With the advent of spring it seemed fitting to highlight the humble egg. For thousands of years, the egg has been a symbol of new life, rebirth, fertility and resurrection. As such, eggs are the perfect food to usher in the spring season. For years, I have celebrated the winter thaw on a warm spring day by making a batch of egg salad dotted with bits of fresh tarragon. It is a little ritual that makes me feel a sense of hope and excitement for new beginnings.
Another reason to write about eggs is that they have long been misunderstood and deserve to be exonerated. For more than a decade they have been maligned due to a supposed link between dietary cholesterol and heart disease. But research has been strongly questioning this simple link. Recently, government guidelines have lifted previous limitations on dietary cholesterol consumption, and eggs are once again elevated to a neutral, if not health food, with good reason. Eggs are full of choline and selenium, important nutrients that most Americans are deficient in. They are an inexpensive complete protein and a good source of vitamin D and B12. They are also full of important nutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin that help fight disease.
What is still most confusing about eggs is their labeling in the marketplace. Terms such as free-range, cage-free, natural, pastured, organic, certified humane, no hormones, and no antibiotics have most consumers either confused or misguided about what they are really buying. For example, cage-free simply means that hens are housed in a large enclosure rather than being kept in small cages. It does not mean that they get access to the outdoors or forage for natural feed.
To add to the confusion, farmers are prohibited by the USDA from giving hormones to laying hens. The USDA also strictly limits antibiotic use in laying hens, but most consumers don’t know this. Thus, labels advertising antibiotic or hormone-free eggs are simply a clever design to make consumers erroneously believe that one producer’s eggs are healthier than another’s.
So what is a consumer to buy? By regulation, eggs labeled organic come from hens that are cage-free, able to move around their enclosure freely, and have some, albeit usually very limited, access to the outdoors. Feed must be USDA organic, which means the majority of its ingredients are free from non-organic pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
But with hens having little access to the outdoors, eggs labeled organic still have their problems. The gold standard would be eggs laid from truly pastured hens supplemented with organic feed (most, if not all pastured hens are given at least some supplemental feed). However, the term pasture-raised is not regulated by the USDA, so it is a fairly useless term in the marketplace and can be very misleading.
Thus, the only way to really know what you are getting with eggs is to know the source. Local farms that truly pasture their hens and offer supplemental organic feed will offer the healthiest, most humanely raised eggs. To find farms in your area, consult www. localharvest.org or www.eatwild.com. Then speak with the farmer directly and ask about pasturing methods and supplemental feed.
Eggs are one of those incredible food items that have thousands of culinary uses, which make them hard to discuss in a small food article. So rather than touch on all the possible uses of the utilitarian egg, I thought I would highlight some of my new favorite ways to enjoy them.
We are all familiar with fried or poached eggs, yet we tend to use them in very narrow ways like served on a plate with a bit of toast for dipping. Yet in the culinary world of late, fried or poached eggs have been showing up in the most unexpected and delicious places, such as on salads, in grain bowls, or even on pizza. One of my favorite ways to eat eggs is atop Socca, a traditional Provencal flatbread that is made with chickpea flour. Socca is a delightfully healthful, gluten-free alternative to flatbread and can be almost pizza-like, depending upon how it is made. This version is fantastic for breakfast, or even for lunch.
- 1 cup chickpea flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1/2 cup partially cooked crumbled organic nitrate free bacon or Spanish chorizo
- 1/4 cup chopped sundried tomatoes packed in olive oil, drained
- 4 large eggs, preferably pastured and organic
- about 2 cups fresh arugula
- Place a 12-inch cast iron skillet in a preheated 450℉ oven and preheat for 30 minutes. Alternatively, use a rimmed baking sheet and preheat for 15 minutes.
- While pan is preheating, whisk chickpea flour, salt, pepper, cumin and water until smooth. Set aside while pan is heating. Batter will be thin but will thicken slightly as it sits.
- Once pan is preheated, carefully remove it from the oven and swirl in a tablespoon of olive oil. Pour Socca batter in pan and swirl to distribute it evenly (if using a baking sheet, try to confine the batter to a 12-inch space using an offset spatula). Sprinkle batter evenly with bacon or chorizo and sundried tomatoes. Place in oven and bake for 16-20 minutes or until browned on the edges.
- Remove from the oven. Place top oven rack 6 inches from heating element and set oven to broil. Using a pastry brush, dab 1 tablespoon olive oil evenly atop Socca. Carefully crack eggs and place gently on the Socca, being careful not to break the yolks or overlap the eggs.
- Place pan back in the oven and bake for 4-6 minutes or until egg whites are set. Remove from the oven and run a knife around the edge of the Socca to release it from the pan. Cut into 4-6 pieces, and using a spatula as an aid to release the bottom of the Socca, remove each piece to a plate. Top with fresh arugula and serve.
Julie Wern is a psychologist turned stay-at-home-mom turned health coach and cooking instructor. She is a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and the author of Holcomb Farm CSA’s Simply Fresh blog (http://holcombfarm.org/blog), as well as her new food and lifestyle blog, The Wholesome Gourmande (http://www.thewholesomegourmande.com). It is Julie’s passion to help individuals find their unique path to health without sacrificing joy and pleasure in food. You can find Julie at: http://www.thewholesomegourmande.com or: firstname.lastname@example.org for comments and inquiries.