Darina Allen: Best ways to enjoy your beautiful fresh eggs

Today was such a joyous day; after more than three months we allowed our flock of hens out of their houses. They have been confined on the instruction of the Department of Agriculture along with all poultry in these islands because of the threat of Avian flu in Europe. 

We’ve been feeding them indoors, bringing them up the end of greenhouse crops - kale, bolted lettuce and salad greens, but it’s not the same as being able to romp around and range freely in the sunlight.

You can’t imagine the excitement when we opened the popper in the door of the Palais des Poulets. 

At first, they were bewildered and then they made a dash for freedom and skipped out into the sunlight to range freely on the grass that is so so important to their wellbeing.

It was a joy to watch them scratching enthusiastically for worms and grubs and jumping into the compost skip to forage for scraps – no need for a brown bin here, the hens eat the vegetable scraps and then we have beautiful eggs a few days later and furthermore the hen manure and straw bedding is added to the compost heap. A brilliant activator which when it eventually breaks down into humus is added to the soil to increase the fertility to grow more wholesome fresh vegetables and herbs.

I love poultry and encourage anyone who will listen to consider getting a little flock of hens. Four or five in a little chicken coop in your garden would provide an adequate egg supply for most households. The coop can be moved around your lawn every few days, the hens do the mowing and their droppings will fertilise your grass so it’s win win all the way. 

Kids of all ages love hens, they are friendly and entertaining plus children get to learn a little more about how their food is produced. They will love collecting the freshly laid eggs and enjoy boiled eggs with ‘soldiers’ – an almost forgotten flavour.

Where to find hens and what to buy? For free range production try to find heritage breeds. Here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School we have about 600 hens in several flocks. We buy day old chicks from Willie Johnston in Armagh (www.johnstonspoultry.com and O’Leary Poultry in Macroom (0879697939) who hatch organic chicks. Occasionally a hen hatches out a little clutch of chicks – we had some just in time for Easter to the delight of the grandchildren and their friends. Always buy from a reputable source and make sure they have been vaccinated.

The arucanas lay bluey green eggs, the Sussex or Leghorn white, Rhode Island red and the Marans dark brown – all are beautiful in their own way. 

Eggs are a perfect a rich source of protein. They contain vitamin B2, B12, Vitamin D, selenium, iodine, a powerhouse of disease busting nutrients. Two eggs provide a simple nourishing fulfilling supper enough for most people with a salad and some good bread.

If you have a little surplus your friends will gladly accept them or you can sell them at your local country or Farmers’ Market.

From the cook’s point of view they are immensely versatile not just as an ingredient but as an emulsifier in sauces like Hollandaise and Béarnaise but also a binder and enrichment in cakes and pastries.

I did a column about eggs for Easter but one could easily write a whole book on eggs and many have, so here are a few more ways to enjoy your beautiful fresh eggs.

Coconut and Apricot Fingers

Makes 24

110g (4oz) butter

110g (4oz) caster sugar

1 organic egg

175 g (6 ozs) flour

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Homemade apricot jam

Coconut topping

1 large organic egg

75g (3oz) coconut

110g (4oz) caster sugar

Equipment

1 Swiss roll tin – 10 x 7 inch (25 x 18 cm)

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Cream the butter, add the caster sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the egg and ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract. 

Beat well and then stir in the flour. Brush the tin with melted butter. Spread the mixture over the base of the tin, add a layer of apricot jam.

Whisk the egg, then fold in the caster sugar and desiccated coconut. Spread evenly over the top.

Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes. Cool. Cut into fingers.

Parmesan Custards with Anchovy Toasts

Serves 8

250ml (9fl ozs) cream

250ml (9 fl ozs) milk

4 organic eggs

100g (3½ ozs) finely grated Parmesan or Coolea Cheese

salt, freshly ground pepper and a good pinch of cayenne

melted butter

4 slices of good quality white yeast bread

Anchovy Butter

6 anchovy fillets

25g (1ozs) unsalted butter

Equipment

8 deep ovenproof pots or ramekins (75ml/3fl ozs) (we use shot glasses)

bain-marie

Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/Gas Mark 2.

Whisk the cream and milk with the egg yolks and the finely grated cheese. Season with salt, freshly ground pepper and a pinch of cayenne. Whisk again. Brush the inside of the pots with melted butter. Divide the mixture between the pots.

Fill a bain-marie with hot water, put the pots into the bain-marie, the water should come about 2/3 way up the sides. Cover the tops with a sheet of silicone paper. Depending on the depth of the ramekin, bake for 30-45 minutes in the preheated oven or until the mixture has just set. A skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean.

Meanwhile, make the anchovy butter.

Mash the anchovies finely with a fork, add the butter and mix well.

Just before serving, toast the bread quickly on both sides. Spread the anchovy butter sparingly on two slices of bread and make into sandwiches with the other slices. Press down to seal, trim off the crusts. Cut each in half crosswise and then cut into thin fingers. Put a pot or ramekin on a plate. Arrange a little trellis of anchovy toasts on the side, add a teaspoon. Serve immediately.

Variation: Wild Garlic Custards

Serves 8

3 tablespoons wild garlic, finely chopped

Add to the custard just before pouring into the ramekins, serve with a few fingers of plain toast.

Leek Flamiche

There are many variations on this theme, some have no cheese, others no bacon. 

Similar leek tarts and pies are made in Belgium, France and many parts of the UK, including Wales and Cornwall. 

One can use the filling to make into a gorgeous pie with pastry underneath and on top, or just on top. Either way

it is delicious.

No need to recook cooked ham.

Serves 6-8

A baked 22.5cm tart shell made with

225g shortcrust pastry - made with:

175g flour

75g butter

1 egg yolk and a little water

Filling

450g white part of leeks, sliced in 1cm thick rings

50g butter

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 eggs or 1 large egg and one egg yolk

300ml single cream

100g rindless streaky raw bacon or ham cut into lardons

75g Gruyère, grated

Equipment

22.5cm tart tin with removable base.

Heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4.

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over a gentle heat. When it foams, add the sliced leeks. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, toss, cover and cook gently until soft and tender but not coloured, about 8-10 minutes. Drain if necessary and allow to cool. Cut the bacon or bacon or ham into 5mm lardons. Heat a little extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat, add bacon and cook for 5-6 minutes or until slightly golden and cooked through.

Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and cream together, stir in the cooled leeks and ham or bacon and most of the cheese. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Spoon into the baked tart shell (tt will be full to the top). Sprinkle the remainder of the cheese on top and bake in the heated oven for 35-40 minutes or until just set in the centre and golden on top.

Serve warm.

Hot tips

Skibbereen or Bantry Farmers’ Market often have live hens, ducks, geese and guinea fowl for sale. Alternatively contact O’Leary Poultry at Skibbereen Market on 087-9697939 or Meynhaus at Bantry’s market 087-2208061.

GIY HQ Courses, Classes and Events: Check out the course schedule at the GIY HQ in Waterford: Beginners’ Guide to Growing; Soil Fertility; Managing Pests and Disease; Kids Club, and gardening lessons; www.giy.ie. Tel: 051-584422

Litfest 2017: The excitement is building here at Litfest HQ — watch out for Sumayya Usmani, a native of Pakistan, a writer and cookery teacher based in Glasgow. She specialises in the cuisine of Pakistan and travels regularly to her homeland. 

Her debut book Summers Under the Tamarind Tree won the Best First Cookbook category in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Sumayya will give a cookery demonstration at the Ballymaloe Cookery School on Sunday, May 21, at 10am. www.litfest.ie

Support Cór Cois Farraige’s annual charity concert in aid of Time for Tilara on Sunday, May 14, at the Garryvoe Hotel, 8pm. Tickets are €10 available at local outlets in East Cork and at the door. clairewhelan2@eircom.net

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