Alimentary, My Dear
Skillet Frittatas? Why Not?
Eggs Aren't Just for Breakfast Anymore
By Tamia Nelson
July 20, 2010
I love good food, and I like to cook. I don't mind tending a fire under a simmering pot of stew or soup on a rest day, particularly when a steady rain makes the kitchen tarp a welcome refuge from the wet. But after a hard stint on the water, I don't want to spend all evening hovering over steaming pots. There's simply too much to see and do. Cooking and cleaning up just aren't at the top of my list. So in recent years, I've been simplifying my approach to camp cookery. The KISS principle is now my guiding tenet, and where food is concerned, it's hard to get much simpler than eggs.
I'm talking about fresh eggs here. Though dried eggs are fine for trips that last longer than a weekend, they don't have the flavor and texture of the real thing. Fresh eggs are versatile, and just about everyone likes them. They travel surprisingly well on short outings, too, at least when properly packed, and they supply high‑quality protein to help restore hard‑tried muscles. Eggs also lend themselves to meals tailored to every appetite from picky to prodigious. In other words, eggs can do light‑and‑easy or hale‑and‑hearty. The choice is yours. Convinced? Great! Then let's have…
Eggs for Dinner
Eating eggs for dinner might seem strange, but who says that eggs are only for breakfast? Not me. Not anymore, anyway. When I was a kid in what was then called junior high, I cooked in my family's greasy spoon. Most of our regulars were farmers, and while they often sat down to eat in boots and overalls that left no doubt as to their profession, they were very particular about what they ate and when they ate it. Eggs were breakfast fare. Period. An egg dish on the lunch or dinner menu would find no takers. Then a trucker came in late at night, just as we were closing. He was hungry, but I wasn't eager to reopen the kitchen. The grill was cold and the french‑fryer oil had turned into a jelly‑like mass. Moreover, I was bone tired. I'd been on my feet for twelve hours and I had school in the morning. I wanted to finish closing up and go home. My father had other ideas, however. He never turned away a customer, and he wasn't about to send the trucker back out into the night on an empty stomach, not with hours of deserted country highways ahead of him. Still, there weren't many options. The grill took a long time to heat up. Dad suggested a pizza or a sandwich, but the trucker wasn't having either one. He wanted scrambled eggs. He said he'd been thinking about them ever since he passed the last open diner, more than an hour ago. It was scrambled eggs or nothing.
Problem solved. I cooked the eggs in a skillet over our gas ring, and the trucker had a midnight supper of scrambled eggs, toast, and canned corned‑beef hash. It wasn't exactly gourmet night, but he didn't mind. He left our parking lot a happy man. Me? I closed up and went home to snatch a few hours of shut‑eye before I had to get up to go to school. But I'd already learned an important lesson: eggs weren't just for breakfast.
Fast‑forward to the present. Let's say that it's the end of long day on the water. The sun has already dropped behind the pines. Soon it will be dark. So you don't feel like making a meal out of making your evening meal. But you're hungry. What's the solution? Eggs, of course, and I have a favorite egg dish, just for times like this, a culinary all‑rounder that's as easy to prepare as it is delicious. And what is this cookhouse Hail Mary pass? The frittata.
Frittata? Yep. It's an Italian word for a sort of open‑face Spanish omelet. And it's about as simple a dish as you'll find anywhere. Two or three fresh, large eggs are all you need for each serving. Plus a skillet and a little oil. That's it. A non‑stick skillet works best. It allows you to use a minimum amount of oil, which simplifies provisioning and shaves off a few calories. That said, if you've been paddling all day long you probably won't need to count calories. You have to keep fuel in your tank, after all. Like cyclists in the Tour de France, hard‑working paddlers eat for tomorrow. The diet has to wait till you're back at your desk. You say you don't own a non‑stick pan? Don't sweat it. A well‑seasoned cast‑iron skillet will do fine, though you'll probably need to use a bit more oil. And how big a skillet is big enough, exactly? Well, if you're making individual frittatas — one to a customer — an eight‑inch pan is about right, so long as it has a tight‑fitting lid. Bigger is not better here. Use too big a skillet and you'll end up with an egg crêpe, not a frittata.
So much for the basics. But there's a lot more to a frittata than eggs. Chopped vegetables, diced meat, herbs or spices — all these have their place. Just be sure that any added ingredients aren't too juicy, or the eggs won't set. And a runny frittata is not a dish to set before a king. (Or a commoner, come to that.) The list of options doesn't end with what goes into your frittata, either. Ring the changes with different toppings, garnishes, and seasonings. More veggies, for instance, or sliced or grated cheese, or bacon bits (either vegetarian imitations or the real thing), plus those old standbys, salt and pepper. Ketchup appeals to some folks — but not to me — and salsa or hot sauce are other possibilities. Then serve your finished frittata on its own, or with toasted or fried bread, sausage, hot corned beef hash, or home fries. Frittatas make delicious sandwiches, too. Cut the frittata in half or divide it into quarters, then stack the slices between slabs of buttered rye or other substantial bread.
Have I convinced you to give frittatas a try? I have? Good. Then you'll need a bit more than the preceding executive summary to get you started. Here goes:
The Art of the Skillet Frittata
Keep things simple. Individual frittatas go together quickly and easily — so quickly and easily that cooking a big community frittata is seldom worth the time and trouble, even for largish groups. But be forewarned. Speed is of the essence, so have everything in place before you drop the first eggs into the skillet.
Let's begin with a plain frittata. Better try it at home first to get the knack. In fact, why not cook one up right now? Eat it hot, or save it in the refrigerator to have later in the day. Frittatas make great cold suppers. You'll need two to three eggs — let your appetite be your guide here — and a tablespoon of oil (non‑stick skillets will need less). Have salt and pepper on hand, too.
Break the eggs into a small bowl or cup. Whisk with a fork to blend yolks and whites. Now place your skillet over a moderate flame and add the oil right away. I prefer olive oil for frittatas — it enhances the flavor. As soon as the aromatic scent of warming oil fills your nostrils, pour the whisked eggs into the skillet. If you've timed things exactly right, the eggs will immediately start to set around the edge. If not, be patient. Once the edges have set, use a spatula to drag the cooked margin toward the center, tilting the skillet to allow the still‑liquid egg to flow into the gap. Do this all the way around the circumference, until the eggs have begun to set everywhere. (This shouldn't take more than a minute or two.) Then cover the skillet and leave it on the flame for another couple of minutes before lifting the lid. If the eggs are fluffy and evenly cooked, your frittata is ready to serve. I like to do one last thing, however: flip the frittata. To perform this sleight of hand I slide my spatula under one edge and lift the puffy egg "pancake," simultaneously tilting the opposite side of the skillet up. A quick flip of the spatula now turns the frittata over, while the skillet's sloping surface acts as a backstop. If everything goes well, the frittata comes to rest upside down and in one piece. And if things don't go well? Don't worry. The frittata will still taste great. Just allow the top to brown for another 15 seconds before sliding the frittata off onto a plate. Total cooking time? Say five to eight minutes. Serve it up to the first hungry claimant and start on the next. Large groups with several stoves and skillets can set up a frittata assembly line to speed things along.
Once you've mastered the fundamentals, it's time to broaden your repertoire. Western egg sandwiches were a favorite breakfast with the farmers at my parents' greasy spoon, and I've adapted the recipe to my own tastes…
Western Frittata If you opt for my "personal pan" frittata approach, each one will require three eggs, along with one‑quarter to one‑half of a small onion, one‑quarter to one‑half of a small bell pepper (green or red, whichever you have), and around a tablespoon of olive oil. Dice the onion and pepper, then whisk the eggs in a bowl or cup. Put the oil in an eight‑inch skillet and add the diced vegetables immediately. Cook over a moderate flame till the veggies begin to soften. This usually takes three to five minutes. Next, pour in the whisked eggs, and when these begin to set, work your spatula around the skillet, dragging the edges of the firming eggs toward the center. Now cover the frittata and cook for about five minutes, or until the egg mass has set all the way through. Flip and brown as before, garnishing with cheese if you wish. (If you opt for a cheese topping, cover the pan long enough for it to melt.) Finally, slide the finished frittata onto a plate, or quarter it and serve between slices of bread. Total time? Ten minutes, more or less.
Here's a pictorial summary of the process, omitting the steps where the pan is covered:
And now, one more variation on the theme:
Potato and Onion Frittata As before, you'll need three eggs for each hungry paddler, plus half a small onion, one small potato, and a tablespoon of olive oil. I like to add dried rosemary or thyme as well, but that's just me. Begin by whisking the eggs, with or without the dried herbs. Then dice the onion and potato into pea‑sized chunks before placing them in the skillet with the olive oil, covering the pan, and heating on a moderate flame till the potatoes have softened. Now add the whisked eggs and cook just as you did with the Western Frittata. (I forego the cheese topping, however.)
Here it is in pictures:
Is your appetite smaller than mine? Then start with two eggs rather than three and make proportional reductions in the quantities of veggies. Cooking times will be shorter, too. The bottom line? Eggs are versatile ingredients, and frittatas make the most of their versatility. Don't be misled, though. These tough travelers require careful handling — and I'm not talking about packing here. I'm talking cooking. So if you want to get the best out of the eggs in your food pack…
- Never add salt to cooking eggs
- Watch the heat
- Don't overcook
Salting eggs while cooking toughens them, so wait till you have your frittata on the plate to reach for the salt shaker. And keep the heat under control, too. A moderate flame will usually do the trick, but if your stove is a blowtorch, throttle it all the way down to low. Experiment at home first before taking frittatas on the trail. (But don't fire up a camping stove indoors!) Too much heat has the same effect as adding salt to cooking eggs. You might as well eat rubber bands. The oil in your skillet can be a useful guide. If it shimmers and smokes, the flame is too high. Keep an eye on the time, as well. It's as important as temperature. Egg dishes aren't for set‑it‑and‑forget‑it cooks. They have to be watched. Don't heat your eggs for a minute longer than it takes for them to set.
Not a fan of olive oil? Are you wondering if you can cook eggs in butter? Sure you can! But add the eggs before the butter sizzles and starts to brown. While some people like the flavor of browned butter — and I'm one — it's a sign that the heat is too high. A frittata is a meal, not a burnt offering.
On more thing: The shell of an egg is an engineering marvel, but no cook wants bits of eggshell in her handiwork. There's no need to panic if a shell shatters on cracking, however. Just use an intact half of another eggshell as a scoop to remove the offending fragments. Then, when it's time to clean up after a meal, crush all the eggshells and carry them out with your other garbage. It's a small price to pay for eating well on a weekend outing.
Eggs. They're versatile, delicious, and nutritious. And they travel better than you might think. So why not whip up a skillet frittata in camp on your next weekend adventure? You don't have to be an eggspert…er, sorry…expert cook, either. You only have to know that eggs aren't just for breakfast anymore. But that's alimentary, right?
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