One of this city’s grandest pleasures is dining midday on eggs Benedict, Sardou or Hussarde – they sound like names of generals marching to battle – but they’re actually glorious breakfast or brunch dishes. Eggs Louis Armstrong, eggs St. Charles and eggs St. Denis honor notable figures from local history.
The classic dishes of our oldest restaurants were adaptations of French cuisine, so eggs were elevated beyond home cooking because the French positioned them as first-class. Soft-boiled or poached eggs rested perfectly on a throne of ham or veal and begged for a blanket of hollandaise. Breakfast? Why not at dinner or at midnight? Fancy egg dishes are not only timeless; they are good anytime, day or night.
When my husband and I moved to New Orleans right after college, we were soon introduced to the marvels of eggs as prepared by the masterful Brennan’s chefs. On a tight budget, we could only indulge in fine restaurants occasionally, so we tried to copy their recipes at home. Our epiphany came when we learned that the secret of poaching eggs was to add a little vinegar to the poaching liquid. Perfect every time!
Later, we sprinkled a few green beans or asparagus around the edges of a Benedict to make it a one-dish dinner, easy and quick enough for a work day. While my husband busied himself with the hollandaise, I put the rest of the dish together, and to this day, he is the expert on hollandaise and I’m still afraid to make it.
The stories behind some of our egg dishes make them even more irresistible. Antoine Alciatore, founder of Antoine’s Restaurant, created eggs Sardou on the occasion of a dinner he hosted for the French playwright Victorien Sardou. Brennan’s elaborate egg menu honors its founder with eggs Owen and the city with eggs a la Nouvelle Orleans. At Commander’s Palace, eggs Jeannette is named for the wife of the late Jamie Shannon and is a top seller at the restaurant.
In New Orleans, eggs can be coupled with veal and pork, spinach and artichokes. Years ago, a friend of mine dressed up a Benedict by whipping the egg whites into meringue and forming them into peaks over the raw yolks, which were positioned in a nest of meringue over ham and muffins. Then he baked the fully assembled dish until the meringue turned golden brown. The presentation was so spectacular and the taste so divine that he called them “Eggs in Ecstasy,” a dish that served us well for many a brunch.
Elaborate versions aside, I love the simplicity of eggs Benedict. Toasted English muffins, ham or Canadian bacon, poached eggs and hollandaise sauce are all that’s required, but it’s a dish that’s served in elegant restaurants and homey eateries alike. Legend has it that eggs Benedict originated at New York’s Delmonico Restaurant when LeGrand Benedict and his wife, who were regular Delmonico customers, complained there was nothing new on the lunch menu. The restaurant’s maitre d’ and Mrs. Benedict began discussing possibilities, and eggs Benedict was born.
If you must add to it, my preference is artichokes or spinach, both of which pair exceptionally well with runny eggs. Technically, Antoine’s Sardou does not place spinach on the artichoke bottoms but instead uses anchovy fillets and sliced truffles. Perhaps because of local tastes and the accessibility of less costly ingredients, spinach is the common substitute, which I will take any time.
Yes, hollandaise sauce is tricky to make. We’ve all tasted and maybe attempted some of the no-fail versions, but if you prepare the real thing – egg yolks, butter and lemon juice – and control the temperature, nothing tastes better. My secret? Let your spouse do it.
4 English muffins
8 slices ham or Canadian bacon
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 cups hollandaise sauce (recipe follows)
Divide English muffins into halves and place on a cookie sheet. Place ham or Canadian bacon in a skillet. Set aside.
In a wide pan, bring 2 quarts of water, vinegar and salt to a gentle simmer. Crack 1 egg at a time in a small coffee cup, hold it low over the water and let it slide in. Do not crowd the pan. You may be more comfortable cooking only 4 at a time. Simmer until the whites form a thin veil over the yolks, about 3 to 4 minutes. When done, with the yolks still runny, lift them out 1 at a time with a slotted spoon or skimmer. Pat dry with a paper towel and keep warm.
Heat a broiler and toast the English muffins until lightly browned. At the same time, heat ham or Canadian bacon.
To assemble, place 2 muffin halves on each plate, top each with a ham slice and then a poached egg. Drizzle hollandaise over all. Serve immediately with a pepper mill and Tabasco at the table. Serves 4.
4 egg yolks
1 pound butter (4 sticks)
5 teaspoons lemon juice
Beat yolks for 1 minute in the top of a double-boiler over low heat. Add 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter and melt slowly, beating. In a glass measuring cup, gently melt the remaining 3 1/2 sticks of butter in the microwave, being careful not to let it boil or separate, and stirring frequently. Add slowly to the egg mixture, continuing to stir constantly, in the double-boiler over low heat. Add lemon juice, 1 teaspoon at a time, while adding melted butter. Continue to warm and stir the sauce until all is combined and thickened. To keep the temperature low, move the pot on and off the fire.
Hollandaise sauce is best served immediately. If you must hold the sauce before serving, remove from heat and reheat over very low heat, stirring. Makes about 2 cups.
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 small onion, chopped
2 9-ounce bags fresh, washed spinach
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper
8 artichoke bottoms, freshly cooked or canned
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 cups hollandaise sauce
In a large pot, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and sauté the onion. Add spinach, half at a time, and cover to wilt over a low fire, stirring frequently. Sauté spinach until wilted and just done. This takes just a few minutes. Set aside.
In a small pot, melt remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and turn off heat. Stir or whisk in the flour until mixed thoroughly and gradually add the heavy cream, mixing until smooth. Return to low heat and cook until thickened, stirring constantly. Do not boil. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste. Stir into the spinach and set aside.
Prepare artichoke bottoms and keep warm.
Heat 2 quarts of water with salt and vinegar in a large frying pan. When it reaches a gentle simmer, crack eggs, 1 at a time, in a cup and slide them carefully into water. Cook for about 3 to 4 minutes until the white is done and yolk is still runny. It is easier to cook 4 at a time and hold them in a warm place while cooking the other 4.
To assemble, place 1/4 of the creamed spinach on each plate and top with 2 artichoke bottoms. Place a poached egg in each artichoke bottom, and top all with hollandaise sauce. Serves 4.