SHARON ONA (this article was first published July 23, 2012)
I don’t often eat or cook with eggs, but I do enjoy the occasional deviled egg, soufflé, ratatouille with poached eggs (shakshuka, as my father calls it), or pastry that requires a few eggs in the batter. For years – decades even – my family has purchased farm-fresh eggs from a rancher located just 55 miles from the farmers’ market they sell from and we used to frequent. Sadly, we haven’t been able to make it there in a while. Consequently, we’ve been relegated to the refrigerated egg section of the supermarket. We were spoiled. We have now eaten our fair share of sub-standard grocery store eggs and I fear mutiny may be on the horizon.
Depending on who is doing the grocery shopping at my house during any given week, we may end up with one of two kinds of eggs: cage-free or pasture-raised. But what is the difference? Supporting local and organic food production has always been championed in my house and has garnered significant momentum and enthusiasm from a growing number of people over the last decade. But terminology regarding egg production can be a bit convoluted and is relatively new.
While labels like “cage-free,” “free-range” and “pasture-raised” may conjure up images of chickens clucking happily in lush pastures, the USDA does not regulate such terms leaving ample room for interpretation from egg producers. Yes, cage-free eggs come from chickens that are not kept in cages, but they are often kept in crowded barns with little to no room for them to move freely or expand their wings. Free-range eggs come from chickens that have access to the outdoors, however, the outdoor space is usually very small, sans vegetation, and gets limited use as a result of the crowded conditions inside the barn or warehouse in which the birds are kept. Pasture-raised eggs are the product of hens that are kept outside with sustained access to vegetation. They are fed an organic diet without the use of hormones or antibiotics and have access to a mobile shelter.
“Pasture-raised” is the newest of the three terms. These eggs are often the most expensive to produce, and therefore purchase, because farmers control very little of the production process unlike egg production on factory farms where food, light, water, heating and cooling are controlled completely by the farmer. Many people opt to purchase pasture-raised eggs for their richer flavor and noted health benefits including lower cholesterol and saturated fat, increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and beta carotene, others – myself included – appreciate that these eggs come from humanely treated hens and environmental stewardship is taken into consideration. To learn more about egg production check out PBS’ The Lexicon of Sustainability: The Story of an Egg.
In honor of the locally sourced, pasture-raised egg, I give you a winner, winner of an egg dinner (or breakfast, or brunch, or lunch).
Shakshuka is an Israeli staple dish consisting of eggs poached in a tomato sauce with onions and bell peppers or chili peppers and served in a skillet. This dish is great to make in the summer when tomatoes are at the height of their growing season, otherwise, canned tomatoes will suffice. This recipe is versatile, foolproof, easy on the waistline, and a cinch to whip up. Stumped for what to make for an upcoming brunch? Shakshuka! Want a simple and healthy lunch? Shakshuka! Don’t know what to do for dinner? You get the idea.
I have been known to take certain liberties with this recipe, making it uniquely mine, adding veggies like courgettes (I just love the word courgette) freshly picked from my garden, broccoli, carrots and herbs like fresh thyme or sage. The courgettes, broccoli, and carrots become wonderfully caramelized at the bottom of the pan and I love the woodsy flavor of fresh thyme. But for all of you shakshuka virgins out there, here is a more traditional recipe:
- Shakshuka. Photo copyright Sharon Ona.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
- 2 red, yellow, or orange bell peppers, seeded and diced
- 1-2 green chili peppers, seeded and diced (optional)
- 4-6 pasture-raised eggs
- 6-8 Roma tomatoes, cubed
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped for garnish
- Feta cheese
- Warm pitas
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until translucent. Add the garlic, tomatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, paprika, salt and pepper. Cover and cook until veggies are soft, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes. Gently crack the eggs over the skillet so that they are evenly distributed over the veggies. Cover and simmer over low heat for 5-7 minutes. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with shards of feta, hummus, and warm pitas.
Cook’s note: try adding a teaspoon or two of tomato paste for a richer sauce.