Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fresh Baked Eggs: More Than A Fair Trade

Thirteen years ago we moved into our home in semi-rural Novato, and one of the first things we did was build a chicken coop. At the time  I could not say exactly why this felt more important than the so many essential improvements on our To Do list, but it was one of the things I most wanted for our family.

Last week our country vet came by to check in on our animals.  As he checked the goats' eyes and palpated their bellies, he told me he believes that people who learn to take good care of animals tend to be good at taking care of each other.  I thought of James Harriot, the  English country vet who wrote All Creatures Great And Small as well as dozens of other perfectly told animal stories.  My siblings and I grew up on these tales of  mischievous kittens and lost lambs, loyal sheepdogs and brilliant draft horses. I believe that the secret ingredient that drew our attention then, and what enraptures my own children still, is the essential element in each of these stories:  Harriot himself...a human who cares.

Caring is a distinguishing characteristic, one we humans should be proud of.  It is also a large part of why we have survived.  Caring for animals is part of a pretty basic agreement, a straightforward "fair trade."  We make a comfortable shelter, provide healthy food and a happy life, and they provide us with labor and/or something delicious to eat.  Oh, and animals often throw in a good dose of entertainment, as is the case with our playful goats.

After 13 years of tending our chickens and collecting their eggs each day, I can say with certainty, we get a phenomenal deal.  The ability of a hen to produce up to an egg a day continues, year after year, to be, in my mind, nothing short of a miracle.  How does a scrawny little cluster of feathered bones do this exactly?  Apparently it has something to do with nucleation points and mammillary protrusions and aragonite piles and columns of oriented crystalline calcite that grow up and around the egg and...well, let's just leave it at It's a miracle!

Many people ask why we don't simply buy eggs in the store.  This is a great question, considering the work it takes to set up for and maintain chickens, and also the abundance of excellent egg choices in the stores these days.  Every once in a while in the winter, when the chickens have slowed down their laying regimen,  I do buy store eggs, and that is when I notice the difference.  Store bought eggs have pale yolks that fall apart more easily (I'm assuming this is the time in transportation and on the shelf), you never know if they are as healthy (no matter what the label claims) and, mostly, they don't taste rich and creamy.

Because our eggs taste so good, I have become an egg junkie.  The whole family has.  If it's not a Dutch Baby (which we have always called "Puff The Magic Dragon") it's french toast or croissant egg sandwiches or crepes or very eggy waffles.

Lately, I have been on a baked egg kick.  In this case, the fresher the egg the better because the yolks must hold together sturdily in their little nests of sauteed spinach or arugula or whatever green strikes your fancy.  Then they bake for 12 minutes or so (sometimes less, depending on the size of the egg) and leave you with the just set light whites and a yolk that has held firmly together but runs with the slightest prick of a fork tine.

My favorite breakfast cookbook is called Brunch by Marc Meyer and Peter Meehan. I have made many variations of their  "Baked Egg With Spinach and Brioche" recipe.  I love arugula, and almost always add that somewhere along the way.  Also, I saute the greens with a touch of white truffle oil, shallots and plenty of garlic.  And I've found that if I don't have creme fraiche available, its fine to just drizzle a touch of heavy whipping cream over the whole dish before placing it in the oven.  These eggs are absolutely delicious, every time, as AJ will attest.

Baked Eggs with Spinach, Brioche
Adapted from Brunch: 100 Recipes from Five Points Restaurant by Marc Meyer and Peter Meehan

1 tbls olive oil and/or White Truffle oil
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 shallot
1 bunch spinach (about 3/4 lb) washed and stemmed)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tbls unsalted butter plus additional butter for baking dishes
4 slices brioche, 1/2 inch thick
6 large eggs
1/8 cup creme fraiche
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat, and when it simmers, add shallot and garlic. Cook until fragrant and golden, about 3 minutes and add the spinach. Reduce the heat to medium, add a pinch of salt and a few turns of freshly ground black pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is just wilted, about 3 minutes. Transfer the spinach to a bowl to cool (it doesn’t have to cool completely, just enough so as not to cook the eggs before they get into the oven).

Lightly butter the brioche slices on both sides. Lay them on a sheet pan and bake in the oven, turning them in mid-toast, until lightly browned and crisped - 3 to 5 minutes (or toast in toaster and butter after).

Lightly butter two ramekins or baking dishes large enough to hold brioche in one layer. Arrange the brioche on the bottom of the dish and scatter the wilted spinach around and on top of the bread, making rough little nests to hold the eggs in place. Crack the eggs into the spinach nests and season with slat and pepper. Drizzle creme fraiche over the dishes, sprinkle with grated parmesan, and set on the lowest shelf of the oven. Cook until the whites are just set but the yolks are runny, about 12 - 15 minutes.