Friday, March 23, 2012

Cooking In A Kettle: A Delicious Breakfast Of Boiled Duck Eggs

The other day I bumped into an Australian, who I hadn’t seen for a few months. He’s a nice enough bloke, but one of the meanest men I’ve ever met - which is not helped by the fact that he’s loaded and has a huge house overlooking the Sunshine Coast.

I wrote about Bruce six months ago when I was cooking at a friend’s restaurant on the Cambodian coast. About how he’d been known to buy a draft beer from one bar for $0.75 (less than 50p), and then wander over the road to drink it in another bar, where it’s $1 a glass. He ate in our restaurant some nights, but always brought his own bottle of wine and asked for a glass.

When the previous owner got fed up with it, and said he was going to start charging him a $1 corkage fee, the tight-fisted pensioner got quite upset. One night he complained that the lasagne was too big.

“Next time, I think I’ll just ask for half,” he said.

“Well, you’re still paying $5!” the owner snapped.

In short, he’s so mean, he wouldn’t give a fly to a blind spider, and moths fly out of his wallet in the rare event he ever opens it.

“You can tell I was born a pom,” Bruce told me once. “I’ve got short arms and long pockets.”

This time, he was boasting about his usual tricks for saving money, when he let slip that he’s now cutting down on restaurant bills by cooking in his hotel room - using a kettle.

He boils an egg for breakfast, which he eats with a baguette, and then cooks some spuds, and eats them with a few slices of corned beef, tomato and cucumber, for lunch. He even cooks soup in there when the mood takes him. He puts a centimetre of water in the bottom, and then adds a tin of soup, flicks the switch, and stirs away continuously with a wooden spoon for five minutes.

“I’ve made some lovely soups in there,” he said. “The best one was a tin of Heinz chicken and mushroom. I buy a baguette from the market, put some butter on it...chicken and mushroom soup mate - it doesn’t get much better than that!”

“But how do you wash the kettle?” I asked.

“In the bloody en-suite!”

“Yeah, but it must be a bugger to clean?”

“No, I top it up with water so the remains of the soup doesn’t stick inside, then I boil it up again, and that gets all the shit off the sides. Then I turn it off, and swill it out and just rub the inside with a paper towel, and it’s clean again. The next day I’m boiling it up to make my tea and coffee.”

His latest experiment was a foray into the grandeur of Italian cuisine. He boils spaghetti in the kettle, presumably until it’s al dente, drains it, adds a tub of pasta sauce to the kettle, heats it up and mixes it with the pasta.

That’s it, I thought. I had to try it. The next day, I got a moto up to the market, or at least a few yards up the road to start with, and sat on the back for five minutes as the driver chatted to a policeman friend who was investigating a domestic disturbance at one of the bars. When I say investigate, I mean turn up and ask for 50 dollars.

I remembered how it was coming up to Khmer New Year, and how they’d all soon be hitting the streets, turning up at every bar looking for cases of beer and cash to see them through the festivities. It’s always a dubious time of year to be in Cambodia.

Eventually we got to the market. I bought the driver a num pang pate (Cambodia’s version of the banh mi) to munch on as he waited and headed into the sweaty labyrinth, looking for a kettle. No-one knew what I was talking about. But eventually I spotted one at a stall, run by an old woman with no English.

The kettle was perfect. There was no element inside to worry about when you’re stirring. It was safely tucked away in the plastic base. And the top was wide, meaning you could get at your eggs or spuds quite easily. The only trouble was there wasn’t a lead in the box.

The woman went off for five minutes and then came back with a plastic bag full of leads. She tried a few but none of them worked. Eventually after a few wiggles, one of them did. The red light came on, and as I found to my cost, the metal bottom was soon red hot. I was worried about the lead though - it fell out of the socket so easily I could tell it wasn’t the one the manufacturer had in mind, but at $4 I couldn’t really go wrong, or so I thought.

I headed off in search of food to cook. There was a bubbling bowl of live blue swimming crabs, and I reckon I could have probably got one or two in the kettle. But I’d promised myself to start with something simple. I’d give them a go when I’d got myself a bit more kettle cooking experience. You can’t rush these things.

Instead, I’d try one of Bruce’s tried and tested recipes. It was either boiled eggs or boiled potatoes with corned beef. I looked around, but couldn’t find any potatoes. Then I spotted a mother and daughter selling crockery. I bought a plastic soup bowl, a small plate, a fork, and a large Thai-made knife that said “Kiwi Brand” on the label, but had “Kiwi Brandy” engraved on the blade.

What the hell, it wobbled a bit, was blunt as hell, and the join between the blade and the wooden handle had split slightly, but it was only a dollar. Then I saw her mother had two huge bags of duck eggs she was taking home. It was decided. I couldn’t be bothered to search for potatoes, and asked if I could buy a couple.

They were so fresh they still had feathers attached. Then I wondered whether they were the fertilised types that had duck foetuses inside - a very popular street food snack out here. The brown liquor is drunk, the whole bird is spooned out and then dunked in a salt, pepper and lime dip. They hadn’t got a clue what I was talking about.

“They have small baby?” I kept saying.

Eventually the daughter seemed to understand and said, no, they were just normal duck eggs. We rode back up the hill and I stopped off at a small shop and bought two potatoes, a green tomato, some chillies, a handful of snake beans, an onion, and a tin of corned beef - just to be on the safe side.

I got back to my hotel and tried switching on the kettle. Nothing. After about two minutes of wiggling the lead, and expecting to be thrown across the room, the red light came on for a second.

Considering the shoddy electrics in this place, which means there’s a flash of sparks every time I plug my laptop adapter into the two-hole plug socket, I was taking no chances. I kept drying my sweaty hands on a towel before giving the lead another wiggle.

Eventually the red light stayed on, and there was a disconcerting roar from the electrics as the water began to heat. I wondered whether that was how I’d be discovered - cooking in a kettle in a cheap hotel room, slumped over two black eggs, the water long dry in the pan.

I remembered what Bruce had said about making perfect soft-boiled eggs.

“You wait until the water’s too hot to put your finger in, you then put your egg in and leave it there for three minutes, and you’ve got yourself the perfect egg mate,” he said.

But I’d forgotten to buy a spoon, let alone an egg cup. They would have to be hard-boiled and eaten whole. It wasn’t the most auspicious start, but I told myself this was my first experiment with cooking in a kettle, and I had to get the basics sorted before moving on to more complicated stuff like home-made soup and pasta.

The red light had gone out again. I rubbed my hands on the towel, and started wiggling. The kettle fired up, and after a few minutes the water was bubbling away ferociously, which is when I discovered there wasn’t a cut-out switch either. The angled red light I’d taken for a switch was just a light.

The only way you could turn it off was either to remove the lead from the socket - which meant losing the right wiggle connection - or pulling the plug out of the wall, with the accompanying flash and fizz of electrics. I went for the socket. The water slowly receded, and using my Kiwi Brandy blade, I carefully lowered the eggs into the water along with a burnt match to stop them breaking.

I boiled them for three minutes or so, turned the kettle off, and left them in the water as I wrote up this blog post. They would be far harder boiled than I’d have liked, but as I still wasn’t sure whether they contained duck foetuses or not, I wanted as much cooking as possible.

I rolled the eggs up the side of the kettle using a fork and lay them in my new bowl. It was the moment of truth. Did they contain baby ducks? I tapped away at the shell. They were as tough as dinosaur eggs. I chipped away with a fork, and a chunk came free. I peeled more away, and was relieved to see white albumen rather than the brown jelly you get with the duck embryo variety.

Not that I’d looked that much the last time I tried them. I’d just shut my eyes, wacked the thing in my mouth, and swallowed as quickly as I could, trying to banish the thought of dark feathers tickling my tonsils, and beak crunching between my teeth. Then I downed a tequila.

I was still unsure though. I teased the top open with my fork. I didn’t want to bite into it, just in case. I remembered a friend who went to a very expensive boarding school. He told me a tale about a pupil who’d dug into a soft-boiled egg, found a chicken foetus inside, and died on the spot from a heart attack.

A little bit more, and I could see the orangey yolk, with no hint of any alien life forms. I was safe. Then I realised there was no salt and pepper, so I nipped across the road to the cafe where I usually have breakfast most afternoons, bought a bottle of water, and poured some salt and pepper into a napkin when they weren’t looking. Then I set about my delicious duck eggs.

MORE: The Mystery Of Thailand's Pink Eggs

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