When it comes to ingredients I’d find it hard to be without, eggs sit right at the top of the list. They are just so versatile, and I love the way they morph into so many different textures - the light puff of a soufflé, the firm bite of a hardboiled egg, the creaminess of a scramble. My favourite everyday breakfast comes in the form of two boiled eggs (4 minutes plus 30 seconds resting before you whip their heads off) served with buttered toast soldiers, fresh orange juice and a nice cup of tea. If it looks like there is nothing to eat in the house, a frittata is always an easy option. All it takes is eggs and whatever leftovers the fridge offers, or potatoes or even a can of tuna. It’s a useful dish to have up your sleeve.
To produce good eggs you need happy hens - birds that can roam around outside, pecking at grubs, eating greens, with easy access to both shade and water, and with any luck a nice sand bath to play in. I learnt so much about eggs and chickens when I went to visit retired farmer John Davies and his heritage chickens and ducks over in Waimate. I had always thought that pullets were a particular variety of chicken (hey, I did grow up a city girl). In fact the word pullet is used to describe chickens that have come in to lay but are not yet fully mature. Once they reach a year old, pullets become laying hens and start producing bigger eggs (the older a hen is the bigger her eggs tend to be). I was looking for a couple of laying chickens to take home with me and John recommended I go for a heavy breed as big dumpy-shaped hens, like the pretty black and white speckled Plymouth Barred Rock, or the black Orpington, or the gorgeous dark brown Barnevelder tend to be quite docile and easy to handle. I chose two Barnevelders to take home – soft, gentle birds which produce a lovely dark brown egg. Why is it we like brown eggs better than white? There is no reason in terms of taste or quality, but we do! In my experience eggs taste best when they come from a hen that has enjoyed a diet with lots of leafy green vegetables. This makes the yolks a lovely deep orange colour and gives great flavour. Feed chickens on fish meal and you get unpleasantly fishy tasting eggs.
If you want to check your eggs are really fresh, just sit them in a bowl of cold water. When eggs are super fresh, they lie flat on their sides. As they age, air collects in the air sac at the end and they start to sit up in the water. The older the egg, the more air and so the more it will sit upright in the bowl. When it is rotten, an egg will float. While the freshest egg is best for poaching or frying, you want a slightly older egg if you are making meringues or pavlovas, which require a really fluffy, voluminous mass of beaten egg white. In this case go for an egg that’s maybe 7-10 days old. And it should be at room temperature for maximum volume.
When it comes to poaching eggs successfully, there are a few tricks that are useful to know. Firstly, you need really fresh eggs as these have whites which hold firm around the yolk. Some people use a lot of vinegar to ensure the egg white contracts and holds around the yolk. But I find the taste quickly penetrates the white and a teaspoon in the pan is about as far as I like to go without affecting the flavour. I always add a little salt to the pan and have the water deep enough so that the egg is fully covered (about 6-8 cm) and with the temperature at just below boiling. Crack the egg into a cup and swirl the water around the pan before you drop the egg into the centre. The swirl of the water keeps the egg white contained. Once you add the egg, reduce the temperature so it’s just below boiling. If the water boils hard the egg will set very firmly - and you want it tender. It will take 3-4 minutes to cook an egg to the point where the white is set and the yolk still soft - which is exactly how I like my poached eggs.
Fried eggs are another deal. There is always that tricky decision about flipping the egg and risking the yolk breaking. I always fry the egg in a little butter and then once the white is set add a couple of tablespoons of water to the pan, cover it and cook for another 30-60 seconds until the white has just set but the yolk is still lovely and creamy. No flipping needed.
Egg yolks can be kept in the fridge for a couple of days if covered with cold water, and the whites will keep in the fridge with no water just a cover. Unlike yolks, egg whites can be successfully frozen. Thaw at room temperature before using, they will fluff up perfectly.
For a lunch treat in the weekend I like to make us a puffy cheese soufflé, heading out to the garden for some fresh greens to make a crisp salad to serve on the side with a tangy vinaigrette. Soufflés are something that takes a little bit of effort but they are so good and people always feel spoilt when you make them. Here’s the recipe I always use.
One final tip about eggs. When you cook eggs in a pan you often get a bit that will stick on the base. Even if you don’t, you may find that when you come to cook something else, such as pancakes, the stick in the pan. This is because the surface of the pan has been denatured. All you need to do is heat the pan over direct heat with a good handful of salt in the bottom (plain fine salt will do). Let it heat for 2-3 minutes then wipe it out with a dry towel. You will find that, magically, the pan won’t stick anymore!