I got to thinking about eggs the other day. My thoughts were stimulated by my friend Betty who gave me, as a hostess gift, a dozen eggs from her husband’s chickens. I specify the “her husband’s” part. Louis – the husband – takes care of chickens the way he takes care of everything, with enormous patience, time, and attention to detail. Betty, Paris-born, doesn’t get it. “Alors, les poules. Elles pendent, elles mangent, et quoi d’autre encore?” « Ok, so chickens, they lay, they eat…what else do they need? »
What she does get is how delicious the eggs are. And she also, despite her urban upbringing, gets what every French egg-laying chicken owner knows: to date the eggs once they’ve been laid. Why? Well, the answer is obviously in the French DNA if Betty knows to do it, and here it is – too fresh eggs have runny whites, runny yolks, and they won’t perform in any way except to slip and slide all over and turn into an omelette on the counter, in the bowl, on the floor, in the pan. They need to “age” so that everything becomes more firm and distinct.
So after accepting the precious eggs I did exactly as Betty suggested. “Planquez les; attends une bonne semaine,” she said. « Hide them away for at least a week. »
But the egg thoughts were still there, so I turned to those already on my counter. I’d planned to grill sweet potatoes and it occurred to me that the combination would be delicious. So, I got the grill going, put on the sweet potatoes, and when they were nearly soft, I removed them, and scooped out a big hole in each, saving the flesh. My idea was to crack an egg into that scooped out hole and put them back on the grill.
So, I did that and spent the next ten minutes wiping egg white off the counter and the floor, because the eggs, while firm, were simply too large. I chose a smaller egg to try, and it sort of fit, so I put the sweet potatoes back on the grill, covered it, and had a messy looking but delicious dinner for a hungry adolescent.
“Mom this is sooo good,” she said as she ate her way through the halves. “But it’s really not a “you” dish because it looks so messy.” She ate the last bite, cleaned up her plate with a piece of baguette and said through her chews “Why don’t you try quail eggs?”
(Quail eggs are easy to find in the U.S. – check your local upscale supermarket or Asian grocery).
- 4 small sweet potatoes preferably organic,, 5 ounces;150g each
- in rinsed unpeeled, cuthalf lengthwise
- in (or 2 large 10 ounce;300g potatoes cuthalf crosswise, then cuthalf lengthwise
- 1 tablespoon scantolive oil
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 8 quail eggs
- 2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves (don’t use dried see ASTUCE)
- Piment d’Espelette or a mix of hot and mild paprika – to taste
- 1 tablespoon generousbutter chilled, thinly sliced into 8 small slices – optional but delicious
Build a medium-sized fire in the barbecue, or light all three burners on the gas grill. When the coals are red and dusted with ash, spread them in a tight, single layer leaving a perimeter of grill with no coals under it; they need to emit concentrated heat. When the grill has reached 450F (235C), it’s more than ready. Turn off the middle burner.
Brush each potato with olive oil on both sides, and season generously with salt and pepper.
Place the potatoes on the grill, cut-side down and brown for 2 minutes, until they have stripes on them. Turn the potatoes and brush the cut side with oil. Cover the grill and cook the potatoes until they are tender through, which will take from 25 to 30 minutes, depending on the potato. Check them every 10 minutes, and if they are browning too quickly, turn them over again. To test for doneness, pierce the potatoes with a trussing skewer – it should slide easily through the potato.
Remove the potatoes from the barbecue, and when they are cool enough to handle, scoop out two rounds with a 1/8-th inch (standard) melon ball maker, making sure to go fairly deep into the potato without piercing the skin. Break an egg into each hole – note that the quail egg shells break easily, but the inner membrane can be tough – you can pierce it with the tip of a sharp knife, then open up the shell and release the eggs. Season the eggs with salt and pepper, replace the potatoes on the grill, cover and cook until the eggs are to your liking. At 2 minutes, the yolks and whites will be slightly runny but set; 3 minutes, the yolks will be runny; 4 minutes, the yolks will be cooked through, what we might called “hard” yet they’re still tender.
Remove the potatoes from the grill. Sprinkle each egg with a bit of piment d’Espelette. Place a slice of butter atop each potato if desired, and drizzle with a bit of the olive oil that remains, season with salt and pepper, and garnish with the tarragon leaves, leaving them whole. Serve immediately.