A new chicken-and-egg dilemma has emerged as more people keep their own hens: the question of how to use an enormous backyard bounty. Recipes: Soft-Boiled Eggs with Watercress and Walnut-Ricotta Crostini, Poached Eggs with Mint and Yogurt, Mj's Egg Casserole, Lemon Pudding Cake
For newly hatched chicken enthusiasts, the first egg from your own hens is a small miracle. “You want to dip it in gold,” said the writer Susan Orlean, who keeps nine hens at her home in Columbia County, N.Y.
Then comes the second egg: enough for a triumphant breakfast.
But when the whole coop starts laying, she said, the supply of eggs quickly turns into an “I Love Lucy”-style conveyor belt scene, bringing absurd, unmanageable excess. Orlean scrambles them into a pile for brunch or dinner, sprinkled with Indian spices, slivered almonds and unsweetened coconut. “People will eat three and four eggs at a time that way, without blinking,” she said.
It’s not unusual for food lovers to toy with the notion of adding chickens to a thriving garden or building a rooftop coop. Now the novelty has become reality: despite coyotes, foxes and the occasional cage-break, many urbanites or suburbanites are raising their own eggs.
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And many small farmers who supply restaurants with produce have been expanding into poultry, making farm eggs ubiquitous on restaurant menus. The eggs that were once scrubbed from the standard U.S. breakfast over concerns about cholesterol have made a triumphant return as high-end appetizers, served atop anything and everything.
At the North End Grill, an ambitious new restaurant in New York City, eggs rate their own section on the dinner menu.
There are no hard numbers on how many people keep chickens, but hatcheries report a boom in business in the last five years. “The recession has helped, the local food movement has helped and the green movement has helped,” said Paul Bradshaw, the owner of Greenfire Farms in Havana, Fla., who specializes in rare breeds like Swedish flower and French Marans, which lay lustrous chocolate-brown eggs that the writer Ian Fleming designated as the preferred breakfast of James Bond.
Martha Stewart made chickens fashionable in the 1990s, showcasing pale blue and green eggs from her South American Araucanas in her magazine. Although egg color does not affect taste, it is an attraction; among Bradshaw’s most desirable hens are British cream legbars, which lay bright, smooth blue eggs that sell in London’s chic food markets for 1 euro each, or about $1.30. (A female legbar chick costs $99, compared with about $2 for a standard leghorn.)
Internet commerce has made it easy to order hatching eggs and day-old chicks; websites, like those of Greenfire Farms and Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa, have live video and gorgeous photos of birds, plumage and vividly colored eggs. “It’s my new J. Crew catalog,” said Jana Martin, a writer who lives outside Woodstock, N.Y., and started raising Buff Orpington hens last year.
Keeping chickens is legal in many cities and has taken off as part of the urban farming movement. JustFood, a nonprofit group that encourages sustainable and local agriculture, has an educational program called City Chicken, which teaches the basics to New Yorkers: Since 2007, the classes have routinely filled up and the schedule is constantly expanding.
“In the spring, you can watch the color of the yolks deepen from week to week, and the taste changes, too,” said Cathy Erway, a graduate of the program who keeps hens on a rooftop in the New York borough of Brooklyn. (For New Yorkers who want to actually keep hens inside an apartment, Bradshaw recommends the Olandsk dwarf hen, about the size of a grapefruit, which lays eggs that fry up to the size of a silver-dollar pancake.)
In the last month, backyard chickens across the country have begun laying again. Left to their own rhythms, hens slow down or stop laying eggs altogether in the winter, because their reproductive cycle is linked to daylight. For centuries, the simultaneous return of eggs and the sun was seen as a quasi-magical coincidence; it is no wonder eggs are central to ancient spring celebrations like Easter, Passover and Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which begins on the spring equinox.
At this time of year, the difficulty becomes not so much keeping the hens, but keeping up with them.
In high season, a good layer like a Rhode Island red or leghorn can lay an egg every day. Erway uses up the eggs by making lunch for the staff at Sixpoint Brewery, where she works. “I put sliced hard-boiled eggs in banh mi,” she said, referring to the French-Vietnamese baguette sandwiches, stuffed with pickled vegetables and red chili sauce. “And I’m Chinese-American, so it’s second nature for me to add an egg or two if I’m stir-frying rice or noodles.”
“You have to get creative,” said Ian Knauer, a food writer who had 18 laying hens last year on his family’s farm in Pennsylvania. For Knauer, who lives alone in New York City and tends the farm on weekends with his family, that meant almost eight dozen eggs a week.
“When they start piling up, I get out the big jar,” he said. Beets and eggs, pickled together in a hot-pink brine, are a standard Pennsylvania Dutch recipe Knauer has adapted into a watercress and egg salad, using a spoonful of shallot-scented brine in the vinaigrette.
In a new book, “The Farm,” he chronicles a year of cooking with mostly farm-grown ingredients, including a simple dinner of soft-boiled eggs with peppery greens, ricotta and black walnuts from trees around the farmhouse.
The Knauers have farmed in Knauertown since the 18th century and, like most farmers, have always kept a flock of chickens. But from the 1920s to the 1950s, egg farming became specialized. Electric lighting meant that lights could be kept on day and night, so hens never stopped laying; refrigeration meant that eggs could be kept fresh for weeks and transported around the country.
By the 1970s, eggs had become a standard supermarket item with no particular season, region or source attached. Enter the real-food revolution, and the notion that raising your own food brought ethical, nutritional and culinary advantages. “Knowing you can raise your own eggs quite easily makes factory farms seem even more unnecessary,” Martin said.
For cooks like her, eggs are particularly helpful in the effort to nudge meat away from the center of the plate.
“This is the time of year when I start looking through old cookbooks to see what the farm wives would do,” said Kristin Hernandez, who keeps a dozen hens in her backyard in Austin, Texas. Her roommates are all vegetarian or vegan, she said, but even the vegans eat the house-raised eggs because they know that the birds are healthy and well cared for. “They are like pets who happen to bring us breakfast,” she said.
Although organic and free-range eggs are now widely available, they do not always taste different from the standard commercial product; home-raised eggs have noticeably better flavor and texture. The yolks of eggs from well-fed, well-exercised hens are as orange-yellow as a New York taxi. They have what Bradshaw calls “muscle tone:” thick walls and a rich, intense taste.
“The whites are never runny, and they stand up immediately when you whip them,” Martin said. “Even plain scrambled eggs are different: They have a sweetness, a freshness and a richness to them.”
Then there is the question of age. Eggs can be sold commercially for up to 45 days after they are packed, so long as they are kept refrigerated, according to Agriculture Department regulations. (Eggs keep well until washed for market, because they have a natural coating that is sterile and waterproof.)
But those who raise chickens say that the flavor — with nuances of grass, earth, nuts, and of course, chicken — is at its peak when the egg is first laid, before it is refrigerated.
Jennifer Trainer Thompson, who works at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, has just published “The Fresh Egg Cookbook,” an outgrowth of keeping a dozen hens at her home in Williamstown. “I wasn’t thinking of the culinary opportunities at first,” she said. She saw the chickens more as an outdoor activity and teaching tool for her kids.
But as the eggs mounted up, she began trolling through cookbooks and consulting family and friends for recipes using multiple eggs. An ideal post-Easter recipe, from her Midwestern mother-in-law, is a breakfast casserole that calls for 18 hard-boiled eggs, baked with cheese sauce and topped with crumbled bacon. (For the best results when peeling hard-boiled eggs, start with eggs that are not freshly laid, but have been refrigerated for a week or more.) Her Mediterranean take on a weeknight dinner is poached eggs, served over thick yogurt with toasted pita bread and a trickle of hot, herb-infused butter.
For Joe Dizney, a Web designer in the Hudson Valley, living with a flock of Australorp hens has left a different imprint. He’ll break an egg into simmering beef stews and bean soups, fry a couple in butter to top sauteed spring greens like the red-veined sorrel he bought at a recent farmers market, and coddle them to serve with the wild mushrooms he gathers in the woods near his house.
“‘Put an egg on it,”‘ he said. “That’s become my mantra.”
POACHED EGGS WITH MINT AND YOGURT
Adapted from “The Fresh Egg Cookbook” by Jennifer Trainer Thompson (Storey Publishing)
Time: About 1 hour
Yield: 4 servings
1 cup plain Greek yogurt, 2 percent milk fat or whole
1 small garlic clove, finely minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons butter
6 fresh mint leaves
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon hot red-pepper flakes
1 tablespoon white vinegar
Toasted pita bread or another flatbread, for serving
1. In a small bowl, stir the yogurt and garlic together. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
2. When ready to cook, use a large spoon to divide the yogurt on four serving plates, making large dollops. Use the back of a spoon to spread each dollop into a large oval, big enough to hold two eggs.
3. In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat until it foams. Add mint, paprika and red pepper flakes and stir until fragrant. Turn off the heat and keep warm.
4. In a large, deep skillet, combine two inches of water and the vinegar. Bring to a simmer. Crack the eggs gently into the water. Simmer until softly cooked, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, lift eggs out one at a time, holding a paper towel under the spoon to avoid dripping water onto the yogurt. Place two eggs on each plateful of yogurt. Remove mint leaves from the warm spiced butter, then use a spoon to drizzle butter over the eggs. Grind black pepper onto each egg, and serve immediately with hot toasted pita bread.
SOFT-BOILED EGGS WITH WATERCRESS AND WALNUT-RICOTTA CROSTINI
Adapted from “The Farm” by Ian Knauer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 slices sourdough or other chewy bread
½ cup walnut pieces
½ cup fresh ricotta or farmer cheese
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cold eggs
2 cups watercress
Extra-virgin olive oil or walnut oil, for serving
1. In a large heavy skillet, melt two tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the bread slices and toast, turning occasionally, until both sides are well browned, 3 to 4 minutes. (Reduce heat as needed to prevent scorching.)
2. Remove the bread and add the remaining tablespoon butter to the skillet. Add the walnuts and toast them, stirring, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Transfer walnuts to a food processor and let cool. Add ricotta, 1 tablespoon lemon juice and ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper. Pulse just until well combined.
3. Place the eggs in a small saucepan and cover with lukewarm water. (Hot water on cold eggs will crack the shells.) Over high heat, bring the water just to a boil. Immediately turn off the heat, cover the pan and let stand for 2 minutes. Transfer the pot to the sink and run cold water over the eggs for about 30 seconds. Peel the eggs under cold running water.
4. In a bowl, toss watercress with the remaining tablespoon lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Spread walnut ricotta evenly over the toasts, then top with watercress. Place one egg on each toast and grind pepper on top. Using a small, sharp knife, gently cut each egg open to break the yolk, letting it run down to dress the watercress. Drizzle with oil, if using, and serve.
MJ’S EGG CASSEROLE
Adapted from “The Fresh Egg Cookbook” by Jennifer Trainer Thompson (Storey Publishing)
Time: 1 hour
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
4 tablespoons butter, plus extra for buttering pan
¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup cream
1 cup milk
2 cups shredded sharp Cheddar, lightly packed
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
¼ teaspoon dried marjoram
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
18 hard boiled eggs, peeled and thinly sliced
1 pound bacon, cooked, drained of fat and crumbled
Toast, for serving
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
2. In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat until it foams. Whisk in the flour until smooth. Lower the heat and slowly pour in the cream and milk. Heat until steaming, whisking often. Add the cheese and whisk until melted. Add the parsley, marjoram, thyme, garlic powder and cayenne.
3. In the prepared dish, make layers of egg slices, bacon and sauce, ending with sauce. Cover and bake 40 minutes. (To make ahead, refrigerate covered casserole overnight. Remove from the refrigerator 1 hour before baking, and add 20 minutes to baking time.) Let rest 5 to 10 minutes before serving with hot toast.
LEMON PUDDING CAKE
Adapted from “The Farm,” by Ian Knauer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Time: 1 hour
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
4 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/3 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1 cup sugar
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 ½ cups whole milk
1. Place a large roasting pan on a rack in the center of the oven. Fill the pan halfway with water. With the pan inside, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch square or round baking dish.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, lemon zest, lemon juice and butter. In another bowl, stir together the sugar, flour and salt. Whisk half the flour mixture into the egg yolks, then half the milk. Whisk in remaining flour mixture, then remaining milk.
3. Whip the egg whites until soft peaks form, then gently fold them into the batter.
4. Pour batter into the buttered dish. Place the dish in the pan of water in the oven. Bake until the cake is set, about 45 minutes.