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In Season: Eggs!

By Linda Brandt Tanner

From Radiance Spring 1997

For months, I had planned to celebrate a major birthday in the life of my husband in some special way. That date in May—one of Northern California’s most beautiful months—found us staying, once again, at our favorite hideaway at Point Reyes Station. We were settled in at Gray’s Retreat, a large, beautifully decorated, cozy "barn" that was perfectly outfitted for a bunch of us to enjoy as our home away from home. Some family and close friends were joining us for part of our six-day stay, giving us that perfect combination of solitude and sociability.

Situated in this fertile valley of rolling pastureland, we were treated to the low mooing of dairy cattle grazing in nearby fields. From the front patio, amid pots of trailing coral and white geraniums, we admired a meadow of wildflowers. On the other side of the back terrace fence, a pair of docile donkeys grazed and hee-hawed for snacks of celery, carrots, and apples. Steps away from the barn, on a path winding through herb beds and perennial borders were the enclosed hot tub and, farther down, the henhouse, which was sheltered by fragrant clematis and honeysuckle vines.

Early on the first morning after our arrival, I walked down to the henhouse. As I approached, the hens’ gentle clucking rose to meet my ears. I was fully prepared. The breakfast table was set, freshly squeezed orange juice was chilling in the fridge, the toast was poised, ready to be plunked down into the toaster, and here I was, on my way to fetch the eggs directly from the hens. It was all so…organic.

I collected the just-laid brown and white chicken eggs from their straw nests, where the indentations from the hens’ bodies told me that, when I touched them, the eggs would still be warm. Few of us city dwellers have the chance to harvest our breakfast "direct from the factory." When I did, it was a thrill. My husband and I breakfasted on gently poached eggs, served on buttered whole-grain toast that was dabbed with a Meyer lemon marmalade. We ate in blissful homage to the little russet-colored hens who had laid them.

A freshly laid egg is the epitome of birth and newness and what I think spring is all about. Eggs laid by farm chickens are rich, with thick whites and deeply colored stand-up yolks. A very fresh egg from a well-fed grazing chicken will have a mild, fresh taste—an almost milky or sweet taste. You will swoon. It makes sense that eggs laid by chickens allowed to peck and forage among grasses, seedlings, plants, and insects—in other words, "free-range" chicken eggs—will be superior to those of a hen kept in a cage and fed hormones to increase her egg production and the product’s longevity in the marketplace.

Absolute freshness is imperative for great taste. When you purchase eggs, knowing where and when they were laid enables you to bring home the best. Local community farmers’ markets often have a stall or two of vendors selling eggs from their small farms. Bring along a sturdy satchel and purchase some.

At home, store the eggs on the refrigerator shelf, rather than in those little egg indentations on the door, because the temperature there varies too much as the refrigerator is opened and closed. Keep the eggs covered: their shells are porous and, like an uncovered cube of butter, will absorb flavors from foods such as broccoli, onions, and melons. Remember, that although a basket of eggs may look wholesome on the countertop, eggs should be kept well chilled and used as soon after purchase as possible.

If you don’t have access to freshly laid eggs, my suggestion is to frequent a market with a high dairy turnover and pay attention to the freshness date stamped on the carton. Health food stores stock high-quality organic fresh eggs, usually purchased from local chicken farmers.

How can you tell if an egg is fresh? The egg is enclosed within a tissue-thin membrane just under the shell. If you were to cut horizontally through a raw egg, you would see the shell layer, the thin membrane, the egg white, and, in the center, the yolk. At the largest end of the egg is a slight air bubble. This air bubble enlarges as the egg matures, making the older egg more buoyant. Can you remember peeling a hard-boiled egg and finding a concave dip at the large end? This is evidence that the egg is older. When lowered into a glass of water, an older (uncooked) egg will either float or sink slowly; a fresh egg will sink.

I heartily recommend the freshest possible eggs for those we eat unadorned; that is, those we poach, coddle, soft boil, fry, or use in custards. Eggs nearing the end of their shelf life are best used in baked items, such as desserts, quiches, and fritattas, where other flavors, such as spices and herbs are present. Whether simply scrambled, or stoutly whipped and baked in a sweet and luxurious meringue, eggs take us from breakfast to dessert in homey goodness and fine style.

The egg is often part of cultural and religious celebrations. For example, eggs are served as part of the Jewish Passover Seder. We find them braided into shiny egg bread at Easter supper and dyed colorful tints for Easter egg hunts. To celebrate Greek Easter, eggs are dyed a deep ruby red. Asian cuisine and custom uses the egg in many ways, from the tiny quail egg to the famous thousand-year-old egg. Eggs are also stirred into hot chicken stock for egg- drop soup and scrambled into fragrant fried rice dishes.

Everyone is familiar with caramel, brown, and white eggs. But beautiful to behold are the unusual colored eggs of the Araucana chicken. Araucana eggs, which come in colors of pastel aqua, pale turquoise, celadon green, powder blue, and parchment, remind me of diminutive spa pools.

What are some ways to enjoy eggs? Eggs eaten soft boiled from a cheery egg cup, with buttered toast for dipping, make waking easier. Eggs respond well to gentle cooking, and when I want scrambled eggs, I use a method that was a particular favorite of my granddaughter Brooke, who asked for Gramma's scrambled eggs as soon as I'd arrive for a visit. Here’s how: Whip up the eggs with one teaspoon of water per every egg used: one scant tablespoon water for three eggs. The addition of water rather than milk keeps the eggs soft. In a hot nonstick pan, melt a knob of butter and turn down the heat to medium-hot. When the butter has melted and is foaming and just beginning to show color, slide the egg mixture in and let it set for a moment. Cook over medium-low heat, gently turning and nudging the eggs in the pan. Remove from the heat just before the eggs are done—while they are still a bit glossy—because they will continue to cook in the heat of the pan. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve on a warmed plate. Eggs tend to cool off faster than almost any food, so I serve them on plates warmed under very hot water or in the oven beforehand.

The agreeable taste and texture of eggs pair easily with herbs and spices. Tarragon, basil, dill, chives, chervil, and chili peppers all serve as excellent counterpoints to eggs. Beaten eggs mixed with bits of vegetables, cheese, and herbs bake to form a tasty frittata, which can be topped with spicy salsa and eaten right away or cooled and packed for a picnic. (Add the salsa at your destination.)

Hard-boiled eggs? Put the required number of eggs into a saucepan and cover them with cold water. When the water boils, remove from heat, cover the pan and let them sit for eight or nine minutes. Then drain and run cold water over the eggs immediately to stop cooking. (This makes them easier to peel later.) Store unused hard-boiled eggs covered in the refrigerator. The greenish ring around the yolk when hard boiled is evidence that the egg is overcooked. Try my method for perfect eggs, and you’ll never be bothered by "egg rings."

Unsurpassed egg salad? Instead of mashing the hard-boiled eggs with a fork, grate cooled hard-boiled eggs on the tiny holes of a cheese grater (employ the flat kind used for grating Parmesan cheese at the table). This prevents the yolk from becoming watery and disintegrating into yellow mush when you add mayonnaise. When I make egg salad, I like it mixed with a bit of kosher salt, some freshly ground pepper, and a fine mayonnaise. Sometimes I’ll add some minced scallions or chives, or some finely minced celery, or a pinch of curry powder or cumin. Fresh white or egg bread, or a seeded whole wheat bread, is my choice to hold this delicious filling.

When my kids were growing up, I regularly made a dish they loved and tagged with the unglamorous name of Bread Casserole. Local food writer and cookbook author Marion Cunningham offers a recipe for a similar dish and gives her version a proper moniker: Featherbed Eggs (If you’re interested in her recipe, look for it in The Breakfast Book, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1987.). For me, this conjures up thoughts of flannel jammies and fluffy slippers worn at the breakfast table. The dish’s only ingredients are eggs, cheese, milk, bread, and butter, and it is as simply comforting as it sounds. If you are sensitive to dairy or watching your cholesterol intake, you will be happy to know that I make my Bread Casserole very successfully with low-fat cheese, low-fat butter spread, Egg Beaters, and low-fat or nonfat milk.

This is my basic recipe. I have to stress that it is forgiving. A bit more or less of any ingredient, and the world will not come to an end. Butter a 10 x 15 Pyrex dish or a four -to-five-quart round soufflé dish. Then lightly butter about eight to ten slices of bread (this is easier if the bread is frozen), and tear or cut each piece into three or four pieces. Distribute half of the bread over the bottom of the casserole. Grate one and one-half to two cups of Cheddar, Swiss, Monterey Jack, Fontina, or Jarlsberg cheese, or a combination of several cheeses. Sprinkle half of the cheese over the bread pieces. Add the rest of the bread, and top it with the rest of the cheese. Dust with some freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Mix eight eggs or the equivalent in Egg Beaters with three cups milk. Add one tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, three or four chopped scallions, salt, pepper, and a pinch of red cayenne pepper, if desired. Slowly pour this evenly over the top of the casserole, pushing bread down into the liquid. Cover the dish with a piece of plastic wrap and refrigerate for four hours or overnight. This allows the bread to absorb the eggs, creating a fluffy, puffy casserole. If you’re in a hurry, you can skip this step and bake the assembled casserole right away, with good results. The refrigeration method is handy if you want to prepare this dish in advance. If you do refrigerate, let the casserole sit at room temperature for fifteen minutes before baking so that the dish won’t crack when it’s put in the hot oven.

Remove plastic wrap from the dish and place the dish on a cookie sheet to catch any drips. Bake at 350 degrees for sixty to ninety minutes, or until the center is set and the top is golden brown and puffy. The result is much sturdier than a soufflé and, though it does deflate a bit when you spoon into it, the aroma that follows is heavenly.

Many embellishments can be added to this dish. Pick one or more and sprinkle over the first layer when assembling. I’ve used sautéed, crumbled, and drained sausage, bacon, or ham; diced, canned, or fresh chilis; sautéed mushrooms; fresh corn sautéed briefly in butter with a dash of cumin; or freshly chopped cilantro or basil. Fresh salsa is also nice. When you serve Bread Casserole for supper, a crunchy green salad with a pungent mustard vinaigrette alongside is the perfect accompaniment.

In a delightful coincidence, as I finished writing this article, I had the exquisite pleasure of assisting at the birth of my tenth grandchild. As I watched little Nelli Claire make her way into the world and into our family, I counted my blessings and reflected again on the gifts that the birth of each of our grandchildren has brought. Their presence signifies fertility, signifies life, signifies the egg at its most precious.

I urge you to look into your life and celebrate your blessings. Enjoy meals together with your intimates. Gather your eggs and enjoy the birth of springtime. Discover for yourself the endless possibilities for celebrating and cooking with eggs. ©

 

LINDA BRANDT TANNER is one of a committee of passionate people currently working on The Edible Schoolyard, a pilot project at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California, which began in response to school lunchrooms closing down across the country. Their goal is to teach youngsters respect for the planet and for one another through on-site, hands-on experience in gardening and food preparation in a program that will become part of the California school curriculum.

 

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