Like the fox and the weasel, the coyote and the lizard, humans were probably once nest-robbers. But as early as 500 b.c., we became keepers of hens and protectors of eggs. Long before Christianity and Easter, eggs were primally linked to spring. Chickens, left to their own devices, naturally molt in winter, losing their feathers to grow a new set, and drastically decline in egg production. When the light and the greenery return, so do the eggs–a spring abundance that must have taxed early chefs’ ingenuity. The Romans invented custard; the French, meringue; the Chinese, tea-steeped “thousand-year-old” eggs; the Russians, painted and bejeweled ones.
Eggs have made a comeback in the last decade. Once criticized for being rich in dreaded cholesterol, they were ushered out of heart-healthy diets, replaced by whipped and dehydrated substitutes. With new thinking on the importance of dietary fats and a correction in how much cholesterol they contain, eggs are back by the dozen. Even the American Heart Association says it’s okay to consume as many as four whole eggs per week and unlimited egg whites.
Along with that cholesterol (215 mg per egg), eggs pack a tidy package of vitamins, protein, and taste. The average egg contains 317.5 IU of vitamin A, 24.5 mg of vitamin D, 6.2 g of protein, 24.5 mg of calcium, 89 mg of phosphorous, 5 mg of magnesium, and 23.5 mg of folic acid, among other nutrients. Nutritionists measure protein quality based on how high a percentage is usable by the human body–also known as bioavailability. Eggs have the highest percentage of bioavailable protein of any food except breast milk.
Giving hens a life
Years ago, when the animal-rights movement exposed the real life of a commercial laying hen, some people swore off eggs–or changed to eggs from cage-free hens when they could find them. When the nutritional reputation of eggs rebounded, the demand for humanely raised and other specialty eggs got an extra bounce. Last year, organic egg farmers who are members of CROPP, a producer’s coop in Wisconsin and nearby states, doubled their sales–despite the fact that cage-free conditions for hens haven’t been proven to affect an egg’s nutrient content.
“We feel it’s really important that consumers and farmers support outside access for hens,” says John Marquardt, egg pool coordinator for CROPP. Plus, he adds, buying eggs from diversified family farms helps keep that land in family hands.
These days, chances are good you can buy free-range eggs and nutrient-enhanced eggs at most supermarkets. Be aware, however, that they are two distinctly different types of eggs. Free-range or free-roam refers to how the hens are kept; nutrient-enhanced refers to a special diet fed to hens. Such eggs may be certified to contain more vitamin E or other nutrients and less cholesterol, but the hens who lay them may be caged or uncaged.
Safer than you might think
What about all those scary warnings against eating raw eggs, sunny-side-up eggs, and your Aunt Peggy’s egg salad? The critical issue here is how the egg was handled, from gathering to landing on your plate. The egg itself has fairly efficient barriers to bacterial infiltration; only the yolk has the nutrients bacteria need, and the yolk is protected by the white, the shell, and two membranes inside the shell. While a hen that has salmonella bacteria may produce a salmonella-infected egg, required monitoring of hen flocks over a certain size keeps the chances very slim of this happening. In fact, food scientists cited by the American Egg Board estimate that the average consumer might encounter such an egg only once every eighty-four years.
When eggs are gathered at least daily, washed with a food-safe antibacterial soap, and kept refrigerated, chances of infection from anything outside the shell are also reduced. If you’re an adult in good health, a raw egg is probably less risky than a rare hamburger or unwashed lettuce. And as far as the egg salad goes, keep it well chilled–below forty degrees Fahrenheit–and you should be just fine. As with any bacteria danger, the very young, very old, and those with challenged immune systems are most at risk. (If you want to take extra care, the American Egg Board can help you modify recipes that call for uncooked eggs. Just consult the food safety section of its website at www.aeb.org, or write The Incredible Edible Egg, P.O. Box 733, Park Ridge, IL 60068-0733; ask for Publication No. 83. Enclose $1 to cover shipping and handling.)
SKILLET FRITTATA WITH CHARD
4 to 5 stalks of Swiss chard, including stems
1 tablespoon vegetable, nut, or sesame oil
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry or red wine vinegar
6 large or extra large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Remove the stems from the chard and coarsely dice them. In an 8-inch diameter ovenproof skillet, saute the stems in vegetable oil until tender. Roll the chard leaves together into a tube; chop them diagonally into shreds about a half-inch wide. Add them to the skillet with the olive oil; stir until the leaves are coated and begin to wilt. Reduce the heat to medium; carefully add the vinegar and cover the skillet so that the leaves steam. When they are well wilted but not brown, remove the skillet from the heat. Whisk six eggs in a bowl until slightly foamy; add the salt. Pour the eggs into the skillet over the chard leaves. Stir to distribute the chard. Bake for 20 minutes or until mostly set (an inserted knife should reveal a center that’s still moist; the frittata will continue cooking after it’s removed from the oven). Serve warm.
PICKLED EGGS WITH SPRING ONIONS
Makes 1 quart jar of pickled eggs, or 24 egg wedges
These cold, tangy eggs taste great on a hot summer day. Feel free to substitute herb-infused or mildly flavored vinegars (not balsamic); we used raspberry red wine vinegar to give the eggs a violet tinge.
1 cup red wine or apple cider vinegar
1 cup water
11/2 teaspoons mixed peppercorns
1/8 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 large or 5 small red scallions
6 to 7 fresh dill sprigs
6 hard-cooked eggs, peeled
Pour boiling water into a clean, quart-size pickling jar; allow to sit for at least 10 minutes. Immerse lid and ring in boiling water; set aside. Combine vinegar, water, peppercorns, sugar, and salt in saucepan; heat to simmer, stirring, until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat. Scrupulously clean scallions, chopping off root ends; trim greens so that scallions are about 1 inch shorter than pickling jar. Rinse dill sprigs and pat dry.
Carefully empty pickling jar. Arrange scallions vertically inside it; add dill sprigs, reserving one. Gently add hard-cooked eggs. Top with one dill sprig. Pour pickling liquid into jar, making sure that peppercorns go with it. Remove lid and metal ring from hot water with tongs. Seal jar and cool for one hour. Refrigerate for up to five days before serving, and serve eggs cold, garnished with fresh dill sprigs, pickled scallions, ground pepper, and kosher salt. Keep any leftovers refrigerated.
To make these elegant little custards quickly, substitute honey or maple syrup for the melted-sugar topping.
2/3 cup sugar, plus 1/3 cup
1/4 cup water
1 cup whole milk
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
About 4 cups boiling water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine 2/3 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Stirring constantly, continue to cook until the sugar dissolves and the water evaporates. The recrystallized sugar will slowly melt, becoming straw-colored and then dark brown. To avoid getting burned from spattering, do not allow any water to come in contact with the sugar once it begins bubbling. Pour about a tablespoon of the melted sugar into each of six lightly greased ramekins or custard cups. Set aside. Set pan off heat to cool, away from any water source, before cleaning.
Combine the milk, cream, remaining 1/3 cup of sugar, and vanilla in a nonreactive saucepan. Heat to barely a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat. Separate two eggs (reserve the whites for another use.) Whisk the remaining two eggs and the yolks together until foamy and lighter in color. Whisking constantly, drizzle about one-quarter of the hot milk mixture slowly into the eggs. Again whisking constantly, add the now-warmed eggs and milk back into the pan with the hot milk mixture. Strain all into a mixing bowl that has a lip for pouring.
Set the custard dishes into a roasting pan, allowing one inch between cups and the edges of the roasting pan. Fill the cups evenly with the combined egg-milk mixture. Add the boiling water to the roasting pan, to come almost even with the level of the custard in the cups. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until a sharp knife inserted into the custard comes out clean. Remove the cups from the roasting pan and allow to cool until they can be handled.
Run a sharp knife around the inside edges of the cups to loosen the custard. Top each cup with a plate and invert. Serve custard warm.