Chef Paul C. Reilly is the co-owner of Beast + Bottle and Coperta as well as a member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition's leadership group. In the Westword Food & Drink section, Reilly shares his thoughts regularly on the restaurant industry and looks into local, seasonal ingredients to enhance your home cooking with tips and recipes.
We often think of eggs as a ubiquitous ingredient — as commonplace as flour, butter and bread in our home kitchens. As avid home cooks, we're used to having them at our constant beck and call for all our baking needs and runny egg-yolk desires. In actuality, just like all agricultural products, eggs have a season, and it happens to be right now, as the days grow longer immediately following the vernal equinox.
Aaron Rice of Jodar Farms is gearing up for this egg season on his land outside Fort Collins. As the daylight increases in the first part of February, Jodar hens know that it's their time to shine. Rice begins to collect more and more eggs from his ladies, who are laying more and more eggs every day as the spring moves toward June.
Rice tells me that this expansion in egg production has more to do with more hours of sunlight, and not with the warmer temperatures. Jodar Farms has just under 3,000 hens comprising nearly a dozen different breeds: Rhode Island reds, buff Orpingtons, leghorns, and barred rocks, just to name a few. He describes egg season as “a nerve-racking time of year." While he is collecting scores of eggs, the sales don’t necessarily match supply.
Every April, restaurant kitchens get accustomed to a quick text from Rice asking if they’re are ready to purchase a few cases. This ramp-up in production is how Jodar Farms dictates the beginning of its meat CSA (community supported agriculture) season, now also expanding to a Denver pick-up for the 2021 season. On the farm, there is a huge drop in egg production around December before the season. But as farmers' markets begin to kick off come spring, the hens really begin to start laying, and the CSA initiates. Come July and August, Jodar's eggs become a little more scarce as production slows down in the warmer summer temperatures.
Jodar Farms, of course, does things a little differently than the gigantic commodity egg farms that supply supermarkets. Most of the large-scale egg producers keep the hens laying with confinement barns. Jodar, though, lets the birds do what they do best — which is to scrounge for grubs in the grass and lay at their own pace. Rice and his team do not push production, as his girls can already lay about 1,450 dozen per week with no agitation. Large-scale egg farms usually only let hens lay no more than one or two years; Jodar's chickens continue for closer to three years before being processed for meat, which Rice says makes a big difference in the hens’ quality of life.
Long before these huge, industrial egg farms existed, American egg farmers found ways to deal with this seasonal increase in egg production. Legend has it that this expansion has a lot to do with the egg as a symbol of the Christian Easter season and the annual coloring of chicken eggs for Easter. With more than ten years of farming experience, Rice thinks it's no coincidence that this swell in eggs coincides with the spring holiday. For decades, farmers have found themselves with more eggs than they know what to do with at this time of year. This overabundance leads to a need for preservation, which leads to hard boiling eggs and coloring them (and hiding them for the kids). As an abundant symbol of Easter, "why else would the egg make sense?” Rice asks.
And records show that in the 1950s and ’60s, American egg farmers were forced to stockpile eggs in the spring, leading to a surplus of chicken eggs. Mass advertising for coloring Easter eggs was a major way they began to deplete their inventories. At the time, the eggs would often sit in cold storage for sixty to 120 days before they were all sold. Nowadays, Americans purchase nearly one billion eggs the week before Easter, and commodity farms boost their inventories for white eggs (the best kind for dying). These eggs are fresher than in previous times, with the USDA often able to grade them the same day they are laid. At Jodar, freshly laid eggs are the standard. Rice recommends storing the farm's unwashed eggs on the counter in a cool, dry area away from heat sources. If you decide to wash them in advance (you should always wash them just before use), storing them in the refrigerator is best. But whichever storage method you choose, Jodar eggs stay fresh for four or five weeks.
A conversation with Rice to discuss egg season reveals his gratitude that the farm's hard work is getting recognition. “Eggs flex with the season,” he tells me. “While we do get them year-round, they dip in the winter. There’s another thing to keep in mind in regards to supporting local food. Seeing eggs year-round is basically the same as seeing tomatoes."
I agree with Rice: While you may be able to get both products all year, a tomato in January is not nearly the taste sensation it is in August. This same goes for local eggs, and the best time to enjoy them at their peak is right now. Cooking a great egg seems intuitive, but getting it just right isn't easy. Here's a foolproof way to make a hard-boiled egg that's just right for using in deviled eggs, salads, sandwiches — or just eating with a little sea salt.
Perfect Hard Boiled Eggs
I don’t really love to eat hard-boiled eggs, but I insist on them being cooked perfectly at my restaurants. This method yields a firm white with a yolk that is just cooked through. There should be no green discoloring between the white and yolk.
1 quart water
1 tablespoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons vinegar (any vinegar except balsamic or sherry will do)
Add all the ingredients to a pot and bring the water to a boil. Cook at a roiling boil for exactly ten minutes — no more, no less. Drain the water and immediately plunge the eggs into an ice bath. Allow to the eggs to cool completely for 20 minutes. They can be used immediately or will keep in the fridge unpeeled for about a week. The salt and vinegar will help keep the eggs from exploding out of the shells if a crack develops, and they also add just a touch of flavor.
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