Fried eggs are a breakfast fixture. There is arguably no wrong way to cook them. Overcooked yolks? Still edible. Whites bouncy like an inflated balloon? Still inoffensive.
To fry eggs well, though, requires a careful eye and intuitive reflexes. Fried eggs are on my mind. They often are, as I cook eggs with bread crumbs about once a week. Every time I fry them in one of my cast-iron skillets, I think of Judy Rodgers, the chef-owner of San Francisco's iconic Zuni Café.
Judy Rodgers passed away earlier this week. Her talent and dedication were formidable.
Zuni Café is not a perfect restaurant, and that is not its purpose. I always tell people you can have a bad meal there. I certainly had a few during the ten years I lived in San Francisco. But if you eat there 10 times, you are going to have nine amazing meals. I certainly did. And what will strike you when the food hits its mark is how careful, thorough and thoughtful it is.
That same approach is emulated in Rodgers's only book, the Zuni Café Cookbook. It is comprehensive. Not in its scope, like so many weighty cookbooks. The Zuni Café Cookbook is comprehensive because it encapsulates an entire kitchen worldview, a cosmos of one person's culinary point of view.
There are no misses in the book, far as I can tell, having cooked about a dozen recipes from it. All the #1 hits are there—the roast chicken with bread salad; the ricotta gnocchi; the Caesar salad. But, to me, the B-sides are where the revelations lie.
Take the Fried Eggs in Bread Crumbs, which are regularly served at Zuni on Sundays. On first reading, they elicit a "So what?" Then you read—and cook—and Rodgers's ethos seeps into your cooking.
As the bread crumbs heat in olive oil, Rodgers exhorts you to "swirl the pan as they begin drying out—which will make a quiet, staticky sound." No mention of timing, only the unassailable facts: the what and the how leading to the when. This is the most powerful kind of recipe writing: the kind that forever changes how you cook. Just like that, you have learned forever how to fry bread crumbs.
The flavors of the dish are distinctly Rodgers. Good olive oil. Fresh marjoram. Red wine, balsamic or sherry vinegar.
There have been many beautiful remembrances, eulogies and obituaries since Rodgers's passing. The Instagram post from Brandon Jew, who once worked for Rodgers, sunk deepest: "Writing menus, thinking about my mentor and friend, Judy. Her philosophy of purposely making simple food difficult, to make close observations and exact calculations will always stay with me."
Your—and Zuni's—eggs have transformed the way I cook because of your legendary care and commitment, Judy. Your legacy permeates my kitchen every week. Thank you.
Zuni Café's Fried Eggs in Bread Crumbs
This recipe is barely adapted from the Zuni Café Cookbook. Why fiddle when Rodgers's recipe was perfect to begin with? The eggs, crackly with the toasted bread crumbs, are a fine solo meal, good at breakfast, lunch or even dinner.
3 tablespoons packed, fresh, soft bread crumbs, made from slightly stale, crustless, chewy, white peasant-style bread
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
A few marjoram or thyme leaves, or coarsely chopped rosemary (optional)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar, red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar
Sprinkle the crumbs with salt to taste, then drizzle with enough of the oil to just oversaturate them.
Place the crumbs in a 6- to 8-inch French steel omelet pan or nonstick skillet and set over medium heat. (If you like your fried eggs over easy, reserve some of the oiled raw crumbs to sprinkle on the top of the eggs just before you flip them over.) Let the crumbs warm through, then swirl the pan as they begin drying out -- which will make a quiet static-like sound. Stir once or twice.
The moment you see the crumbs begin to color, quickly add the remaining oil, and the herbs if using, then crack the eggs directly onto the crumbs. Cook the eggs as you like.
Slide onto a warm plate, then add the vinegar to the hot pan. Swirl the pan once, then pour the drops of sizzling vinegar over the eggs.
NOTE: If you are preparing the eggs for more than a few people, it is a little easier to toast the seasoned, oiled crumbs in advance in a 425-degree oven instead of in the skillet. In that case, toast them to the color of weak tea. Then scatter them in the skillet, add the remaining olive oil. and proceed as described above.