Land Yardavore

The Yardavore

Jul 10, 2017 CWN

Backyard Eggs

by Maria Reidelbach

    One of the many delights of living in the Hudson Valley is the abundance of backyard egg stands. Just about every two-lane road has a small, hand-lettered sign every couple of miles.

    I love these little stands because they combine two of my favorite things: fresh, free-range eggs and small, local business—tiny, hyper-local business, usually. It’s so easy to take both of these fine things for granted that it’s worth spending a little time extolling their virtues.

    First, fresh eggs—one of the most delicious things known to man, contained in an elegantly shaped package that is also incredibly durable. Spheres are inherently strong and eggs have one pointed end to keep them from rolling away—an egg will naturally roll in a circle, eventually coming back to its nest. Eggs come in lovely colors from dark brown to tan, pinkish, aqua and even pale green. This pretty package can also be used as a cooking vessel, or can be easily cracked to prepare the egg another way. The empty shell is not merely biodegradable, it actually adds calcium to compost.

    The egg inside is a marvelous substance—actually two, the white and the yolk, incredibly versatile, both separately and together. Whole eggs are great boiled in the shell, poached, fried or even baked. Stirred with a fork or whisk, they become omelets and frittatas. Add some liquid and other flavorful ingredients and you’ve got sweet or savory custards. Whisk eggs into soups or sauces to thicken and enrich them. The whites have the miraculous ability to be whipped into a foam so stable that it can suspend other yummy ingredients to make airy souffles, spoon breads, meringues, macaroons and the cake known as angel food. If a food this magical was rare, it would surely be among the costliest of treats.

    And yet that’s just the beginning of the egg’s virtues. Eggs do all these things while tasting wonderfully rich and umami (a particularly special form of savory), and while being a nutritional powerhouse, full of proteins, mostly unsaturated fats, plentiful minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.

    Eggs that are laid by outdoor chickens are the best of the best. Cooped-up chickens from industrial farms are fed a processed diet of soy and fish meal so awful that it often has added artificial flavors to entice the hens to swallow it. Outdoor poultry, by contrast, eat lots of fresh green plants, bugs and seeds, which enrich the flavor, color, and nutrients of their eggs. Lots of supermarket eggs claim to be free range, but when you get chickens from a backyard grower, you know that those birds live an outdoor life—usually because you can actually see them running around.

    I admire folks that keep chickens—it’s not easy. Backyard farmer Lisa Jessup kept a small flock of guinea hens at her Wappinger Falls home and had constant problems with them taking off to hang out at the biker bar down the block. Later some of the birds got an ugly parasite (not from the bikers) and needed to be tended. Then there’s the problem of predation by skunks, fox, weasels, raccoons and more—everybody loves chicken!

    So rather than have chickens myself, I’m happy buying from other folks who are keeping a flock happy and healthy. It’s entirely legal for them to sell eggs, and also very safe. It turns out that it doesn’t really matter if eggs have been washed or not—or rather it’s six of one, half-a-dozen of the other. Newly laid eggs have a thin, anti-bacterial protective coating. If this is intact, eggs will stay fresh, unrefrigerated, for a week or so. The USDA requires industrial egg producers to wash eggs, after which they must be immediately refrigerated. Most European countries forbid washing eggs and don’t refrigerate. Mom-and-pop egg stands might wash or not, so if you’re concerned about cross contamination from surface bacteria, just wash the eggs before you crack them.

    Don’t be intimidated by an egg stand’s lack of artifice. They generally consist of just a sign, a cooler, and a money box. Fancy ones have an umbrella. Just pull up, get your eggs from the cooler, and leave payment, making change if necessary. Prices at stands range from $3 to $6; Jill Eisner Weiss, a fan of backyard eggs, points out, “If you do the math, even at $6 a dozen, they are a good value. An omelet can be made for under $3 including butter, herbs, cheese, and some veggies and meat. Breakfast, lunch or dinner.” It’s nice to return your empty egg cartons rather than throwing them out. Author Nina Shengold reports that in her neck of the woods, “if you buy the last dozen eggs, you carry the cooler over to the side of the driveway to stave off disappointment” of later shoppers.

    One of my favorite stands, in Accord, is stocked by Nadia Silva. Her flock, now numbering a several dozen mixed fowl, and two cocky roosters, didn’t increase intentionally. “Most chicks, ducklings and goslings are sold by the half dozen,” she said, only a little ruefully. Like many backyard growers, Nadia sells her eggs from a cooler with an honor box. She said they’ve never been ripped off, except by one family who “made up their own price.” She has mostly repeat buyers, and some have left her thankful notes. She keeps her flock not to make money but because “if you don’t gather eggs, they hatch!” and she hasn’t the heart to kill the birds that lay the beautiful eggs.

Super-fluffy Olive Oil Scrambled Eggs

    Here’s an adaptation from Milk Street magazine of a fantastic, quick and unfussy way to make spectacular scrambled eggs. (177milkstreet.com has a detailed, video-annotated version.)

Makes 4 servings

8 eggs

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper

(for a single serving use 2 teaspoons olive oil, 2 eggs, and a smaller skillet)

    Heat a 12” nonstick or well-seasoned skillet over medium-high heat while you whisk the eggs and ¾ tsp. kosher salt in a bowl. When the skillet is good and hot (which will take several minutes) add the oil and watch for it to begin to smoke. Swirl the pan to spread the oil, then pour the eggs into the skillet. The outer edges will balloon up—immediately use a heat-proof spatula to push them toward the center of the skillet. Continue to push and fold for just a minute and your eggs will be done. Roll them out onto warmed plates. I like to add a hearty sprinkle of mixed minced herbs for added flavor and nutrition.

    Heads up! Shawn Burnette, the hyper-local chef I wrote about last winter is now cooking up farm-to-table cuisine at Heritage Restaurant in Wappingers Falls (heritagefooddrink.com).

    Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and local food activist who lives, works and eats in Accord, NY. (maria@stick2local.com)