by Mary Jane Butters

"I had an excellent repast--the best repast possible--which consisted simply of boiled eggs and bread and butter. It was the quality of these simple ingredients that made the occasion memorable. The eggs were so good that I am ashamed to say how many of them I consumed... it might seem that an egg which has succeeded in being fresh has done all that can be reasonably expected of it." -- Henry James

Healthy eggs come from healthy chickens. Fresh eggs are the healthiest depending on how the eggs are processed and handled after they are gathered from the nest. To find out how fresh your eggs are, submerge them in a bowl of cool water. The freshest ones are the eggs that sink and lie flat on their sides. By the time an egg is a week old, the air pocket inside, near the big end, has expanded so that the big end tilts up after the egg is submerged. This means the yolk and the white inside have begun to separate. These eggs are easiest to peel when hard-cooked. Really fresh eggs will not peel easily when hard-boiled (which is nothing to complain about). Once an egg is two weeks old, the egg's air pocket has expanded around the entire inside of the egg and the big end of the egg will point straight up when the egg is put in water. If an egg floats, throw it away; this usually means they are 3-4 weeks old.

There seem to be as many factors influencing egg quality and nutrition as there are types of chickens. For instance, a freshly laid egg that sits at a temperature of 75 degrees F for one day loses almost 50% of its nutritional value, even though it can still appear "fresh" when broken open. One way of maintaining and slowing nutrition loss in eggs is to collect them every two hours and immediately cool them down to 40 degrees F, with a humidity range between 30-50%. The best cooling is in older refrigerators that are not frost-free, because frost-free refrigeration blows forced air over the eggs and increases moisture loss. Eggs should be stored with the small end down so that the yolk is completely submerged in the egg white, which contains antibacterial properties.

Eggs should never be washed before they are stored. The water washes off a natural coating that keeps harmful microorganisms out. Before they are handled in the kitchen, however, they should be thoroughly washed. If you separate fresh eggs by hand, wash your hands before touching other food, dishes, or cooking utensils. Never stir cooked eggs (i.e., scrambled eggs) with the same fork used to blend them.

Modern factory egg farms make it difficult to ensure the quality of eggs. Since quality starts on the farm, it's best to know where your eggs started off. Ask your local Chamber of Commerce if they know of any farmers in your region selling fresh eggs. If you can't locate any, consider a small backyard coop of your own. Most municipalities have few sanctions against the keeping of a few chickens or other birds within city limits (as long as there are no roosters). The techniques and equipment used in a city chicken coop can provide eggs without offending your neighbor and the early morning cackling of hens on their nests -- along with a breakfast of eggs -- can be a pleasant way to start your day.

For sure, the prettiest eggs of all are baked (shirred) in their own individual cups. They cook slowly and evenly in just 20-25 minutes. The traditional cookware for shirred eggs is a small gratin or ramekin dish, but wide-mouth half-pint canning jars work just fine. You can even substitute oven-safe coffee cups -- which, when served on their saucers for easy handling, make a great presentation.

Shirred Eggs Florentine

Prep: 5 minutes/Cook: 20-25 minutes/Serves: 4

4 wide-mouth half-pint canning jars

1 glass baking dish

4 teaspoons melted butter

1 quarter-pound fresh spinach

4 tablespoons heavy cream

4 eggs

4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

salt, pepper, nutmeg

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

To the bottom of each jar, add one teaspoon melted butter and 8 small spinach leaves.

Make a slight indentation in the spinach and crack one egg into each jar. Sprinkle with one tablespoon Parmesan cheese.

Pour on top of each egg one tablespoon of heavy cream. Season with salt and pepper, adding a pinch of nutmeg if desired.

Place all four jars in glass baking dish. Pour 1 cup water into baking dish surrounding jars.

Place baking dish on middle rack in preheated oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until eggs are set.

If I didn't start painting, I would have raised chickens. -- Grandma Moses 1860-1961, American Artist

Friends of Manito Art Festival @ Manito Park

Sat., July 31, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
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