The French know what's up

Credit: Photo by Stacey Ballis

When I was nine, I was fortunate enough to take a school trip to France for a brief exchange program. The family I stayed with was a typical middle-class suburban family living just outside Paris, and they fundamentally changed the way I thought about food. First of all, they introduced me to Nutella, which had not yet hit the States, and let’s be clear, that was a game changer. I brought back four jars in my suitcase.

But the basics of how they ate was a revelation to me. Breakfasts were light, a bit of toast or bread with butter and jam, maybe a breakfast pastry, or some yogurt and fruit. No eggs, no bacon, no hash browns, no cereals. Lunch, even at the local school where we were installed, was a three-course affair, with a starter, an entrée, and a dessert, served with baskets of the most delicious bread I had ever tasted. After school there would be a snack of a long section of fresh baguette, usually smeared with my new bestie Nutella, or maybe a wedge of Laughing Cow cheese spread and some sliced cucumber.

Dinners were light, usually a simple entrée, some chicken or a piece of fish, in portion sizes about half of what I was used to at home, some simple vegetables and maybe a couple steamed potatoes lightly tossed in olive oil and herbs (not giant baked ones covered in sour cream). Salad was served after the entrée, which seemed a world turned upside down, with just oil and vinegar. This was followed by a bit of cheese and maybe some fruit or a piece of chocolate, and about every third day a pastry treat or some ice cream.

But it was the butter omelet that really threw me.

First of all, it was omelets for dinner, which I had never even considered, eggs being a clearly morning thing in my young life. I hadn’t seen an egg anywhere near the breakfast table since I had arrived. But then it was also an omelet with no cheese or ham or even vegetables. It was an omelet full of butter.

I’ll give you a moment to process.

My adopted maman whisked a couple of eggs in a bowl, sprinkled them with salt, poured them into a small skillet, swirling the eggs around to make a sort of crepe, flipped that once, deftly, to cook the gooey stuff on top, dropped a generous pat of cold butter in the middle and folded it over, dropping the treasure on my plate casually, as if it weren’t a bit of kitchen magic she had just performed.

Here’s the thing about a butter omelet, or omelet au beurre in the vernacular: It is the ultimate comfort food. All the simplicity and speed of scrambled eggs, but taken to another place. The soft eggs get slicked by the butter inside, which melts more slowly in the heat of the omelet itself, so that it doesn’t get greasy. It essentially becomes a self-saucing dish. When you cut into your omelet, the butter oozes out slowly, not the explosive gush of a chicken Kiev, but just a gentle lava flow of buttery bliss.

All over France you can go into a café at lunch or dinner and ask for this dish, usually it will come to you with a simple bit of lightly-dressed salad and a basket of bread, ideal for sopping up the extra butter. Sometimes someone will get fancy and sprinkle some herbs over, which is never a bad idea if you have them on hand; chives, parsley and chervil are all ideal for this. But I like them best plain, the perfect trinity of eggs, butter and salt is an alchemy that is impossible to deny. It is a lovely solo lunch or light dinner for two when the world is a bit crazy and anything more complicated seems beyond your ability.

But you can totally make one for breakfast.

Butter Omelet

Ingredients for each omelet

2-3 eggs depending on your hunger level
1/2 teaspoon butter for the skillet
1/2-1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter (if you can get a European butter near you like Kerrygold or Plugra, so much the better)
Fresh herbs for garnish

1. Whisk your eggs in a bowl till you can no longer see a separation of white and yolk and add a pinch of salt.

2. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium high heat and add the ½ teaspoon butter. When the butter stops foaming, pour in the eggs, swirling the skillet gently to start to make your omelet. If you like a runny egg, add your butter to the center of your eggs while they are still slippery on top and fold the omelet around the butter. If you like your eggs fully cooked, you can flip the omelet over or put a lid on briefly to cook the top before adding your butter and folding.

3. Serve immediately, garnished with fresh chopped herbs if you like.