Fresh, locally produced eggs have become increasingly available in our area – at natural foods markets, farmers markets and backyard chicken coops.
Proponents of fresh eggs versus conventional, store-bought eggs will tell you how much more flavor and richness a fresh egg has than its mass-produced counterpart. And it’s hard to deny when you place the yolks side by side and compare them.
Fresh eggs laid by hens allowed to roam generally will have deep yellow-orange colored yolks, while the yolks of conventional eggs from caged hens literally pale in comparison.
That’s because yolk color is determined by what the hen eats. There is mounting evidence that suggests that fresh eggs, from hens permitted to roam and forage for plants and insects, are healthier for you than conventional eggs – with higher levels of omega-3, beta carotene and vitamin A as well as lower levels of fat and cholesterol.
The desire for healthier eggs is perhaps one reason for the rapidly increasing number of backyard chicken coops popping up in our area. The Carlsons, for example, have a backyard chicken coop, with 13 hens of varying breeds. “They remind me of my family roots. My mom’s family were – and still are – farmers in the Palouse,” said Tonya Carlson, a marriage and family therapist.
Her family of four – Tonya, husband Jon, a neurosurgeon, and their children Estelle, 12, and Antoni, 15 – lives on the Palouse.
“(My hens) make me feel connected to the earth. You know, the cycle of life and all that,” Tonya Carlson said. “I get happy when I actually stop and watch and listen to them. Plus, I really like the fresh eggs.”
Each hen lays 200-plus eggs per year – plenty to keep the family fully stocked with extras to give away to friends. The eggs are slightly different sizes and colors, ranging from whites to speckled browns to lovely blues. The color and size are determined by the breed of the hen.
Each hen is named, and the family treats them like well-loved pets: feeding and petting them, letting them roam. In return, they receive fresh, nutritious eggs each day. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
As I contemplate eggs, it occurs to me that no single ingredient has taught me more about cooking than the egg. It was first thing I learned to cook as a child. Now, 40 years later, I feel I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of their culinary potential.
My first egg epiphany was when I first laid eyes on chef Gina Garcia’s Lemon Cloud Pie many years ago. That fluffy white cloud of lemony deliciousness was made from egg whites? I had no idea eggs could whip up like that. Clearly, I had underestimated them.
Throughout the years, eggs have taught me much. I have come to discover what remarkable tools they are in the kitchen, and how their unique properties, when harnessed, help transform other ingredients into greatness.
When whipped into stiff peaks, egg whites expand up to eight times their volume, becoming “air holders,” a powerful leavener. In meringues, they provide structure, evenly trapping and suspending molecules of air. Folded into other ingredients, whipped egg whites add incredible lightness.
Heat from the oven causes the air bubbles in the egg whites to expand even further, propelling things like soufflés and cakes to puff up and rise. I can’t help but feel like something magical is happening every time I see this.
If it has been a while since you’ve endeavored to make a soufflé, or if you’ve never had the courage to attempt one, give fool-proof artichoke soufflé a whirl (recipe below). It’s easier than it seems, and you’ll get to experience first-hand the true joy of baking.
Yolks are another indispensable tool. They are natural emulsifiers, keeping oil and other liquids like vinegar or lemon juice from separating – paramount when making mayonnaise, aioli, hollandaise sauce or dressings – and holding the tiny droplets of oil evenly suspended throughout.
Egg yolks also add richness to soups and sauces and a silky, velvety texture to mousses and custards. They teach you to be patient and intentional because of their tendency to turn into scrambled eggs if they’re not introduced carefully into hot liquid.
Eggs like to be heated gently and gradually. Learning the simple technique of tempering eggs will prevent many kitchen heartaches.
Hold an egg in your hand, and look at it with fresh eyes. Consider for a moment that what you are holding is an incredible representation of life itself. We look at eggs so often we don’t really see them anymore.
Notice their form. Do you know there is nothing else in nature shaped like an egg? If you look closely, you will you begin to see something brilliant, artful and original. Their oval shape is not only aesthetically pleasing, it’s surprisingly strong. We see its dome shape mimicked architecturally around the world.
This Easter, highlight their beautiful form by standing deviled eggs on end, whole and upright. This simple recipe, given to me by my friend Doris Miller, an activities assistant at Rockwood Retirement Community in Spokane, is hands down, the best I’ve ever had.
Doris’ Deviled Eggs
12 large eggs
1 cup crumbled cooked bacon
1 cup cheddar, diced very small
1/2 cup sweet onion, diced very small
1 cup kosher baby dill pickles, diced very small
1/3 cup mayonnaise
Paprika and fresh flat leaf Italian parsley, for garnish
In a large pot, gently place 12 eggs. Fill pot until water covers eggs about 2 inches. Bring to a boil for 2 minutes. Cover, turn off heat and let stand 10 to 12 minutes. Peel under running cold water.
Using a sharp knife, cut off the top 1/2 to 1 inch of the pointy end of the egg, or as far down as needed to see the yolk. Using a small spoon, remove yolks (or gently squeeze them out) and place in medium bowl. Slice a small sliver off the bottom of the egg, to create a stable base. Stand each upright.
Mash all of the yolks with a fork, and add the bacon, cheddar, onion and pickles. Mix. Add just enough mayo to have a nice creamy mixture. Fill the eggs and chill 1 hour. Garnish with paprika and Italian flat leaf parsley right before serving.
Yield: 12 servings
Gina’s Lemon Cloud Pie
1 teaspoon gelatin
1 tablespoon cold water
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 cup sugar
7 egg whites
Pinch of salt
1 cup heavy cream
Pre-baked pie shell
Soften gelatin in water. Add lemon juice and sugar, stir over low flame until gelatin dissolves. Cool completely over ice bath.
Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form. Whip the cream until stiff and then fold it into the whites along with the cooled lemon juice mixture. Mound the mousse into a pre-baked pie shell.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Note: In a rush? Don’t feel like cooking? Chef Gina Garcia’s Lemon Cloud Pie can be purchased at Chaps, 4237 S. Cheney-Spokane Road in the Latah Shopping Plaza. Call (509) 624-4182.
Artichoke Soufflés with Thyme
4 fresh large artichokes (or use 1 1/2-2 cups canned artichoke hearts, packed in water, drained well)
1 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons butter, plus extra for ramekins
3 tablespoons flour, plus extra for dusting ramekins (fine pastry flour works best)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup goat cheese or grated gruyere
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, plus sprigs for garnish
4 eggs, room temperature
If using fresh artichokes, steam them in boiling salted water until tender about 1 hour, depending on size. Drain, remove leaves, remove fuzzy choke and reserve the heart (fleshy center part) as well as 1 inch of the tender stem.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a blender, blend artichoke hearts with milk, until very smooth.
In a small pot, over a medium heat, melt butter. Add flour. Whisk until smooth and cook one minute, very careful not to brown. Gradually add milk and artichoke mixture, whisking constantly until it thickens. Once thickened, turn heat to low, add salt, pepper and nutmeg. Simmer 5 minutes. Stir in cheese and thyme. Remove from heat.
Separate the eggs, placing the egg whites in a mixer, and the yolks in a small bowl. Temper the yolks by adding tablespoon or two of the warm artichoke mixture gradually to the yolks, and mixing with a fork. (Basically, you are warming up the eggs just a bit.) Gradually, add the tempered yolks to the artichoke mixture, whisking to combine. Set aside, let cool. You can make these ahead up to this point, leave at room temp for two hours or refrigerate overnight.
Boil 1 to 2 quarts of water – I like to use a teapot – to create a hot water bath in which to bake the ramekins.
Grease eight 2-inch ramekins with butter, then dust with flour on all sides including base. Place ramekins inside another baking dish (where you will eventually pour the boiling water)
Beat the egg whites in a mixer, with a pinch of salt until medium stiff peaks form. Do not over beat, you want them stiff, but not dry. Gently fold egg whites into the cooled artichoke mixture.
Using a spoon, fill the ramekins to 1/2-inch from the top with artichoke mixture. Top with sprig of thyme. Fill the outer baking dish with hot water so the water comes at least half way up the outside of the ramekins.
Bake in 400-degree oven for 10 minutes, turn heat down to 350, and continue baking for 15 to 20 minutes until golden and puffed. Serve immediately, once they come out of the oven they will begin to deflate.
Yield: 8 servings
The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods she’s making in her kitchen, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home, www.feastingathome.com.