My Trial By Fire: Omelets For Willie Nelson’s Party
“You must have the courage to be rough or the eggs will not loosen themselves from the bottom of the pan.” — Julia Child, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”
One August weekend, when I was still teaching myself to cook but was accomplished enough to have a vegetarian catering service, I got a call while I was in Los Angeles, visiting my parents and escaping the summer heat of my home in Austin. There was a big rock concert coming up at Willie Nelson’s ranch on the Blanco River in the Texas Hill Country, and did I want to cater breakfast on a houseboat for all of the talent and the press, who would be whisked up to the houseboat by motorboat, fed breakfast, then whisked on to the ranch? It would be about 200 covers.
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The only challenge was that I hadn’t quite perfected my omelet yet. So I went to the store, bought 10 dozen eggs, and didn’t stop practicing making two-egg omelets on my mother’s stove until I’d used them all.
If you were serious about cooking in the 1970s, mastering the French omelet was a rite of passage. Julia Child was my mentor, and I also read every other French cookbook I could find for tips on how to manipulate the pan and the eggs. Of course everybody I read had a slightly different technique, but they were all clear about a few things: The pan had to be hot when you added the butter, the butter had to be hot when you added the eggs, and the eggs shouldn’t be in the pan, which was in constant motion, for much longer than a minute. We didn’t have heavy nonstick omelet pans at that time, so if you didn’t get the temperature right you could count on your omelet sticking to your pan. Today, learning to make an omelet isn’t as challenging because we have those pans, though it still takes a tour de main to get it fluffy and right. You could flip the omelet with a quick jerk of the pan or take a gentler approach, folding the eggs over with a spatula. That weekend I lost a lot of eggs to the stove and the floor, but by Monday morning I was pretty confident about feeding the crowd.
I went back to Austin, 100 wicker paper plate liners in my suitcase, and got to work. I had five days to pull this together. I arrived at the dock at Lake Austin at 5:30 a.m. on the day of the concert to load my food and equipment: a 5-gallon container for beaten eggs that we would ladle into the hot pans, gallons of ratatouille and salsa ranchera, pounds of grated cheese, vats of fruit salad, coolers filled with ice, a dozen loaves of homemade bread.
We also loaded a couple of kegs of beer and 5 gallons of bloody Mary fixings — the mix not from a bottle but my father’s delicious recipe (V8, Worcestershire, Tabasco, garlic salt and pepper is what I’m remembering now); and therein lay my downfall. Not exactly downfall, for I had no trouble with the omelets, but drink a bloody Mary (or two, just to make sure they’re good) not too long after sunrise on an August morning in Central Texas and work outside for the next seven hours straight as the temperature climbs into the triple digits, and you will feel hung over before you even experience the pleasure of being inebriated. Our houseboat chugged along from the Lake Austin dock toward Willie Nelson’s ranch; I so wanted to take a nap, but my co-workers and I persevered despite my crushing headache, turning out one omelet after another. I hardly had time to look up, but I do remember when The Band arrived. They came, they ate, they left.
As I (sort of) remember, we got backstage passes to the concert, and it took us quite a while to get back to the Lake Austin dock. When I got home at around 7 that evening I picked up a message on my machine from a friend, inviting me to come over for a potluck. Great, I thought, I can bring some of these leftovers. I’ll just lie down and have a little rest before I go over. I lay down on my bed, closed my eyes, and woke up the next morning.
How to make an omelet
This is how I do it. I’m sure, readers, that many of you will have your own way that works and it may be different from mine. In the days before nonstick you had to use about twice as much butter. Olive oil was strictly a Mediterranean thing, but I like it and often use it; it depends on the filling. I always use two eggs for my single-serving omelets. Restaurants often use 3, but I never sit down and eat three eggs at one sitting.
Break 2 eggs into a bowl and beat with a fork or a whisk until frothy. Whisk in salt and pepper to taste and 2 to 3 teaspoons milk.
Heat a heavy 8-inch nonstick omelet pan over medium-high heat. Add 2 teaspoons butter or olive oil. When the butter stops foaming or the oil feels hot when you hold your hand above it, pour the eggs right into the middle of the pan, scraping every last bit into the pan with a rubber spatula. Swirl the pan to distribute the eggs evenly over the surface. Shake the pan gently, tilting it slightly with one hand while lifting up the edges of the omelet with the spatula in your other hand, to let the eggs run underneath during the first few seconds of cooking.
As soon as the eggs are set on the bottom, sprinkle the filling over the middle of the egg “pancake,” then move the pan away from you and quickly jerk it back toward you so that the omelet folds over on itself. If you don’t like your omelet runny in the middle (I do), jerk the pan again so that the omelet folds over once more. Cook until set, shaking the pan the entire time. Tilt the pan and roll out onto a plate.
Another way to make a 2-egg omelet is to flip it over before adding the filling. Do this with the same motion, moving the pan away then quickly jerking it back toward you, but lift your hand slightly as you begin to jerk the pan back toward you. The omelet will flip over onto the other side, like a pancake. Place the filling in the middle, then use your spatula to fold one side over, then the other side, and roll the omelet out of the pan. Serve at once.
Top photo: Making an omelet. Credit: Wikimedia / cyclonebill