Back-yard chickens inspire new cookbook

2012-05-14 00:00

YEARS ago, Jennifer Trainer Thompson and her family started raising chickens in their back yard in western Massachusetts. A coop and a small flock later, they had more fresh eggs than they needed.

Thompson started inventing ways to feed her family eggs without boring them which led to The Fresh Egg Cookbook, a collection of recipes using back-yard or locally farmed eggs.

Not only does she provide advice for poaching eggs, baking them inside meringue pies and tossing them in salad dressings and smoothies, Thompson also offers personal stories from her own back yard.

Among the cookbook’s photographs and recipes, Thompson describes her nervousness when she picked up two-day-old chicks at her post office, her son’s escapades selling extra eggs to neighbours, and even the quirky personalities of her hens.

She spoke to Reuters about fresh eggs, raising chickens and presenting a dozen brown, blue and green speckled eggs to dinner party hosts instead of a bottle of a wine.

“People just love them,” she said.

Using fresh eggs, you were able to revive some old recipes featuring raw eggs. What’s the appeal?

Raw eggs certainly allow you to resurrect old recipes. For Easter this year, we had real Hollandaise sauce over roasted asparagus. It was delicious. In the sixties’ and seventies’ restaurants tossed up a Caesar salad on the table and threw a raw egg into the dressing. Now, you rarely get anchovies in Caesar dressing, and you certainly don’t get a raw egg. It’s just a different taste entirely.”

 

How can you tell if an egg is really fresh?

There is an old sink-or-swim test, where you drop an egg into salted water. A fresh egg that was laid up to three days ago will sink. Most other eggs will float halfway up the water. I wouldn’t eat raw eggs unless they were laid in your own back yard or you know where they came from. Ask the farmer at the farmers’ market when the eggs were laid.

 

What’s the difference between an egg that comes from a grocery store versus your own back yard or local farm?

Well one thing is the colour. The yoke is affected by what a hen eats. Hens that are fed food scraps and given free range in a pasture have a deeper yellow yoke, almost orange, while commercial eggs have yokes that are lemon yellow. I know of a woman in Louisiana who fed her hens the remains from a crawfish boil, and the yokes turned blood orange. It’s also really hard to peel a fresh egg.

 

What about the colour of the shell?

The shell is entirely dependent on the breed of the chicken. Some lay brown eggs, some white. We also have Araucana hens, which lay beautiful blue and green eggs.

 

What egg recipe do you want everyone to know about?

I think the soufflés. Before I did this book, I was completely intimidated by soufflés. Then I thought, I have to conquer this fear, because I was getting so many eggs everyday from my chickens. I realised how elegant soufflés are. They’re sort of like a stealth missile in the kitchen.

 

It seems raising chickens has become something of a fad over the past few years. What’s the appeal?

People are interested in eating organically and eating locally. I think parents of young children want to teach their kids these lessons early, and chickens are a very easy way to follow the source of food.

 

Do you consider your chickens your pets?

They are low-maintenance pets. They can take you or leave you. The more you play with them when they’re young, though, the more attached they’ll be to you when they’re older. My kids would talk to them and pick them up from the start. By the time the chickens were older, they would come running down the driveway to greet my kids off the school bus. They look like old ladies from the 1800s who lift their skirts when they run.

 

Any tips for someone considering starting a back-yard coop?

My biggest tip would be just to go for it. I was so scared about these fragile two-day-old little things the first time. But there are so many sources for making your own coop online. I would start with two or three hens. They don’t start laying eggs for four or five months, and if you don’t catch them before the really cold weather starts, they won’t lay.

 

INGREDIENTS

Butter

4 egg yokes

1 cup sugar

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

4 egg whites

 

METHOD

1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Butter an 18-centimetre round baking dish.

2. Using an electric mixer, beat the egg yokes until thick and lemon coloured. Gradually add the sugar and continue beating. Add the lemon juice and zest.

3. Beat the egg whites in a clean dry bowl, using an electric mixer, until stiff and glossy, then fold them gently into the yolk mixture. Turn into the prepared backing dish. Set in a roasting pan, carefully pour hot water into the roasting pan to create a water bath, and bake for 35 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Serve immediately. Serves six.

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