Which came first? The chicken.
The egg followed the next morning. Or eggs, I should say – three of them, one per hen, a reassurance that despite the stress of relocation, the birds were going to settle in at their new home just fine.
For me, backyard chicken keeping was inevitable. I’d already devoted much of my backyard, and my free time, to growing and preserving edible crops. I like knowing where my food comes from, and I take satisfaction in preparing and eating meals that contain as many homegrown ingredients as possible. While locally and humanely sourced eggs are more and more readily available, they can be pricey, and I have a hard time paying for something I know I could make myself.
But here was the catch: I don’t really like eggs. I bake with them, I put them in things, but for breakfast? Fried and runny-yolked and tasting all eggy? No thanks. Not for me.
So it took a few seasons of consideration, consulting with hen-keeping friends and researching coops and chicken care, but when a friend called and said she had a friend who, for various reasons, had decided she needed to give up her birds, I agreed to take them on.
Keeping hens has several benefits beyond fresh eggs. For one, they are a delight to watch. I’ve learned the truth behind all sorts of aphorisms by observing my chickens: “birds of a feather flock together,” “the early bird gets the worm,” “top of pecking order.”
When allowed to range freely, hens eat all kinds of insect pests that otherwise might eat my garden crops or creep through the foundation cracks into my basement. They peck down the lawn and reduce the need to mow, and their nitrogen-rich droppings fertilize the grass and soil. They happily eat kitchen scraps that would otherwise get thrown away.
I’ve found plenty of people willing to take extra eggs off my hands. In fact, supply can’t keep up with demand. Once you let someone know you have chickens, you’ll have people coming out of the woodwork asking to buy your eggs. You’ll also find empty egg cartons left on your desk at work, in your mailbox and on your front porch.
I don’t provide supplemental light for my chickens in winter, as some chicken-keepers do, and since their ability to lay is connected with the amount of daylight they’re exposed to, they take a few months off during the darker season. Every carton of eggs I purchase at the grocery store during that time feels like a small defeat, and I look forward to spring and the return of backyard eggs with their extra-bright yolks, even if I do whatever I can to mask their taste.
One of those ways is by baking the eggs into a delicious tart.
This may look like a quiche, but it’s so chock full of cheesy, mushroomy goodness that the egg component is incidental, more of a binder than a main attraction.
I borrowed the crust recipe from Deb Perelman’s “Smitten Kitchen Cookbook” but devised my own filling to accommodate my tastes, use up ingredients in my fridge, and take advantage of one of my garden’s early crops: kale.
I used a 9-inch tart pan with a fluted edge and removable bottom, but if you don’t have one, I’m sure a pie tin would work just as well.
Mushroom and Kale Tart with Swiss Cheese and Shallots
Serves six, for breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner, served hot, cold or room temperature. Total time: about 2 hours.
For the crust:
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ cup yellow cornmeal
¼ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg
For the filling:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium or 1 large shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound brown mushrooms, thinly sliced
½ bunch of fresh kale (about 2 ounces), thick ribs removed and cut into ribbons
splash of white wine (optional)
1 cup grated Swiss cheese (about 3 ounces; for a stronger flavor, try Gruyere or smoked Gouda; for a milder flavor, try Monterrey jack)
2 large eggs
¼ cup milk
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
black pepper to taste
Combine flour, cornmeal and salt in a food processor. Add butter and pulse until you have the texture of coarse sand. Add the egg and mix until the dough comes together.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 12-inch circle. Transfer to a 9-inch tart pan and press the dough against the sides. Trim any excess dough from the top (I like to leave a little extra above the rim of the pan because it shrinks a bit when baked), saving extra dough to patch any holes. Place in the freezer for 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Start the filling:
Saute shallots and garlic in olive oil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until soft, 3-4 minutes.
Add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid they release evaporates and mushrooms are translucent and begin to brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the dried thyme and stir. Add the kale and white wine, and cook for about 1 minute, until kale begins to wilt and the wine evaporates. Add salt and pepper and set aside to cool.
Par-bake the crust:
This step might seem fussy, but it keeps the crust from getting soggy.
Remove crust from freezer and cover with foil. Bake at 375 for 10 minutes, remove foil, and bake 5-8 minutes more, until crust just begins to turn golden. Remove from oven, place on a cooling rack, and reduce oven temperature to 350.
Finish making filling:
Whisk together eggs and milk. Stir in grated cheese and mushroom mixture.
Assemble and bake:
If any cracks formed while par-baking the crust, patch them with bits of leftover dough. Trim the top edge so it’s flush with the rim of the pan if needed.
Pour filling into tart shell. Transfer to the oven, and bake at 350 for 35 to 40 minutes, until tart is puffed and golden on top and custard is set. Let cool at least 10 minutes before serving.