Monday, February 1, 2010

Chicken or egg? Definintely, egg ...

It seems a bit anticlimactic to start with eggs. But Mary Dunbar’s eggs are anything but mundane. They are velvety, both intense and fluffy at the same time, and the way they pop and crackle in butter when sprinkled with sea salt is the kind of thing worth crawling out from under the duvet for.

Mary Dunbar’s farm is just outside our town. She and her husband were computer programmers, “desk jockeys,” as she says, “totally stressed out.” So they quit and procured 22 rolling Virginia acres, which today are bathed in cold clear sunlight, the winter fields fallow and gold, the distant Blue Ridge glowing smoky purple.

“We wanted to see if we could provide ourselves with food,” she says, in her farmhouse kitchen that might be more at home in France, with hewn cupboards and vaulted ceilings. They did. “Sometimes one has too much. So we started selling it, and discovered that people do want natural things. I don’t want junk in my food, and I don’t think other people want junk in their food either.”

About a year ago, Mary Dunbar ordered 12 fuzzy chicks, which arrived in a box in the mail. They were Welsummers, a Dutch breed, with their sepia necks and forest green plumage, and Gold Sex Links, a cross of white Rhode Island Red and red Rhode Island Red chickens which has a chest of mottled ivory. Then, a friend gifted her some eggs, hatching a breed called Ameraucana, which lay beautiful pale green eggs the shade of sea foam. (Did you know there is actually a Leghorn breed, which looks just like its comic version? I did not.) Today she has about 50 chickens, spread between three penned hen houses. One pen holds the youngsters, still a few months from laying. Another pen holds the laying hens, and another the roosters. This is the noisiest pen; they crow constantly when we’re near, pleading for a snack. Francois, the lone Marans, a French breed, with his aristocratic dappled grey feathers, is so charming he comes to the edge of the fence to get his picture taken.

In winter, the pens surround the houses and Mary Dunbar feeds her chickens lettuce, greens, and slightly spoiled produce, such as tomatoes just gone soft. In summer, she enlarges the pens to take in more pasture, and totes them over to the vegetable garden and compost bed, so the birds can pick out all the nutrition in the soil.

“Weeding for me, is basically what they are doing,” says Mary. They are also getting the goods to lay eggs so rich and creamy that the yolks are shocking yellow, the color of ballpark mustard. The shells are speckled hues of chocolate and caramel and pale green, so hard one must rap them good to crack. The white and the yolk pool out and stand perkily, bubbling and growing as they cook in brown butter.

Eggs from hens raised picking pasture don’t just look and taste better – a recent study shows they are nutritionally superior as well. Among the perks: Four times the vitamin D, one-third less cholesterol, one-quarter less saturated fat, two-thirds more vitamin A, twice the omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E and seven times more beta carotene than eggs from chickens raised in cages. (Ok, I know I promised we’d wait for the health benefit plug. I couldn’t help it – that is just too much good news.)

But let’s get to the important part, the eating of the egg. And for that I have to credit Sophie Dahl.

Let’s be clear: I am a recent convert to runny egg yolks, or any yolk at all, for that matter. When I was little, I had two unfortunate incidents with egg yolks, the first being after downing a box of my ailing Grandmother’s chocolate ExLax. When my mother discovered the source of my sticky five-year-old fingers, she and my aunts force-fed me a glass of yolks, Rocky-style, so I’d give up the ExLax, so to speak. Shortly after, my cousins (I the youngest of 6 at the time) and I decided to test a Seventeen magazine recipe for shiny hair. This entailed slathering mayonnaise in my hair, wrapping my head in aluminum foil and baking it under Grandmother’s bonnet hairdryer. I smelled like egg for days. I cannot recall whether my hair was shiny, but I am not repeating the experiment.

So (in my mind understandably), up until a few months ago, I hadn’t willingly eaten an egg yolk (unless my mom’s friend Elaine had deviled the delilah out of it) for more years than I am willing to commit to paper. Until Sophie Dahl.

I love Roald Dahl. His imaginative children’s books and clever, dark short stories, his writerly life, a cerebral existence in patched woolen sweaters in a fairy tale thatched countryside cottage (ok, that last is just my imagination, though it could be true). He came to my middle school in London when I was just on fire for books, and I have his autograph framed; it’s on yellowing, lined school note paper, complete with small, oily thumb stain. (I was not eating Cheetos. Cadbury, maybe.)

So when I saw his granddaughter Sophie’s cookbook, Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights, at a London bookseller, I bought it immediately. Now, this book has plenty else to recommend it. It has thick substantive paper, as if to announce that its contents are tremendously worthy. It has luscious photos of food that make you want to try everything in there, and of Sophie herself looking so happy I wished I were a hip, blond London insider. It has, woven in, Sophie’s delightfully penned journey with food, which is an amazing one, especially considering she was a model, and a hip It-Brit party girl.

With the exception of my husband, I am not sure I have ever made a better choice. I love this book. Sophie Dahl’s philosophy is dead on. Eat real food. Prepare it simply. That yummy, delectable food that is good for you is not an oxymoron. Heard that before?

Swiss Chard with Eggs, adapted from Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights

Sophie’s version makes do with far less than we like – I use a whole head of chard and an entire onion, and give each person two eggs not one. She also sprinkles over goat cheese at the end, which I am always way too excited to remember. But the end result is, as she promises, “a miniature cosy meal .. nutty, more-ish and oh so good for you.”

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 red onion, diced small
1 head of swiss chard, large ribs removed, cut into 3/4” strips
Coarse sea salt
4 eggs, preferably from pastured hens

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat olive oil in medium size skillet over medium heat. Add onion. As it begins to wilt, add sea salt and stir until translucent, about 5 minutes until golden, but not brown. Add chard, stir in until just wilted.

Divide between two small (4-6”) ramekins, or layer in one shallow baking dish. Crack two eggs per dish (or all four if you are baking together), taking care to keep the yolk whole. I sprinkle over another pinch of sea salt; skip it if you feel it’s excessive.

Bake at 350 degrees until the white is opague and the yolk is to your liking. (I like it to run when stabbed, leaking its golden juice over the nutty chard, and this usually takes 15 minutes or so baking in our oven, which is none too reliable). This is a dish that needs watching, or the eggs can overcook in a flash, which is just fine if you like firm yolks. I have been known to fish them out and start over, however, if mine aren’t perfection.

Move over, Rocky.


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