Jul 212016
 

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Today is one of those dates where two allied anniversaries coincide – perhaps deliberately. On this date in 1904 Louis Rigolly, from France, became the first person to break the 100 mph (161 km/h) barrier on land, and on the same date in 1925 Sir Malcolm Campbell, from England, became the first man to break the 150 mph (241 km/h) land barrier. These, and similar “barriers” are pretty much a function of the metrics you use. 100 mph has a nice ring to it (we used to call it “the ton”), because 100 is a nice round number in the decimal system. But it’s only significant if you measure distance in miles. In kilometers per hour 100 mph is 160.934 – ugh. It’s round enough, I suppose (if you knock off the decimals), but lacks the nice ring that 100 has. It’s the same with 100 degrees Fahrenheit. When the weather hits 100 degrees everyone comments, even though 99 is bloody hot. On the other hand 37.777 Celsius is just as hot, but there’s nothing remarkable about the number. Numbers are magical.

Louis Rigolly, set a land speed record of 103.561 mph (166.665 km/h) on a beach at Ostend in Belgium on 21 July 1904, driving a 13.5 litre Gobron-Brillié racing car. He covered a 1 kilometer course in 21.6 seconds, beating Belgian Pierre de Caters mark of 97.25 mph (156.51 km/h), set the previous May over the same course.

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Back in the early 20th century things were fairly straightforward. To create a land speed record you rode in a wheel-driven car. That’s what was available, and the records were an extension of the giddiness that pushed Industrial-Revolution era scientists and engineers of the 19th century to new heights. That giddiness was still around, but fading, when I lived in South Australia in the 1960s and Donald Campbell, son of Malcolm, came to Lake Eyre with the latest version of Bluebird. He established a new land speed record for a wheel-driven car of 403.1 mph in 1964, but by then jet and rocket propelled vehicles had entered the race and quickly went on to supersede wheel-driven vehicles. Besides, the race to the moon and other adventures had stolen the thunder of land speedsters.

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Nowadays the absolute land speed record is held by Andy Green a wing commander in the RAF. On 25 September 1997 in ThrustSSC he beat the previous record in Black Rock Desert, USA, reaching a speed of 714.144 mph (1,149.303 km/h). On October 15, 1997, 50 years and 1 day after the sound barrier was broken in aerial flight by Chuck Yeager, Green reached 763.035 miles per hour (1,227.986 km/h), the first supersonic land speed record (Mach 1.016).

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Maybe I’m not macho enough, but speed records have never excited me. I don’t especially like driving fast, although I have done the ton a few times in my youth. I think of speed as a disease of the modern era. Fast food can be a particular species of this general malady, but it doesn’t have to be. There are obviously a number of fast food joints that I cannot stomach (literally), and they are deservedly derided as peddlers of junk food. To produce a hamburger in under a minute you have to cut corners. But not all food is bad simply because you make it quickly. Some commercial fast foods can be quite decent. I’ve been a lifelong fan of Cincinnati chili which is served in a flash. The 3-way is the standard, chili over spaghetti and topped with cheese. I always go for a bowl of plain myself – chile and nothing else.  I love the taste and texture of the chili, and cannot for the life of me replicate it at home, though I’ve tried many times.

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Cincinnati chili originated with immigrant restaurateurs from Macedonia who were trying to expand their customer base by moving beyond narrowly ethnic styles of cuisine. Tom and John Kiradjieff began serving a “stew with traditional Mediterranean spices” as a topping for hot dogs which they called “coneys” in 1922 at their hot dog stand located next to a burlesque theater called the Empress. Tom Kiradjieff used the sauce to modify a traditional Greek dish, speculated to have been pastitsio, moussaka or saltsa kima to come up with a dish he called chili spaghetti. He first developed a recipe calling for the spaghetti to be cooked in the chili but changed his method in response to customer requests and began serving the sauce as a topping, eventually adding grated cheese as a topping for both the chili spaghetti and the coneys, also in response to customer requests. That’s the way it is to this day at numerous chili joints throughout Cincinnati. Skyline is my favorite. I’ve never yet left one without eating at least 2 bowls of plain.

The reason that Cincinnati chili can be served as fast food is not that it is made quickly: just the opposite. It is made over 2 days, but then is kept piping hot so that it can be served in a flash. So it’s only fast food in one sense. The slow cooking is what makes it good. What about food that is cooked quickly but is also good? There’s the challenge. “Quickly” is, of course, a relative term. 30 minutes is a common standard in home kitchens as popularized by the execrable shows of Rachel Ray.  You can do better than that. If you want quick, eat an apple.

What you must do is factor in preparation time. For a while there were endless commercials on television for the Magic Bullet which made you believe that you could cook delicious, complex dishes in seconds. Rubbish. Sure, the presenters showed the Bullet whipping up stuff in no time, but all the vegetables were peeled and diced, the meat trimmed of fat and cut into handy chunks, and so forth. If you add in preparation seconds become minutes, even hours. Cooking quickly for me means doing everything from scratch from start to finish when you are ravenous and don’t want to wait. Although I love slow-cooked food, I can whip up something in a hurry if need be. Eggs are the obvious choice. They are made to be cooked quickly. Omelets make great fast food.

Every cook I know cooks omelets somewhat differently.  For me the key is the pan and the heat source, not the ingredients. I used to use an old, well-used omelet pan that I had kept for over 30 years. It was small and made of solid heavy metal, blackened on the bottom from endless use. It did not have a commercial non-stick cooking surface, but properly treated it did not stick. I lost it in one of my many moves and break ups – more tragic to me than the loss of the relationship. For me, gas is the best heat source because it is instantly controllable.

I can’t teach you how to make an omelet my way by talking about it. You need to see me at work. Here’s the basics.

Crack 2 eggs into a small cup.

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Beat the eggs lightly with a fork until the whites and yolks are mixed but not completely homogenized (what the Chinese call “silver and gold.”)

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Heat the pan over high heat until it is very hot. Add butter and let it melt, swirling to coat the pan.

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Before all the butter is completely melted, dump in the eggs.

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Let the eggs cook, pulling the cooked parts aside now and again and letting the raw egg flow on to the pan’s surface.

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When the omelet is almost ready, which for me means that the surface is runny, but the main part is cooked, let it sit with the heat off for 30 seconds. The residual heat will continue the cooking.

Turn the omelet on to a plate and serve. I like to add a few grinds of black pepper.

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Start to finish 3 minutes, tops. Of course, I know what I am doing.

Variations are legion. You can add herbs, ham, cheese etc., or you can make a plain omelet and fill it with what you will. I’ve made numerous varieties. But the plain omelet is hard to beat. The photos here are from this morning – cooked in the middle of writing.

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