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Sun-Times’ student cook takes first crack at eggs

Mary Jane Taluses spatulgently scramble eggs her Near North Side kitchen. | Courtesy Janet RausFuller

Mary Jane Tala uses a spatula to gently scramble eggs in her Near North Side kitchen. | Courtesy Janet Rausa Fuller

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Egg tips

• A nonstick pan is ideal. If not nonstick, a skillet slicked with cooking spray, butter or oil.

• Make sure the pan and oil are hot enough (test by flicking a drop or two of water onto the surface of the pan — it should lightly sizzle and dance. A popping sizzle is too hot).

• That said, “Everybody feels they have to cook so hot and high,” chef John Bubala says. “The slower you cook eggs, the more tender they’ll be.” If you’re scrambling eggs, pull the pan off the heat while the eggs are still slightly wet, and continue moving them around with your spatula; the residual heat will finish the cooking.

• For sunny-side-up in the microwave, make a tiny prick in the yolk with the tip of a knife. This way, it won’t explode.

• For poached in the microwave, stir a touch of vinegar into a bowl of water, then crack the egg into the water. The vinegar helps the white hold together during cooking. In Tala’s microwave, a perfectly poached egg took 75 seconds.

Updated: July 1, 2011 10:22PM

Who knew you could poach an egg in the microwave? Not Mary Jane Tala.

Tala hadn’t cracked an egg since 1974 (“Might have been ’76,” she says). Until a few weeks ago, she hadn’t used the microwave in her Near North condo for much other than heating up Lean Cuisine frozen meals.

In May, Sun-Times readers chose Tala, 57, a recovering smoker and non-cook, as our guinea pig for a six-week culinary makeover under the direction of Chicago chef John Bubala. The lessons are once a week, for two hours at a time, in Tala’s wisp of a kitchen.

The wonders never cease.

During her third lesson, Tala took a deep breath after cooking shrimp with pomodoro sauce and said, “It’s so nice that this place smells like food now, not cigarettes.”

She had one request going in this project — gazpacho — which she and Bubala tackled in the first lesson, using her blender, and which she has since made on her own three more times.

Tala eats a lot of salads; Bubala felt strongly about showing her how easy it is to make vinaigrette (three or four parts oil to one part vinegar). She’s not completely weaned off bottled dressing, but she says, “when I went back and had some Italian dressing from the bottle, it was awfully salty.”

She’s made chicken soup, and learned a simple, quick, mess-free way to cook fish — in the microwave. She has diced a few vegetables she had never before handled. She is learning how and when to add salt, and feeling more comfortable with a knife. Not bad for someone who stores gardening equipment in her oven. (We still haven’t gotten to that oven.)

Bubala has decided on eggs for the fourth lesson. Besides being about as perfect a food as you can get nutritionally speaking, they’re one of the most versatile. Scramble them and stuff into a pita pocket, or throw in a bunch of veggies and diced meat for a frittata. Bubala loves sunny-side-up on a bed of hummus. They’re also cheap, and ideal for singles such as Tala.

Bubala and Tala play around with sunny-side-up and poached in the microwave, and sunny-side-up, over-easy and scrambled on the burner.

It takes four attempts to achieve sunny-side-updom in the microwave, but that’s cooking, Bubala reassures Tala — trial and error, getting a feel for your kitchen.

At this point, Tala doesn’t have any recipes written down. But recipes are just outlines anyway. Instead, Bubala wants her to remember the process, the flow, so that it becomes intuitive. Things like: Handle your raw protein first or last, so you don’t contaminate your cutting board. And: Cut ingredients the same size, so they’ll cook evenly.

They finish with a scramble of ground pork, mushrooms, tomatoes and zucchini. Bubala talks through the steps first: Saute chopped onion and garlic, then brown the meat, then add the veggies and last, the eggs.

“I can do that,” Tala says. And she does.

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