Poaching an egg brings out its essence in the simplest and most sumptuous way. This contemporary pairing with creamy grits—an old southern favorite spreading in popularity across the country—doubles the luscious richness. We serve the dish here with a Creole sauce on top, but even if you skip that step, you’ve got a sublime but homey start for the day.
Game plan: Many people who like poached eggs believe only a professional chef can do them correctly. Not true.
It’s no big challenge to corral an egg in water, despite what the manufacturer of egg-poaching devices would like you to believe. All you need is a broad saucepan and a slotted spoon.
Start with fresh eggs. The thicker albumen of a fresh egg clings around the yolk. Older eggs develop what experts call “angel wings,” attractive on heavenly bodies but ragged-looking on the plate.
Cook in gently simmering water, not a hard boil.
The addition of a tablespoon or so of vinegar to the cooking water helps the egg white coagulate. Forget it if the subtle flavor contribution bothers you.
Break eggs into a cup or small ramekin and use it to ease the egg into the water. Don’t drop the egg in.
After 30 seconds the white will have coagulated softly, so gently but quickly nudge the bottom of each egg to loosen any white that has stuck to the pan.
The egg industry suggests you poach eggs in simmering water for up to 5 minutes for complete safety, but that’s way too long for us. We prefer, personally, to take a tiny risk to get perfect results.
Drain the eggs well before serving them. If working with a bunch of eggs, we spoon them onto sections of paper towel as we fish them out of the water, then gently transfer them to the finished dish.
Eggs can be poached in a variety of liquids—cream, wine, stock, tomato juice, sauces—but keep in mind they will take on some of the color as well as the flavor of whatever you use. You may like the slight tan of a meat broth better than the purplish tint bequeathed by red wine.
You can flavor the eggs, albeit subtly, by seasoning the poaching liquid. For example, we like using curry powder or paste in water or chicken stock. Keep in mind that you need a comparatively large amount of spice or other flavoring because of the short cooking time and the amount of liquid used.
- Yields: 4 servings
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 teaspoon salt or more to taste
- 1 cup stone-ground grits, not instant or quick-cooking
- 2 cups whole milk, half-and-half, or a combination
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 to 2 teaspoons bacon drippings, optional
- 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 small green bell pepper, chopped
- 1/4 cup minced celery
- 2 plump garlic cloves, minced
- 1 cup chicken stock or water
- 1 cup chopped canned tomatoes with juice
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- Pinch or two of cayenne pepper
- Salt and freshly milled black pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 4 to 8 large eggs
- Salt and freshly milled black pepper to taste
- In a large heavy saucepan, bring 1 quart water, butter, and salt to a boil. Whisk in the grits a few handfuls at a time. (They will bubble up initially.) When you have added all the grits, reduce the heat to a very low simmer and cook for 45 to 50 minutes, stirring occasionally at first and more frequently toward the end. After about 30 minutes, or when the grits begin to seem somewhat stiff and give a bit of resistance at the bottom, stir in half the milk, adding the rest about 10 minutes later. Add more salt if you wish near the end of the cooking time. When done, the grits should be slightly soupy but with enough body that they don’t run all over the plate or bowl. The grits can be held briefly over low heat, with a little water or additional milk added to keep them from getting too stiff.
- While the grits simmer, begin the sauce. Warm the oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat, adding the bacon drippings if you wish for extra flavor. Sprinkle the flour into the pan drippings, stirring to combine, and cook the mixture until it’s a rich, deep brown, about 5 minutes. Watch it carefully and stir frequently, because it can go quickly from the desired shade to burned. Immediately mix in the onion, bell pepper, and celery and cook until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute. Pour in the stock and tomatoes, add the bay leaf, thyme, and cayenne, and simmer the sauce for about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and reserve.
- When the grits and sauce are ready, poach the eggs. Fill a broad saucepan with about 2 inches of water, pour in the vinegar, and bring to a boil. Break as many eggs as will fit in your pan easily into cups or ramekins. Reduce the heat to a bare simmer, then slip the eggs into the water. We prefer to simmer the eggs gently for 30 seconds, then turn off the heat and cover for 2 to 3 minutes. When done, remove with a slotted spoon. Repeat if needed for additional eggs. Trim any ragged edges off the egg whites.
- Spoon a pool of grits into 4 shallow soup bowls or plates, spoon a few tablespoons of sauce around the edge, and nestle an egg or two over the grits. Serve immediately, with the remaining sauce on the side.