Wednesday, June 4, 2008

So Many Eggs

About a month and a half ago, we had some new additions to our mini modern homestead. Four Red Star hens, at the retirement age of just two years. We got them from a small farmer not too far away who needed to reduce her flock size. From talking to other poultry farmers, I knew that the eggs from mature hens would be large - much larger than normal grade AA large eggs from the supermarket. I'd also been told that two-year-old laying hens wouldn't produce as many eggs per week as younger hens. That sounded just fine by me as I like to have an egg for breakfast and I didn't think I'd mind having one slightly larger than usual.

We built a mobile coop for the girls, along with a mobile pen, just 5'x6'. We used a great deal of material pulled from dumpsters at residential building sites, which still exist here in southeastern Pennsylvania. (The housing bust isn't as bad here as many places.) The coop is small but contains a roosting bar and a single nesting box, lined with hay, where the girls can lay their eggs. Each morning I move the pen to a fresh patch of our untreated lawn, refill their feeder and waterer, and then move the coop into place alongside it. I release the coop door with a drawstring and the girls rush out for their breakfast. The pen offers shelter from rain and too much sun, but the partial mesh siding also allows sunlight and cooling breezes.

Having hens has changed our household routine a little. The care of the chickens takes very little of my time. Ten minutes in the morning and just two or three at night when I secure them in the coop against predators. Certainly keeping the hens takes us much less time than walking a dog would. What has changed is that many of our kitchen scraps now go directly to the girls instead of the compost bin. Some things that we wouldn't have composted are happily devoured by the hens, like cheese rinds and fish skins. The hens love many sorts of fresh greens. So I now am in the daily habit of picking dandelion greens for them. They also enjoy another weed, prickly lettuce. And they adore the leafy parts of some parsnips that have gone to seed in my old garden bed. There's also an old and sickly plum tree that is bearing some fruit this year but dropping much of it before it ripens. The girls are happy to peck at this still-green fruit. They even eat some of the grass they are on each day and happily scratch away at the ground, looking for bugs and insect grubs. They're helping to keep the Japanese beetle population in check. I've found that I only need to offer the hens a very small amount of store bought feed. One fifty pound bag ($14) lasted us about 7 weeks.

What I didn't expect was to get SO many eggs. Despite what I was told, my more than two year old hens are producing very nearly one egg per chicken per day. That's four eggs per day at least 6 days a week, and never fewer than three eggs per day. In other words, 28 eggs a week. This led to a minor panic attack on my part. At first I gave eggs away as a goodwill gesture to the neighbors; an attempt to forestall any possible complaints even though we are within the letter of the zoning codes and don't have a rooster. But soon I started casting about for recipes that use up eggs.

We had Monte Cristo sandwiches, which are sort of like French toast, sort of like grilled cheese, and sort of like a deli sandwich. The Monte Cristo typically has cheese, ham and turkey inside, with jam on one piece of bread and mustard on the other. Then it's dunked in beaten egg and cooked in a skillet. Some people dust the cooked sandwich with powdered sugar. These were better than we expected them to be and used egg up nicely.

I tried Asian Tea Eggs, which are hard-cooked eggs simmered again in a mixture of soy sauce, sake, tea leaves, water, and other seasonings. I wasn't crazy enough about the results to eat them eagerly.

Bread pudding has been a hit, with Marie Simmons' recipe from her cookbook, The Good Egg. She makes Strawberry Jam Bread Pudding with Almond Streusel, and it is delicious. I tweaked her version just a bit to work with what we had on hand as well as my own preferences. I made it with a mixed berry jam and cardamom in the streusel instead of her recommended cinnamon. I think it would be great with nearly any jam.

Strata, the savory version of bread pudding, is a great solution to the too many egg "problem" as well. I like strata because it doesn't require a pie crust like quiche does, and I often have heels from loaves of homemade bread lying around. Strata is great too because it's great for using up whatever leftovers you have in the kitchen. Half a can of stewed tomatoes is great, as is any cheese that isn't getting readily used for other purposes. I like to add sauteed onions to my strata, and also toast the bread and then rub it with a clove of garlic for extra flavor.

I don't worry about the dietary dangers of eating so many eggs. Our cholesterol levels are fine and the link between blood cholesterol and dietary cholesterol has largely been debunked anyway. Since our hens eat copious amounts of leafy greens, our eggs would be considered pastured eggs. Nutritional studies have shown that compared with conventionally produced eggs, pastured eggs are lower in total fat and cholesterol, higher in "good" cholesterol, higher in vitamins A, B, D and E, higher in folic acid and higher in omega-3 fatty acids. The yolks of our eggs are a beautiful dark orangish-yellow, indicating that they are packed with beta carotene.

I'm sure we wouldn't be eating so many eggs if we weren't keeping laying hens. But as we have the eggs, it makes sense to use as many as we can and sell a few for ready cash. By and large, the meals we make with eggs are extremely economical. Even if you're not getting "free" eggs, as we are, eggs can form the basis of a great many cheap and meatless meals. I recently heard that some farmers markets in the San Francisco bay area offer premium farm fresh eggs at $6 per dozen. This sounds outrageous on the face of it. Yet if you had two eggs for a breakfast made at home, the cost would only be $1 for the eggs. Throw in a cup of coffee or tea and some buttered toast and your total cost might be as high as $2. A $2 breakfast is a good deal. A serving of strata made with those super expensive eggs and lots of other ingredients might set you back as much as $3 or $4. A dinner costing $3 or $4 is a great deal.

So think about the mighty, humble egg as a cornerstone of your at-home, frugal and healthy meal preparation.

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