Monday, May 5, 2008

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Bar Food: Pennsylvania Dutch Pickled Eggs

(Pickled eggs after one day: note the the pink color hasn't yet penetrated the entire white.)

Luke: I can eat fifty eggs.
Dragline: Nobody can eat fifty eggs.

~ Cool Hand Luke (1967)

It’s a bit disingenuous to call the startlingly scarlet pickled hens’ eggs of Pennsylvania “bar food.” After all, these are more home-style cooking typical of Amish country than the pickled eggs Charles Bukowski might’ve wolfed down in nameless demi-fictional California watering holes.

But, man alive, I’d love to see ‘em in more real bars. That is, assuming the kind of joints that serve pickled eggs don’t fade into memory under an onslaught of appletinis, J├Ąger bombs, and vodka whatevers. You can tart them up if you want to with chichi toppings or fancy presentation, but the plain fact is that pickled eggs have been drinkers’ fodder for centuries and they don’t need fancification. These are a particularly delicious example.

The Linkery, one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, has a small bar where you can plop down, order some of the house-made sausages and local beers and wines (keep in mind that “local” in these parts might well include wines from Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe) and—if the night is right—you can order an egg from a big-ass jar of brine behind the bar. Now if only they were beet-pickled…

Growing up in Kansas City, I knew about foods such as Lebanon bologna and scrapple that weren’t indigenous to the land of steaks and barbecue because my father’s family hailed from Philadelphia and he brought a taste for Philly food with him. Beet-pickled eggs were one of those odd things my dad made that nobody else ever brought in their school lunches.

The recipe below is derived from my father’s and that of Fritz Blank, a former microbiologist turned chef who ran Deux Cheminees for many years in Philly. From Fritz I learned a simple method of cooking eggs to get them to just the right point.

A common—hell, nearly ubiquitous—problem with hard-boiled eggs in the US is that they are, in fact, boiled. We shouldn’t boil eggs—it’s too easy to overcook them, giving that characteristic dark green mantle to the yolk and a sulfurous stank “like dog farts,” Blank says.

Hard “cooked” is another way to put it. In French, it’s oeufs dur (“hard” eggs). Just taking away the word “boiled” could do wonders for improving the cooking methods of cooks everywhere. The easy way is to bring the eggs to a boil from cool tap water, then pull them off the heat, let them sit in the hot water until cooked through at just the right texture, and plunge them in an ice bath. See the bottom for the full skinny on Fritz’s hard cooked eggs method. Since I started making eggs that way, I’ve never overcooked a single one.

If you’re serving the pickled eggs home-style, cut them into quarters lengthwise and scatter among salad leaves for a purple and yellow, but tasty, protein boost.

Fancy bar style? Impale one all the way through with a bamboo toothpick, suspend it in a large crystal shot glass, or precious raku dish, then sprinkle the top with freshly-cracked Tellicherry black pepper and coarse fleur de sel, hand-harvested from the saline pools of the Breton coast. Charge $1.50. Better make it $3.

Dive bar style? Serve on a paper napkin, maybe a clean shot glass. Salt shaker on the side. Charge no more than six bits.

Bachelor pad style? Sprinkle with salt and eat out of hand, or squirt it with Sriracha or another hot sauce that won’t overwhelm the taste of the pickle and eat them over the sink when nobody’s looking.

Pennsylvania Dutch Pickled Eggs

You can switch this recipe up by swapping out the rice vinegar for malt, sherry, or raspberry vinegars, throwing in a habanero pepper to the solution, adding bruised lemongrass, strong tea, star anise, garlic, etc. Those may or may not be delicious contributions to the art of pickling eggs—but they don’t make Pennsylvania Dutch Pickled Eggs. For those, this is the method to use.

Peel and place two dozen “hard-cooked” eggs made according to the directions below in a large jar covered with water ~ keeps them from drying while you prepare the pickling solution. Procede with the pickle.

Pickling solution

14-16 oz jar of sliced beets—beets and all
2 cups white wine vinegar (I’ll use Marukan rice vinegar or Champagne vinegar)
1.5 cups water
2 three-inch sticks of cinnamon
4 or 5 whole cloves
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns roughly cracked into 2-3 pieces each
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
5-6 peeled small red shallots (optional)

Place all the ingredients except optional raw shallots in a nonreactive pot, bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool to bloodwarm. Drain the eggs and add the crimson liquid and shallots (if using) to the jar with the eggs. Refrigerate.

Eggs are ready to eat after full day and keep refrigerated up to three weeks, during which time the reddish color will more deeply penetrate the white. After that, they’ll grow kinda rubbery and too firm.

Once pickled, the shallots are tasty with a piece of decent cheddar cheese and a chunk of good bread. Bit of a ploughman’s lunch as a treat for the cook.

Hard-Cooked Eggs—Notes by Chef Fritz Blank
  1. Place the fresh whole “extra large” chicken eggs in an accommodating sauce pan and cover with cold water exactly one-inch above the tops of the eggs.
  2. Place the pan over HIGH heat and bring quickly to a full rolling boil.
  3. Remove the pan from the heat and cover it with a lid.
  4. Set a timer for 10 minutes (NB below). Prepare an ice slurry bath using plenty of ice and just enough cold water to allow the ice to move freely.
  5. After the eggs have steeped for ten minutes, remove them quickly from the hot water with a large slotted spoon or a “spider,” and immediately plunge them into the ice bath.
  6. Keep in ice water until ready to peel.
NB: The size of the eggs will determine the steeping time.

USDA “Jumbo” = 12 minutes
USDA “Extra Large” = 10 minutes
USDA “Large” = 8 minutes
USDA “Medium” = 7 minutes
USDA “small” (aka “pullet eggs”) = 6 minutes

Helpful Hints Regarding Hard Cooking Eggs:

If the number of hard cooked eggs wanted is 12, start with 13, and subtract one minute from the steeping time. So for example, when cooking USDA “extra-large” eggs, set the timer for nine minutes rather than ten. When the timer goes off, quickly remove ONE egg and place it onto a carving board, and deftly cleve it in half, shell and all - Wack!! This will serve as a test to determine whether to remove and plunge the remaining 12 into the ice bath, and immediately stir them about, so that the ice bath shock is quick and complete.

If the yolk of the test egg is still runny, allow the remaining 12 to steep in the hot water for another minute, before proceedng with the ice bath shock.

Eat the hot test egg with a pinch of salt and some freshly ground black pepper - an epicurian pleasure reserved exclusively for cooks!


adrinkwithforrest said...

Great hints! Thanks...

Matthew Rowley said...

My pleasure! You just reminded me to boil up a pot of eggs. Well, you know...not "boil"

JBird said...


The GF and I were at the Linkery and she ordered the pickled quail eggs. I asked her if she ever had pickled beet eggs. She never heard of them. Just got done polishing off some this weekend. YUM!

Trid said...

Thanks to your kind tutelage, I just made a batch of the best eggs EVAR!!!

Matthew Rowley said...

JBird ~ they are glorious things to have around. I'm in New Orleans now, but plan to crank out a batch the week I get home.

Trid ~ I'm glad to hear it! For cooking this time of year, I prefer getting the kitchen hot once, then working off the meal as long as possible. The eggs are perfect for it...