by Maria Reidelbach
Mud season is starting late, but I’ll bet you’ve never looked forward to it like this! After years of dry white flakes accumulating in surreally huge piles that never go away, who’d have thought that water droplets falling from the sky would seem so novel and moist. (Really? it was only four months?)
April is pretty early for most locally grown food, but did you know that spring is high season for hens eggs? When the days get longer, these feathered gals speed up their production, laying up to one egg a day. That’s a big reason why there are so many eggs for sale at Easter time—plus they’re a perfect symbol of the fertility of spring.
Eggs are so common that we seldom think about how extraordinary they are. Eggs come in their own beautiful package—exquisite in color, texture, and shape, and the shell keeps them fresh for weeks. They’re almost pure protein, vegetarian, dairy-, gluten-, and peanut-free, so almost everyone can eat them. Eggs are a culinary wonder: they are sublime simply hard-cooked and served with salt—and no pan to clean up. Or you can or poach them, or fry them sunny-side up, or scramble them and have a very different dish each time. Add some chopped up tidbits of vegetables, mushrooms, cheese or meat and you’ve got an omelet or add more and make a frittata. If you want to get fancy, eggs are essential ingredients in custard pies, magical souffles, crunchy macaroons, and melt in your mouth mousse. Don’t forget egg salad and, my favorite, deviled eggs.
Hens lay eggs in many shades and hues, from common white eggs to deep browns and even pale blues and greens. The flavor isn’t affected by color, however, there is a difference in the flavor of eggs from cage-free chickens compared to factory-farm eggs. Because the backyard hens get a more varied diet that’s supplemented with foraged food, the yolks are usually a deeper shade of yellow and the taste is richer, too.
You can score local eggs a few different ways. Easiest is to buy them, best is to buy them directly from a local farmer. Many farmstands and virtually all farmers markets have local eggs, and the price is a bargain—they go for just 30 to 45 cents each.
If you want to DIY, you can keep your own chickens. You’ll have fresh eggs for most of the year, and you’ll know exactly what your hens are eating. Growing chickens in your back yard isn’t rocket science, but nor is it for the, er, chicken-hearted. And if you have only a couple of chickens, it’s not a way to save money on food. But you will have interesting, beautiful pets that will keep the local bugs down, plus they’ll make great fertilizer for your garden.
If you’re considering having backyard chickens, the first thing to do is to check your community’s rules and regulations on your town’s website or at the supervisor or mayor’s office and find out what’s allowed. If you’ve got neighbors nearby, don’t get a rooster—yes, they do crow at the crack of dawn, but sometimes also in the middle of the night, and sometimes all day long, too. You’ll need a place for the hens to roost at night that will be safe from predators like skunks and foxes, either a barn or small coop. You’ll also need a spot to dump all the fertilizer-to-be. Chicks need special care and gear, so you might consider getting older birds to start. Since backyard chickens have become a trend, there’s lots of information online that you should check out, if this option is of interest to you.
Some creative farmers now have “rent-a-chicken” programs—you can get a couple of hens, plus all the gear and feed delivered to your door in the spring and then picked up in the autumn for a seasonal fee that ranges from $350 to $600. If you get attached, you can permanently adopt your girls and buy the equipment. I don’t know of anyone in Dutchess or Ulster County doing this, but it looks like a smart business model and I’ll bet some will pop up soon.
In the Allegheny Mountains, where I lived as a child, pickled eggs and beets were a favorite bar snack (not that I was hanging out in bars). It’s a great way to use leftover Easter eggs, and different colors of beets yield different colors of eggs: dark red beets make magenta eggs; golden beets make pale orange eggs; striped chioggia beets make pink eggs; and if you want another color (and flavor), you can use peperoncini and their brine to make pickled green eggs.
Pennsylvania Pickled Beets and Eggs
1 pound of beets (about 5 beets 2” in diameter or the equivalent)
½ cup of maple syrup, honey or sugar, to taste
½ cup cider vinegar
6 whole peppercorns
6 whole allspice
1 small sliced onion
½ tsp. salt
Foolproof hard-cooked eggs: put the eggs in a pot in a single layer and add cold water to cover plus an extra inch of water. Bring to a boil, turn off the heat, cover and let sit for 10 minutes. Drain the hot water and replace with cold. When the eggs have cooled, peel them.
Cook the beets: if necessary trim the leaves, leaving 1” of stem, reserving greens for another dish. Cook in a medium pot of simmering water. Use a toothpick or skewer to determine when the beets are tender to the center. Drain and, when cool enough, slip off their “jackets.” (I love that beet skins are called jackets, and when you remove them, you’ll see why.) Slice as desired.
Mix the remaining ingredients; if using sugar, heat to dissolve it, either in a small pan on stove-top or in a bowl in the microwave.
Combine the eggs with the pickling brine in a bowl, gently stir, add the sliced beets, and then add just enough water to cover and stir gently to mix. Refrigerate until eggs are deeply colored, eight hours to two days. To serve, cut the eggs in half and arrange with the beets and onions on a plate. Fresh dill makes a delicious and pretty nest, as do steamed beet greens dressed with a little oil and some pickling brine.
Maria Reidelbach is an author and applied artist who lives in Accord, NY. (firstname.lastname@example.org)