Eggstatic!

You bought the chickens; now you have the eggs.

March 4, 2011

Eggs are breaking out of their shells and finding their way into all kinds of dishes beyond fried or boiled. True, eggs are most often experienced as the unseen underpinning of cakes, sauces, custards, and the like, but today's chefs are serving them in free-range fashion: showcased in an appetizer, or for lunch or dinner, as the star of the show. Maybe this is because they're so proud of their homegrown hens' fresh produce. Why not? Eggs—chicken, duck, quail, or goose—are not only beautiful but also plentiful, sustainable, inexpensive, nutritious, and versatile. Just about the perfect food, and one that the medical community is reconsidering too, after years of banishing eggs from the heart-healthy diet. But, as in so many other matters medical, research has altered opinions and it is now thought permissible to consume up to four fresh eggs a week as part of a healthy, balanced diet. (For more information on their nutrition and health benefits, read "The Good Egg" at OrganicGardening.com.)

Perusing menus across the States reveals eggs in considerable glory: In Birmingham, Alabama, acclaimed local chef/restaurateur Frank Stitt features organic eggs in several of his most popular dishes. Stitt's love of eggs began in France, where, encouraged by his mentor, Richard Olney, Stitt savored all sorts of appetizers that included local farm eggs. In tribute to Olney (one of America's most respected chef-authors and an early advocate of fresh local foods, simply prepared and presented), Stitt's restaurants always include savory egg-based appetizers. Often the eggs come from his own farm, where, he notes, "the freshly laid eggs from Araucana, Rhode Island Red, Dominicker, and Buff Orpington hens are stunningly good."

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So, for example, at his Highlands Bar and Grill, an appetizer of poached farm eggs with sautéed chicken livers, red onion marmalade, and red wine gets top billing. And at Chez FonFon there's Croque Madame—a griddled ham and Gruyère cheese sandwich topped with a fried egg. There's also the Grilled Jumbo Asparagus with Egg and Herb Vinaigrette that is made with sherry vinegar and has hard-boiled egg sieved and blended into the dressing, resulting in a lighter, deconstructed version of the traditional, butter-heavy hollandaise. Finally, in a time-honored barroom tradition, a rack of perfectly boiled eggs (with a dish of sea salt) is kept replenished on Chez FonFon's bar for patrons' noshing pleasure. Few things go better with a cold brew.

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A few states to the east, in Durham, North Carolina, chef and cookbook author Sara Foster can be found enjoying eggs in other unexpected manners (for this country at least). At a pizzeria near her own café, Foster's Market, Foster describes, "You can get anything you want on the pizza; they'll then crack an egg on top and bake it so the yolk is still soft. It's almost the same thing as sopping up an egg with toast, but you get to do it with pizza." (Try it at home: Add spinach and it becomes a pizza alla fiorentina; add capers and anchovies and it's alla veneziana.)

Eggs, Foster believes, "are the ultimate comfort food," and, for ease, poached eggs are unrivaled. "For a really nice dinner, I might top a piece of bruschetta with a poached egg, then add sautéed wild mushrooms with herbs." She also might make the sumptuous poached-eggs-and-pot-roast dish featured here, which, when you think about it, is a sophisticated riff on hash, the roadside diner standby so often topped by a rubbery fried egg.

Other inspirations from further afield: India-born, Washington, D.C.–based food writer Monica Bhide, author of Modern Spice (Simon & Schuster, 2009), also avoids predictability with "the best dish ever": one combining eggs with potato chips. Wafer par ida, a South Asian Parsi favorite, starts with chopped onions and chile peppers sizzling in ghee (clarified butter) along with a ginger-garlic paste. Cilantro and crumbled potato chips are tossed in, and the mixture is formed into small crispy "nests" into which fried eggs are nestled. Across the country, at San Francisco's Zuni Café, eggs take center stage in a dish that begins with breadcrumbs saturated in olive oil and herbs and cooked until crunchy, then topped with whole eggs and cooked until the yolks are warm and runny. And depending on the season, that combo is paired with the likes of kale, beans, or harissa.

So crack open an egg and let it take you to some very different culinary places; you'll find your family scrambling to get to the table, and friends eager to poach your recipes!

How to Poach an Egg, Perfectly:
Water must be boiling and the eggs at room temperature. Add vinegar. Crack an egg into a bowl or cup and slide the egg gently into the water. The vinegar helps the white to set. Use a slotted spoon to lift the egg from the pan, leaving behind any scum. 

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Cracking the Code: An Egg Glossary
The USDA recommends we buy eggs that are stored in a refrigerated case and have no cracks in their shells. This glossary explains terms used to describe eggs—or the process by which the eggs are produced. Eggs from pasture-raised chickens are found to contain more omega-3s and vitamin E than those from caged chickens, but labeling regulations are often voluntary and fairly vague. The best bet? Buy fresh. Buy local.

Cage-free: Chickens are not kept in cages. They may or may not be allowed outside.

Fortified or vitamin-enriched: Chicken feed is supplemented with vitamins or flaxseed to increase the eggs' nutritional profile. Flaxseed boosts the eggs' omega-3 (good fat) content.

Free-range: Chickens are given access to the outdoors. But that access can be limited and doesn't guarantee the outdoor area is green pasture. Some industrial farms might provide only one small door for thousands of chickens to use.

Organic: To earn the official organic label, USDA guidelines must be followed, including ensuring that feed is certified organic and the chickens are not given antibiotics or synthetic hormones.

Pasture-raised: Chickens are raised with extensive access to the outdoors, and a portion of their diet includes pasture grasses and insects.

Good Music = Good Flavor?
Walk into the henhouse at sustainable Foxhollow Farm in Elkhart, Iowa, and you'll see chickens strutting and swaying. Or are they dancing? Light rock music is piped in by the owner, Tai Johnson-Spratt. She believes it accustoms them to human voices and soothes them, reducing their stress levels, which helps them produce better eggs. Her birds roam outside, eating grass and bugs. "They have dust baths, nest boxes. They do what chickens do," she says.

That's why, Johnson-Spratt says, Foxhollow Farm eggs are "richer (the yolks are orangey-yellow instead of pale yellow)" than eggs produced by factory farms. Or maybe it's the music.

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