Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Market Report: Eggscellent

Photo Courtesy of Paul Christopher Williams

It all started when I made a vinegar cake. Holed up late at night in my apartment with a clichéd but absolutely palpable PMS craving for chocolate, I pulled out a recipe for a one bowl, nine ingredient chocolate cake that promised to be done and delectable in under 45 minutes. It was 1am, and I was out of eggs; this recipe was my saving grace as it contained no eggs. In fact, it contained no dairy at all.

After mixing it up and popping it in the oven, I started reading more about the recipe. Vinegar cake, or wacky cake as it’s often called, gained popularity during the Great Depression, when eggs, milk and butter were precious commodities. The cake is made instead with oil, water, baking soda and apple cider vinegar, and turned out to be a moist and entirely serviceable 2am dessert. To distract myself from the forkfuls of warm chocolate cake I was (ab)using to sate my seemingly bottomless craving, I read other Depression-era recipes, marveling at their ingenuity and thankful that so many were written down and preserved in this time of relative prosperity. Unlike the vinegar cake, quite a few of the savory recipes revolved around eggs, which for many people at that time provided the most readily-available source of protein.

Photo Courtesy of Max Lau

Photo Courtesy of Max Lau

I think it was the vinegar cake that started me thinking about eggs, but perhaps it was the chickens that came first. Reading an article in the New Yorker last fall about “the return of the backyard chicken” got me thinking about eggs, breakfast and our relationship to food. In the 1930s, it was common to keep a few hens in the yard (hence the readily-available protein). By the 50s, factory farming and the suburbification of America had eliminated most home coops. Given the large-scale interest in local and organic foods over the past few decades, however, it was only a matter of time before keeping hens came back into vogue. After all, how much more local can you get than your own backyard?

The chicken-keeping movement is now in full swing, popular not just with those who have houses, gardens and yards, but among cramped city-dwellers as well. I had the pleasure of being introduced to a free-range Brooklyn hen a few months ago, just as the weather was warming and the topsoil had begun to thaw. She appeared surprisingly at home in her muddy plot of earth, grubbing for insects as happily as if she were on a Connecticut farm. She and her coop-mate lay lovely brown eggs, cluck happily and stay away from stray cats. It’s not a bad life. And lemme tell ya, fresh laid breakfast is not a bad way to start the day either. Her owners whip together fresh eggs every morning, not unlike the omelets I made for Mac on what was to become our last trip together this time last year. Sigh (for the eggs, not the asshole).

Industrialization and globalization have prompted us to stop eating seasonally and made possible, cantaloupes in December, turnips in June. But folks, I’m here to tell ya, that shit ain’t right. The healthiest diets, the lowest carbon footprints and the most delectable dinners all depend on eating what’s seasonally fresh, and the most trustworthy market you can travel to for locally grown fresh foods is always going to be your neighborhood farmers’ market. There are few things that appear at NYC greenmarkets year round, but one of the annual offerings is eggs.

As it turns out, eggs are somewhat seasonal as well. True free-range hens lay seasonal egg varieties at different points during the year, their taste changing based on what the hens eat. Spring eggs often yield brighter yolks as hens switch from feed to pasture, a movement that also yields a more complex, grassier taste that reflects the chickens’ change in nourishment. To me, spring’s awakening is just another eggscellent reason to head to the Tello’s stand at the Union Square Greenmarket and pick up a dozen of their tastiest, perkiest extra-large eggs for an out-of-this-world spring frittata.

Crack a supermarket, factory egg next to a farm egg and you’ll see the difference immediately. Supermarket eggs often have pale, flat yolks, and when cracked their thin whites spread quickly. My Tello’s lovelies boasted plump, golden centers and stiffer whites that were a pleasure to whisk, making a comforting slopping sound in the bowl. Over the past few weeks I’ve been celebrating spring eggs with abandon, boiling them into dainty deviled eggs, whisking them into sweet rice pudding, scrambling them for a late-night snack, and even soft-boiling super-rich duck eggs for the fiddlehead “soldiers” I made for Snotty last month.

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about my love of eggs, from quail egg toasts with ‘nduja to the jewel-like Araucana eggs I picked up in early April; then there were the pickled pink eggs I turned up in Union Square and my original midnight eggs that were the first recipe I shared on this site. Eggs are delicious and cheap, and notwithstanding their temporary banishment to the top of the food pyramid in the middle of the last century, nutritious as well. The truth is, eggs are one of the easiest ways that the majority of us can connect with our local farmer, or these days, maybe even an enterprising neighbor down the block.

It’s not easy being green, but farm fresh eggs make trying tasty.

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