In Season: Eggs
From ancient fertility rituals to modern Sunday brunches, eggs always have been crucial to the rites of spring.
Usually, that means chicken eggs, although duck and goose eggs also are colored and given as gifts. The tradition is old and widespread, with roots not just in Europe but in the Middle East and parts of Africa as well.
One medieval myth had it that if you took an egg laid on Good Friday, and saved it for 100 years, the yolk would turn into a diamond. In general, however, the fresher an egg is, the better. Unless you raise chickens, the freshest eggs come from vendors at farmers markets.
Shane Baker sells eggs at farmers markets in Portland, Beaverton and Hillsboro. The reason his eggs taste better than regular grocery store eggs is just a matter of time, he says.
'That's what separates a farmfresh egg from your typical store-bought eggs,' he says, noting that with 'a fresh egg, the yolk stands up, it's so vibrant, and the flavor's there, because it's not old. A typical egg, when you buy it at the store, is months old.'
Gala Springs is Baker's certified organic farm near Boardman. He grows tree fruit, grapes and melons, and lets his flock of 100 chickens wander over several acres of land. (Actually, he says, he had more chickens but they fell prey to a fox and a raccoon. He was able to trap and relocate the predators.)
He starts off his chicks with organic feed. Later they eat grass and produce from the farm. They adore melons. 'My chickens are so spoiled,' Baker says. 'They don't even like vegetables.'
Baker warns that there's no enforcement for use of the terms 'free range' and 'cage free.' 'I'm not saying anyone who claims their chickens are free range is fibbing,' he explains, but 'there's no one who checks the term.'
'The only way to know if a chicken is free range is if it's certified organic,' he says.
Unlike some labels, the word organic carries legal weight. Organic farms have to follow rigorous guidelines, subject to inspection. The rules for raising organic chickens include prohibition of pesticides, antibiotics and hormones.
They also include instructions for the chickens' living conditions - you can't lock a chicken in a cell, give it some organic feed, and call its eggs organic.
For Baker, it all comes back to flavor: 'If I go to a restaurant and have eggs for breakfast,' he says, 'I have to put salt on it, maybe even some Tabasco, 'cause it's just so bland, whereas eating the fresh egg, the flavor is just so much better.'
There is a disadvantage to very fresh eggs. According to Baker, if you hard-boil them, they just won't peel. 'There's no sodium separation between the embryonic layer and the shell itself,' he says, then translates into layman's terms: 'It hasn't started to shrivel up yet.'
He's been known to drive to the store to buy eggs so his wife could make deviled eggs. And, strange as it may sound, if you have access to ultrafresh eggs for Easter baskets, it would be best to start aging them now.
For dyeing purposes, white eggs are best. Most stores carry both brown and white eggs, and some people believe that brown eggs are healthier.
The truth is, some breeds of chicken lay brown eggs and some lay white eggs. Most nutrition experts will tell you that what's inside is exactly the same. (My grandparents' neighbors had chickens that laid pale blue and pale green eggs. I was very disappointed to discover that, scrambled, they tasted just like normal eggs.)
Most holiday traditions focus on rare and special foods that we only eat once a year, but in spring, when small things like sunshine, leaves and flowers seem like a really big deal, we celebrate with the simple, sunny egg.
For tips on keeping urban chickens, visit Growing Gardens
Crust (pâté brisée from 'The Joy of Cooking' by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker)
1/2 cup chilled butter
3 tablespoons vegetable shortening
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 or 6 tablespoons cold water
Work the butter and shortening into the flour using your fingers and hands until the mixture becomes evenly crumbly. Make a hollow in the center of the mixture and pour in the water.
Use your index finger to stir in the water, using a rapid spiral motion. You should be able to form the dough into a ball. (If not, it's OK to add more water.)
Refrigerate for at least 2 and up to 36 hours. Roll out and use to line a 9-inch pie pan.
1/3 pound of asparagus
1 cup Gruyère cheese, grated
1 cup milk
1 cup half and half
salt and pepper to taste
Trim the asparagus and steam until just barely cooked, about three minutes.
Sprinkle grated cheese across the bottom of the pie crust.
Add the asparagus in several layers, arranging it so that some tips point in each direction. Whisk together eggs, milk, half and half, salt and pepper and pour into the pie shell.
Leave some room for the quiche to expand; you may not need all of the egg mixture. Sprinkle paprika over the top.
Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes.