There are a lot of good things to say about eggs. An affordable source of high quality protein, even when paying for the priciest organic eggs, they contain numerous vitamins and minerals, unsaturated fat, and antioxidants. Two of those antioxidants, lutein and zeaxantin, are vital for eye health. Choline is crucial for healthy brain function.
The egg is extremely versatile in cooking, and delicious — two qualities that make it an essential in the kitchen. Scrambling, frying, and poaching an egg were some of the first cooking lessons I gave my kids. Omelets, frittatas, and stratas are all egg based main dishes, and endless other recipes rely on eggs for binding and structure.
But Easter time is approaching, and I have hard-boiled eggs on my mind. I don’t know about you, but besides the religious rituals, Easter means bunnies and colored eggs, to me. The rabbits I can do without, but colored eggs are not something I want to skip.
As a child, I never questioned the odd juxtaposition of a rabbit bringing eggs. I knew that birds came from eggs and that bunnies came from mommy rabbits; still, it was a very long time before I looked into this odd combination.
Somewhere down the road, two ancient symbols of fertility were merged in the celebration of spring and renewal — the rabbit, known for its ability to reproduce prolifically, and the egg, which gives rise to new life. (A wealth of eggs during the Easter season during a period of time when early Catholics did not eat eggs during Lent may have led to the custom of hard boiling eggs, for preservation.)
White eggs are best for coloring, so as not to interfere with the subtle colors. Which white egg to buy can be a quandary, though. Cage-free, free-range, pasture-fed, natural, fertile, and organic eggs are stacked high in supermarket coolers. I turn to the USDA for guidance in this area, as I have been known to pick up and set down half a dozen cartons of eggs when faced with the moral decision of buying eggs.
First of all, the label “natural” is meaningless, according to the USDA. Eggs of any kind may not have any additives; therefore, all eggs are natural.
Eggs that are labeled cage-free or free-roaming come from hens that are allowed to roam in a room or open area. (How large an area is not specified.) Hens raised outdoors, or with some access to the outdoors produce eggs labeled free-range or pasture-fed. These chickens may also have wild plants or insects, then, as part of their diets.
A fertile egg comes from a hen that has mated with a rooster, and has the same nutritional value as any other egg. Don’t worry about a chick popping out, though. If the egg has been refrigerated, it stops the growth process cold. (Literally and figuratively.)
Organic eggs are marked with the USDA National Organic Program label. Hens must be uncaged, free to roam in and out of shelter, and fed an organic diet from feed never treated with pesticides or fertilizers. I think of them as happy eggs from happy chickens.
Once the personal ethical dilemma is resolved and the eggs are safe at home, hard-boiling the eggs for coloring is the next step. The American Egg Board recommends using eggs 7 to 10 days old. As the egg takes in air, the membrane inside the shell eases its grip, making the boiled egg easier to peel than an egg recently slipped out of the nest.
Cover the eggs with cold water by one inch and bring to a boil, over high heat. Remove the pan from the heat, and cover.
Let the eggs stand in the hot water for 12 minutes (15 minutes, for extra-large eggs) and then gently drain.
Cool under cold running water, and refrigerate.
Now it’s time to add the springtime color. Particularly if you have taken the time to soul-search and purchased organic eggs, using commercial dyes to color the eggs would be a shame. Because dyes tend to creep under the shell through any miniscule crack and mottle the egg inside, dyes made from food sources are best. Not surprisingly, Mother Nature offers natural sources to create gentle hues.
I like to use red cabbage for a bluish-purple result, turmeric for yellow, and beets for pink. I have recently heard that paprika will create an orange dye, and am ready to add it to the repertoire.
For blue, boil a head of red cabbage, chopped, in 2 quarts of water, strain, and add 4 tablespoons salt and 4 tablespoons white vinegar. Use the same amounts of boiled water, salt, and vinegar, but whisk in 6 tablespoons of ground turmeric for yellow dye. For pink dye, finely chop three large beets and add to the water, salt, and vinegar; let stand for an hour or more, drain.
Gently lower hardboiled eggs into the dye, for at least half an hour. The longer the egg is left in, the more intense the color will be — but don’t expect the neon colors of commercial dyes. Remove from dye and let dry completely. For a shiny finish, gently rub the dried egg with a bit of vegetable oil.
You can leave designs on the eggs by wrapping with rubber bands or twisting cheesecloth about the egg, before lowering it into the water. Hold a leaf in place on an egg, using a nylon stocking, and place in the dye for a natural print. Masking tape, cut into designs and placed on the egg before dying, allows for custom artwork.
One caveat: young children may become impatient with the time it takes for eggs to take on natural colors.
Refrigerate the colored eggs, and use as a holiday dinner table centerpiece. Eventually, it will be time to eat those lovely eggs. Tap the hardboiled egg on a firm surface, then roll between your hands or roll around the equator of the egg on the edge of the counter. Starting at the large end, peel the shell away. Holding it under running water will loosen the shell on the more stubborn eggs.
Then, enjoy, and have a happy spring!