My enemy, the poached egg
At last it has yielded to me—and to a humble tin of sardines.
Lately I’ve been vexed by poached eggs. For weeks, possibly months, a social-media site has been serving me “promoted”—i.e. paid-for—links to an engagingly written New York Times article potraying poaching eggs as a simple matter of dipping a half-dozen in boiling water for 20 seconds, removing them, then sequentially cracking them into a skillet (“spacing them apart as if on a sundial”), and serving them “like friendly ghosts” to a half-dozen friends on the spur of the moment.
Emphasizing the ease and inelegance of this method, the links I have been served every time I open the social-media site are accompanied by promotional copy reading, “They may not be hotel quality, but these batched poached eggs still make for a delicious breakfast sandwich filling.”
Times recipes and insistent advertisements for them, it seems to me, presume great dexterity and timing in egg-cracking as well as high standards for poached-egg quality—which, to be sure, Times readers and readers of Times advertisements presumably (mostly) have. I wrote as much on the social-media site, and subsequently the famous food writer Albert Burneko, aggrieved and incredulous that I’d called out the lies of the recipe writers who treat poaching an egg as a task as simple as caramelizing onions in 10 minutes, wrote and published—for the second time!—an (excellent) article outlining a simple method he proclaims can make even the most butter-fingered and many-thumbed among us poaching masters. (You should read the article, published at Defector, especially if you struggle with poaching eggs or are mystified by those who are.)
Feeling the gauntlet had been thrown, and wanting a poached egg on toast with sardines, I decided to make a poached egg on toast with sardines. The toast would be fine—I had a thick piece of sourdough that had been lurking in the pantry awaiting a fate as breadcrumbs. The key here, aside from Burneko’s method, would be the sardine.
At the time I made my choice I had six tins in my barren pantry. Two were from Conservas Güeyu Mar, maybe the best sardine tinners in the world. These have been difficult to come by due to supply-chain issues and I’m aging them, looking to pop the tins in perhaps 2025, so they were out. One was from Matiz, and one was from Bela-Olhão, both fine upper-mid-tier brands; both of these were in olive oil with piri-piri, which is supposed to add a bit of heat and spice but doesn’t really, though I keep buying the tins anyway. The other two tins were from Henry & Lisa’s and Wild Planet, highly respectable lower-mid-tier brands; they were packed in water, and in the pantry because a local tinned-fish enthusiast had briefly proclaimed they didn’t want any sardines packed in olive oil, before deciding this wasn’t even true at all and that they don’t even like sardines packed in water, because they’re bland.
The thing to do here really would have been to use one of the piri-piri tins and brush the sourdough with the oil from it before toasting it. For whatever reason, though, focused on poached eggs and aware of the high level of risk that a poorly-poached egg could ruin the whole thing—and entirely unwilling to consider non-sardine alternatives like mackerel or a pricy tin of garfish I impulsively bought and that has repulsed me ever since because my wife, on seeing that I’d bought it, told me family lore about how an ancestor, when he caught the unwanted fish along the Mississippi, used to shove them nose-down in the mud and move on—I put parameters on my calculations in a way that landed me on the tin I prized least: The Henry & Lisa’s, which isn’t a replacement-level tin overall but is a replacement-level among quality sardines.
As per Burneko’s instructions, I put two quarts of water and a tablespoon of vinegar (I was too lazy to look for the white vinegar so I used the cider vinegar I keep in arm’s reach of the stove) in the two-quart pot I use for boxed mac and cheese and the like, gently cracked an egg into a bowl, let the water boil and dropped the egg in. I set my toaster oven going and popped my tin. Disaster? The egg was all over the place, with part of the white wholly separated from the rest. I’d bought the demanded fresh eggs (at least I think I had; I’d bought the eggs the day before but who knows how long even hippie local eggs from the co-op have really been sitting there; I presume that the miracles of modern refrigeration mean anything I didn’t get directly from a farm may have a lifespan measured in years), but the pot was foaming.
Irritated, yet again, by the lies of the recipe writers, I fished the stray white out with a slotted spoon, turned the heat down, and dutifully waited out the rest of the four-minute timer I’d set, then scooped the egg out.
It could be that the faults I’d ascribed to the recipe writers were in fact down to my own laziness and ineptitude at the fundamental kitchen skill of egg cracking; that my poaching struggles have been about an inability, rooted in a desire for control, to accept that there is no precise right temperature, measured via meat thermometer, at which to poach your eggs, but that you should simply put them in mildly boiling water and let them cook, turning it down a bit if it seems to be bubbling too much; and that by calling them liars I’d defamed them. It could be that the moon is made of green cheese! We move on.
The yield was tremendous. With the egg sitting, I pulled the toast out and spread two of the sardines on it, then topped it all with scallions from the windowsill and, after the photo above was quickly taken, hot sauce. (The third sardine went to the dog, who had it stolen from him by the cats, who are generally disinterested in sardines—perhaps it was its having been in water rather than oil.) Once cracked and vigorously spread, the yolk jammed up with the sardines, offering its rich and luxuriant silkiness as a contrast to the gentle firmness of the fish and the yielding snap of the toast. I exulted. If only I’d used a higher-quality sardine! I will next time.
—I hope everyone reading this is having a great spring! The phrase “touch grass,” however good it is as practical advice, is close to losing its charm as an internet-ism, but I dug some holes and planted some petunias today and boy did my general tension level go down.
—I highly recommend the new Freakons record, which you can listen to and buy on Bandcamp. As someone who has literally traveled to multiple foreign nations to see the Mekons and written a 10,000 word introductory guide to their records, I am very much the target audience for a collaboration between members of the Mekons and of Freakwater along with friends, but, my biases aside, this is a genuinely lovely record all about mining disasters, mining uprisings, and the life of the miner, and it contains one of my favorite versions of one of my favorite songs: