is gone too, and that is welcome news. Am I the only one who has been itching to see the backside of this winter? I can't remember the last time I had so few good things to say about an entire season. They usually have their ups and downs, but this one seems to have had more than its fair share of downs. The weather, actually, wasn't that bad; apart from that freak two feet of snow that brought the Pacific Northwest to its knees in December it's been pretty mild - sunnier, even, than I was expecting. Nevertheless, between the never-ending depressing news on all channels, the havoc the economic crisis is wreaking on our careers, and - as if to show us that when things seem bad, they can always get worse - a sudden family health crisis that has left us all struggling to cope, these have been three or four months I would like to lock into a box and never have to think about again.
There was one ray of sunshine that pierced the gloom, though, and saved this winter from being a total write-off. In January I finally got to meet one of my blogging heroes and longtime friends, the incredible Matt Armendariz, when he came to Seattle for a weekend visit. I find it hard to believe that there's anyone left out there who doesn't know Matt (he's been on Martha Stewart, for crying out loud!), but in case you've been living under a rock just scoot yourself over to his blog for a minute and marvel - this guy oozes talent out of every pore. He's wickedly funny too, and every bit as smart and well-spoken in person as he is online. He (somewhat unfairly) even has more friends in Seattle than we do, but thankfully he was happy to share, and brought a couple of them* along to meet us for a lazy brunch at Café Campagne in the Pike Place Market on a gorgeously sunny Sunday morning.
We had a great time that morning, talking about food and blogging and hashing out the Seattle vs. L.A. debate. We may have talked about other things too, but unfortunately I can't remember; you see, there's this big gap in my memory - let's say about half an hour's worth, or maybe more - during which time I can't recall anything but a plate of eggs. It was kind of like in a movie when the dialogue subsides, some cheesy music starts playing, and all you can see is the object of interest moving suggestively in slow motion - in this case egg yolk oozing slowly across a glistening puddle of red. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if that effect was invented for the first time at Café Campagne, when some cinematographer ordered a plate of oeufs en meurette. Really, I think it's pretty likely.
The funny thing is, I wasn't even hungry going into the restaurant. In fact, I was still digesting the previous night's dinner, an epic meat extravaganza that in its own right will no doubt also rank as one of the top meals of the year (thank you again M&D!), and consequently all I was planning on ordering was a croissant, or maybe a piece of dry toast to soak up some of the excess wine still sloshing around in my belly. But then the menu came, I saw a description of a dish that included poached eggs, garlic croutons and a foie-gras-laced red wine sauce, and all of a sudden, I couldn't think straight I was so hungry. And that's where my memory of everything but the eggs ends.
As I learned later, I inadvertently stumbled onto a dish that enjoys quite a cult following in Seattle. In fact, it seems those oeufs have appeared on just about every list of the city's best brunch dishes for years. I didn't know this then, though - all I knew was that that dish of poached eggs in red wine sauce was not only the best restaurant brunch I'd ever eaten, but among the best restaurant dishes period, and that it was taking considerable self-control to not plant my face in the middle of my plate and start licking. Yes, it was that good.
When I got home, of course, the first thing I did was start researching those eggs. It didn't surprise me much to find out that oeufs en meurette is a Burgundian dish (it's also sometimes called oeufs à la bourguignonne), where just about everything is simmered, braised or poached in wine, but I was taken aback by how many different variations on it there are. The recipes range from the cheap and easy (boil red wine and canned stock, poach eggs, serve) to the considerably involved and expensive (make your own beef stock and demi glace, don't even think of using anything but a genuine burgundy). Then, of course, there was the matter of the foie gras in Cafe Campagne's version; I don't know about you, but that's one ingredient I just about never have lying around the house. At any rate, after reading through about a dozen different recipes, I decided to cobble one together based on what I had, using the technique advocated by Julia Child, which coincidentally happened to be one of the simplest I found.
Thankfully, Julia didn't let me down. This isn't quite as good as Cafe Campagne's version, of course, but it does come admirably close, even without the demi-glace and foie gras. And actually, the fact that the dish is so good even without them makes me love it even more, since it delivers so much from so little. Taste-wise, it's a riot of flavors and textures - the soft, oozing yolks, the crunchy croutons, the silky, winey sauce, the salty bacon; time-wise, I doubt I spend more than thirty minutes from start to finish, and so long as you don't insist on cracking open a Côte de Nuits for the sauce, it's even budget-friendly. Add to that the fact that it can be had without a ferry ride and an hour wait at one of Seattle's busiest restaurants, and I can't think of a single thing to criticize about this dish... or a single reason not to eat it all the time.
Now that's some good news for a change, isn't it?
Oeufs en Meurette
Although we had these eggs for brunch in the restaurant, at home we eat them for dinner (how often is it you can justify having eggs and bacon for dinner?) alongside a green salad. Usually I like to use a hearty, mildly sour country bread for the croutons; for a brunch dish, though, brioche or a similarly soft, light bread might be a better option - just make sure it has enough structure to hold up when saturated with sauce. And a word about the stock: of course homemade beef stock is the ideal here, so if you have some on hand by all means use it. Otherwise, use a good brand of commercial beef stock, or even chicken stock, so long as it has a good, meaty flavor. As for wine, go with something drinkable but not expensive - a cheap pinot noir or syrah will do nicely. And should you have any demi-glace or foie gras lying around, I'm sure the dish wouldn't suffer from a bit of either.
Source: Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Vol I, by Julia Child
Serves: 4 as a main course
For the sauce:
2 cups (500ml) rich beef stock (or chicken stock, in a pinch)
2 cups (500ml) red wine
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 small shallot, minced
1 medium carrot, peeled and diced
pinch cayenne pepper
pinch black pepper
4 tablespoons (60g) unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided
2 tablespoons flour
For the garnish:
4 ounces (120g) smoked bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
8 ounces (240g) small button mushrooms, halved
For the eggs:
8 very fresh eggs
1 teaspoon vinegar
8 slices pain de campagne, or any hearty country-style bread
1 large clove garlic, halved
fresh thyme, for garnish
For the sauce, combine the stock, wine, herbs, shallots, carrot and seasonings in a heavy-bottomed pot and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Boil rapidly until the liquid has reduced to two cups (500ml). Strain out the shallots and herbs. Blend 2 tablespoons of the butter with the flour, working them together into a smooth paste. Off the heat, whisk the butter-flour mixture into the wine. Return it to the heat and boil for about 30 seconds, until thickened. Cover and set aside.
While the wine mixture is boiling, heat a frying pan over medium-high heat and cook the bacon pieces until crisp. Remove to a paper towel with a slotted spoon. Add the mushrooms to the bacon fat in the pan and fry until golden-brown, about 5 minutes. Season lightly with salt and set aside.
To poach the eggs, bring a saucepan with water to a depth of 2 inches to a gentle simmer. Add the vinegar. Break the eggs one at a time into a small bowl or ramekin and gently tip them into the water. Poach each egg for 3-4 minutes, until the white is cooked but the yolk is still runny. Remove with a slotted spoon to a bowl of warm lightly-salted water (or, if you're going to be serving them immediately, just to a plate).
Just before serving, toast the slices of bread and rub each one with the cut side of a garlic clove. Rewarm the sauce and whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Taste and correct the seasoning if needed.
To serve, place place two slices of bread on each plate. Top each one with a poached egg. Divide the sauce between the plates, and top with the fried mushrooms and bacon. Garnish with some fresh thyme and serve immediately.
*Including this super guy, who it turns out lives literally a block away from us. How's that for a small world? Oh, and he ordered the oeufs too, so you know he's got taste.