Crispy Poached Eggs Crown This Spring Vegetable Salad

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

The other day I was grabbing a bite at Pausa, the new modern Italian joint down the street from me in San Mateo. On the menu: a salad of spring vegetables served with a soft boiled egg that had been breaded and deep fried until the outside was crispy golden brown but the interior was still soft and runny. I've seen this dish in various iterations on spring menus for several years now and it's always a must-order for me. That juxtaposition of sweet, crisp green vegetables like peas, snap peas, and asparagus with the creamy egg yolk and the crispy bread crumbs is a near-perfect combination.

The tricky part is the execution. Deep frying a soft boiled egg is no easy trick. Heck, peeling that soft boiled egg without breaking it in the first place is hard enough. You have to then gingerly bread it and gently lower it into a deep fryer with the hopes that the coating will hold up and the contents of the egg yolk won't explode outwards. It's definitely not a dish designed for cooking at home.

Then I thought to myself: Is there really any reason to bread the egg? What we really care about is the crisp golden crumbs and the runny yolk, right? Does it matter all that much how we marry the two together?

This quick, cheaty version of the dish made with toasted breadcrumbs comes with all of that great texture and flavor, but without the hassle.

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To start, I first clean and blanch a ton of spring produce: fava beans, English peas, asparagus, snap peas, and broccolini. Take a look at my guide to spring vegetables for more ideas, but you can really use whatever fresh, green spring produce you can find. Traditionalists will tell you to blanch your vegetables in huge pots of salted water. Our own tests have shown that a gigantic pot is not totally necessary; a moderate amount of salted water will suffice. I blanch my vegetables just for a minute until they're tender-crisp, then shock them in an ice bath to rapidly chill, and finally transfer them to a paper towel-lined baking sheet to dry off. Excess moisture can water down the flavor in the dish and prevent the dressing we're making from sticking to the vegetables, so don't skip that paper towel!

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I grind up some hearty bread in a food processor or mini-chopper until it forms coarse crumbs. I then toast those crumbs in butter, tossing and swirling them until they're a rich golden brown and incredibly crisp. Finally, I toss in some minced fresh shallots along with some minced parsley and chives. This is one area where this easy version of the dish actually has an advantage over the restaurant version: Fresh breadcrumbs toasted in butter taste a heck of a lot better than breadcrumbs deep fried in oil.

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Next, I make a super simple vinaigrette with lemon juice, more shallots and herbs, and extra-virgin olive oil, tossing the blanched vegetables in it to coat them.

Now, I turn my attention to the eggs. Soft boiled eggs are easy enough to eat with a spoon out of the shell, but I can tell you that after having worked in restaurants that required me to peel dozens of soft boiled eggs daily, even with practice it's impossible to get a 100% yield. You inevitably break a few eggs along the way.

Much easier is just poach the eggs.

What's that? Poaching is hard? Not if you use our technique. Straining eggs before poaching them makes it simple to produce perfectly-shaped, tender poached eggs time after time.

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I poach my eggs then transfer them directly to the pan with the bread crumbs, turning them gently to coat them in crispy crumbs. Et voilà. Soft egg yolk, tender white, and crispy breadcrumbs. Wasn't that way easier than dredging, egging, breading, and deep frying a carefully peeled soft boiled egg?

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To serve the salad, I divide the vegetables into individual bowls, creating a little well for the egg to sit in. Then I spoon some extra bread crumbs into the well, place the egg on top, and spoon more breadcrumbs over it.

Then what I'll typically do is poke that egg yolk with a fork so that I can get a nice photo of the yolk oozing out, thereby depriving my poor wife of the pleasure of doing it herself. But you, reader, shall do no such thing. Leave those yolks intact, because poking them is half the fun.

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