Omelets began to appear on American tables shortly after the Civil War. But the egg concoctions themselves date back to antiquity. Apicius, a merchant and gourmet in Roman times, ate an omelet-type dish in the 1st century AD.
Made of eggs with honey and pepper, it was called ''ovamele'' (egg-honey) and may have been the origin of the word omelet.
Many kinds of egg dishes come under the heading of omelet, from the puffy ones in which the egg whites have been beaten separately and folded into the yolks, to those in which the food is mixed almost immediately with the stirred egg and made into a sort of pancake.
Examples of those in which food is mixed immediately are the Chinese egg foo yong and the Italian frittata.
Omelets are one of the quickest and most practical dishes for home consumption. The egg mixture is amenable to various fillings and toppings, and they are as suitable for a midnight snack as for breakfast or brunch.
Most people will smile with pleasure when presented with a golden puff either filled or sauced, particularly if it has an ''ethnic flavor.'' Basic 4-egg Omelet 4 eggs 4 tablespoons milk 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/8 teaspoon pepper 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
Beat eggs until light and fluffy. Add milk, salt, and pepper.
Heat butter in skillet and place egg mixture in pan. Cook slowly over low heat. When underside surface is set, lift omelet slightly with spatula to let uncooked portion flow underneath and cook. As soon as mixture is set, fold over, cooking an additional 2 minutes. Greek Omelet 3 teaspoons olive oil 2/3 cup 1/2-inch chunks fresh tomato 1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled 1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram leaves 1 recipe Basic 4-egg Omelet 2 teaspoons thin-sliced scallion or green onion
Heat oil in heavy skillet over moderate heat. Add tomato and cook about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally, until slightly soft. Remove from heat.
Stir in cheese and marjoram. Prepare Basic 4-egg Omelet. When omelet is set, fill with tomato-cheese mixture. Fold and turn out onto a heated plate. Sprinkle with scallion. Serves 2. Chinese Omelet (Egg Foo Yong) 4 eggs 3 cups cooked meat, cubed 1/2 pound fresh mushrooms 1/2 cup bean sprouts (or canned bean sprouts, drained) 1/4 pound water chestnuts, chopped (or canned water chestnuts) 1 onion, chopped 1 stalk celery, chopped 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1 tablespoon oil Gravy: 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1 1/2 cups chicken broth or stock 1 teaspoon soy sauce Salt to taste (if desired) 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1/4 teaspoon sugar
In bowl, beat eggs lightly. Add all ingredients except oil and those for gravy.
Melt oil in heated pan. Ladle one-fourth egg mixture into pan and fry over low heat till golden on bottom. With spatula, turn carefully and do the same for the other side. Turn onto warm plate.
Repeat this process until all the mixture is used. Serve plain or with gravy.
To make gravy, blend cornstarch with chicken stock, soy sauce, salt, pepper, and sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly. When mixture boils and thickens, turn off heat. Pour over omelets. Serves 4. Pizza Sauce Filled Omelet 4 whole canned tomatoes, coarsely chopped, drained, and liquid reserved 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes 1/4 teaspoon dried basil leaves 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano leaves 1 recipe Basic 4-egg Omelet 1 slice Swiss cheese, in thin strips 2 thin slices Italian salami, in thin strips 1 1/2 anchovy fillets, drained, 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese 2 tablespoons green onion
Combine tomatoes and 4 teaspoons reserved liquid in small saucepan. Add spices and simmer over low heat about 2 minutes. Prepare omelet. When omelet is soft-set, fill with tomato mixture. Top with remaining ingredients. Cook 10 to 15 seconds. Fold over and turn out onto heated plate. Serves 2.