Organic eggs cost a lot to produce well

Even if free range organic eggs cost €12 a dozen they would still be cheap at the price. After all, two boiled eggs and soldiers for supper leaves one fully satisfied. Incredible value for 50-70p and would still be worth every penny if they were to cost €2.

Real free range organic eggs cost a lot to produce well, hens need grass and lots of it. If they are organic they must have a special feed which does not contain any animal materials or animal fats, any products derived from genetically modified organisms, or any raw materials produced by chemical processes, and it costs about 60 % more than conventional feed.

There is a growing demand for eggs of this quality. People flock into farmers markets searching for free range eggs from happy lazy hens – for many, a forgotten flavour.

The reality is that under Irish law, local farm eggs cannot be legally sold in local shops unless the producer is registered with the Department for Agriculture and Food and registration is based on compliance with certain EU legislation. The cost of compliance with the regulations makes it totally uneconomic and impractical for a small producer to be registered.

Those brave or foolhardy (depending on how you look on it), shopkeepers who dare to stock these eggs for their special customers, have to hide them underneath the counter, or risk having them broken into a bucket or plastic bag by a Department of Agriculture Inspector.

This scenario has been played out in many shops during the past few months, not only with fresh farm eggs, but also eggs that were less than one week from their ‘use by’ date.

Many consumers and shopkeepers angered by what they perceive to be extraordinarily extreme action have asked if this regulation has more to do with protectionism rather than food safety? ( After all they are only eggs, not dynamite!)

Surely as consumers we should have the right to choose and more and more people are voting with their feet. Despite threats of Avian flu, the fastest growing hobby in the UK is keeping a few chickens in your garden. Over here the numbers of people of all ages keeping a few hens is also skyrocketing. In our area alone I can count 8 or 10 people keeping a few hens – anything from two in the cute little eglu chicken house (have a look at www.omlet.co.uk ) to 6-10. Just enough to supply the eggs for an average household. 

It’s a simple holistic system, the food scraps from the house go to the hens and come back as eggs a few days later. The chicken manure goes onto the compost and is eventually returned to the soil to make it more fertile for vegetable growing.

The first course I did at the school called ‘How to Keep a few Chickens in the Garden’, was totally over subscribed. It is part of a growing interest in ‘forgotten skills’, a small but significant number of people want to produce their own food, eggs, chickens, bacon, yogurt, simple cheese. Several courses are available – Among their huge range of courses, The Organic Centre in Rossinver, Co Leitrim runs a ‘Poultry for the Home’ course in June, Sarah Raven’s Cutting Garden at Perch Hill Farm in East Sussex has ‘Keeping Chickens’ with Matthew Rice in March and we will be running our own course here at the Cookery School on 11th March.

The thrill of collecting an egg directly from the nest is something that delights everyone from tiny tots to aged grans and grandas. When you start off with a real free range egg it is a whole other thing.

Plump poached eggs are a cinch – no special equipment is needed, just a fresh egg.

Homemade mayonnaise emulsifies in seconds, classic Hollandaise or Bearnaise are whipped up in minutes.

An omelette is a thing of beauty – the texture and flavour a revelation. So this week I concentrate on simple recipes where the humble egg stars and delights.

Foolproof Food

Perfect Poached Eggs on Toast

No fancy egg poachers or moulds are needed to produce a perfect result - simply a really fresh egg laid by a happy lazy hen.
Serves 1

2 eggs, free-range if possible 
toast, freshly made from a slice of pan loaf

Bring a small saucepan of water to the boil, reduce the heat, swirl the water, crack the egg and slip gently into the whirlpool in the centre. For perfection the water should not boil again but bubble very gently just below boiling point. Continue to cook for 3-4 minutes until the white is set and the yolk still soft and runny.

Meanwhile make a slice of toast, cut off the crusts, butter and pop onto a hot plate. Drain the poached egg or eggs and place on top. Serve immediately.

Note: Poached eggs are also delicious served on a bed of creamy spinach nicely flavoured with nutmeg, or on top of Piperonata.

A Great Kedgeree

Kedgeree immediately conjures up images of country house breakfasts which were often a veritable feast. It would usually have been served on a silver dish on the polished sideboard, so that guests could help themselves. Easy peasy to make and delicious for brunch.
Serves 6-8

450g (1lb) wild salmon, freshly cooked, or
225g (8oz) salmon and 225g (8oz) cooked smoked haddock or smoked mackerel
225g (8oz) white long grain basmati rice
3 hardboiled eggs, free-range and organic if possible
225ml (8fl oz) cream
40g (1 1/2oz) butter
1/2 teaspoon chilli flakes or a good pinch of cayenne 
3 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped chives
Salt and freshly ground pepper 

Poach the piece of salmon in a small saucepan just large enough to fit it, cover with boiling salted water (use a dessertspoon of salt to every 600ml (1 pint) water*). Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for just 20 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover and leave to sit for a few minutes before removing from the water, cool. 

Meanwhile, cook the rice in boiling salted water, 8-10 minutes approx. Hard boil the eggs, also in boiling salted water for 10 minutes. Drain off the water and run under a cold tap to cool and stop the cooking. Peel and chop roughly.

Remove the skin and bones from the fish and flake into small pieces. 

Heat the cream and butter in a saucepan with the chilli flakes, a good pinch of cayenne if using and the chopped parsley and chives. As soon as it bubbles, add the cooked rice, flaked fish and the hardboiled egg. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper. Mix very gently. Taste and correct seasoning if necessary. Pile into a hot dish and serve with freshly baked bread or with hot buttered toast.

*Note: if using fillet use 1 teaspoon of salt to 1 pint of water and cook for just 8 – 10 minutes.

A foolproof omelette

French Omelette
An omelette is the ultimate instant food but many a travesty is served in its name. The whole secret is to have the pan hot enough and to use clarified butter if at all possible. Ordinary butter will burn if your pan is as hot as it ought to be. The omelette should be made in half the time it takes to read this recipe, your first, may not be a joy to behold but persevere, practice makes perfect. The best tender golden omelettes take no more than 30 seconds to cook - 45 seconds if you are adding a filling - time yourself, you'd be amazed.
Serves 1

2 eggs, preferably free range organic
1 dessertspoon water or milk
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 dessertspoon clarified butter or olive oil
filling of your choice
omelette pan, preferably non stick, 23cm (9 inch) diameter 

Warm a plate in the oven. Whisk the eggs with the water or milk in a bowl with a fork or whisk, until thoroughly mixed but not too fluffy. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Put the warm plate beside the cooker. Heat the filling also to hand, hot if necessary with a spoon at the ready. 

Heat the omelette pan over a high heat - add the clarified butter it should sizzle immediately. Pour in the egg mixture. It will start to cook instantly so quickly pull the edges of the omelette towards the centre with a metal spoon or spatula, tilting the pan so that the uncooked egg runs to the sides 4 maybe 5 times. Continue until most of the egg is set and will not run any more, the centre will still be soft and uncooked at this point but will continue to cook on the plate. If you are using a filling, spoon the hot mixture in a line across the centre at this point.

To fold the omelette: Flip the edge just below the handle of the 

pan into the centre, then hold the pan almost perpendicular over the plate so that the omelette will flip over again, then half roll half slide the omelette onto the plate so that it lands folded in three. (It should not take more than 30 seconds in all to make the omelette, perhaps 45 if you are adding a filling).

Serve immediately.

Suggested Fillings

Tomato fondue with or without Pesto 

Piperonata 

Mushroom a la crème 

Crispy bacon, diced cooked ham or chorizo sausage

Goats cheese, grated Cheddar, Gruyere, Parmesan or a mixture.

Fines herbs: add 1 teaspoon each of freshly chopped parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon to the eggs just before cooking or scatter over the omelette just before folding.

Smoked salmon or smoked mackerel: add about 1 oz (30g) and perhaps a little finely chopped parsley or dill. 

Kidney: cook one cleaned and diced lamb's kidney gently in a little butter, add 1 teaspoon of freshly chopped parsley and keep warm.

How to clarify butter

Clarified butter is excellent for cooking because it can withstand a higher temperature when the salt and milk particles are removed. It will keep covered in a refrigerator for several weeks.

Melt 225g (8oz) butter gently in a saucepan or in the oven. Allow it to stand for a few minutes, then spoon the crusty white layer of salt particles off the top of the melted butter. Underneath this crust there is clear liquid butter which is called clarified butter. The milky liquid at the bottom can be discarded or used in a white sauce. Cover and store.

Pan – Grilled Steak with Béarnaise Sauce

Of all the sauces to serve with steak, Béarnaise is my absolute favourite. We find a heavy-ridged cast-iron grill pan the best to cook the steaks when you don’t need to make a sauce in the pan.
Serves 6

6 x 6 oz (170 g) sirloin or fillet steaks
1 clove of garlic
A little olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Béarnaise Sauce (see recipe)
Garnish
Fresh watercress (optional)

Prepare the steaks about 1 hour before cooking. Cut a clove of garlic in half; rub both sides of each steak with the cut clove of garlic, grind some black pepper over the steaks and sprinkle on a few drops of olive oil. Turn the steaks in the oil and leave aside. If using sirloin steaks, score the fat at 1 inch (2.5 cm) intervals. Make the Béarnaise Sauce and keep warm. Heat the grill pan, season the steaks with a little salt and put them down onto the hot pan.

The approximate cooking times for each side of the steaks are:

Sirloin Fillet

rare 2 minutes 5 minutes
medium rare 3 minutes 6 minutes
medium 4 minutes 7 minutes
well done 5 minutes 8-9 minutes

Turn a sirloin steak over onto the fat and cook for 1-2 minutes or until the fat becomes dry. Put the steaks onto a plate and leave them rest for a few minutes in a warm place.

To Serve: Put the steaks on hot plates. Serve the Béarnaise Sauce over one end of the steak or in a little bowl on the side of the plate. Garnish with Pommes Allumettes and fresh watercress.

Bearnaise Sauce

4 tablespoons tarragon vinegar
4 tablespoons dry white wine 
2 teaspoons finely chopped shallots 
A pinch of freshly ground pepper 
1 tablespoonfreshly chopped French tarragon leaves
2 egg yolks (preferably free-range) 
115-175g (4-6 oz) butter approx., salted or unsalted depending on what it is being served with.
If you do not have tarragon vinegar to hand, use a wine vinegar and add some extra chopped tarragon. 

Boil the first four ingredients together in a low heavy bottomed stainless steel saucepan until completely reduced and the pan is almost dry but not browned. Add 1 tablespoon of cold water immediately. Pull the pan off the heat and allow to cool for 1 or 2 minutes.

Whisk in the egg yolks and add the butter bit by bit over a very low heat, whisking all the time. As soon as one piece melts, add the next piece; it will gradually thicken. If it shows signs of becoming too thick or slightly scrambling, remove from the heat immediately and add a little cold water. Do not leave the pan or stop whisking until the sauce is made. Finally add 1 tablespoon of freshly chopped French tarragon and taste for seasoning. 

If the sauce is slow to thicken it may be because you are excessively cautious and the heat is too low. Increase the heat slightly and continue to whisk until the sauce thickens to a coating consistency. It is important to remember, however, that if you are making Bearnaise Sauce in a saucepan directly over the heat, it should be possible to put your hand on the side of the saucepan at any stage. If the saucepan feels too hot for your hand it is also too hot for the sauce!

Another good tip if you are making Bearnaise Sauce for the first time is to keep a bowl of cold water close by so that you can plunge the bottom of the saucepan into it if it becomes too hot. 

Keep the sauce warm in a pyrex bowl over hot but not simmering water or in a Thermos flask until you want to serve it. 

Hot Tips

Courses 
www.organiccentre@eircom.net  Tel 071-98 54338 email:organiccentre@eircom.net 
Sarah Raven’s Cutting Garden – www.thecuttinggarden.com  Tel 0845 050 4849 tam.lawson@thecuttinggarden.com  
www.cookingisfun.ie  Ballymaloe Cookery School info@cookingisfun.ie  Tel 021-4646785

Reference Books
Small Scale Poultry Keeping – a guide to Free-Range Poultry Production - by Ray Feltwell , Faber & Faber
Keeping Pet Chickens - bring your garden to life and enjoy the bounty of fresh eggs from your own small flock of happy hens – by Johannes Paul and William Windham,

Interpet Publishing
Chickens at Home – by Michael Roberts – in the Gold Cockerel series published by Domestic Fowl Research UK
Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance – reflections on keeping chickens – by Martin Gurdon – New Holland

Cookbooks
Eggs by Michel Roux – Quadrille Publishing 2005
Irish Egg Cookbook by Nuala Cullen – Gill & Macmillan 2005
Get Cracking by Alex Barker – Southwater (Anness Publishing) 2001