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The many faces of eggs

If green shells, deep golden centers and a lack of sulfurous scent aren't enough to distinguish Camille Mitchell's eggs, taste certainly sets them apart, Mitchell said.

"Store-bought eggs just seem to have a flat taste," Mitchell said.

A hen's diet, of course, determines an egg's flavor, Mitchell said. Her flock's forage of protein-rich ticks, grasshoppers, tadpoles and grubs makes for eggs rich in color, texture and nutrients. The free-range chickens supplement their diet with a variety of plants — particularly comfrey — seeds, berries and cracked corn.

"They know better what they need to eat than we know what they need to eat," Mitchell said.

Mitchell came up with the idea of raising chickens seven years ago for natural pest control on her Applegate farm. Soon she and her husband had too many eggs to eat and started selling the surplus. One of several small, local producers, the Mitchells' Iron Mountain Mini Farm sells eggs at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market, set to open Tuesday in Ashland.

Maybe the hens knew market days were approaching when they suddenly doubled egg production last week. In the midst of wintry weather, Mitchell found herself with almost 150 small symbols of spring.

Because light affects chickens' laying cycle, large-scale producers typically use artificial illumination.

Since Mitchell doesn't, her hens' yield can vary dramatically, offering customers no guarantee.

"We don't force 'em," Mitchell said.

The novelty of multi-hued eggs in a single carton seems to compensate for the limited supply and price of $3 per dozen, Mitchell said. Buyers invariably comment that her Americana hens' pastel green eggs need no further adornment for Easter.

Local demand for farm-fresh eggs from free-range hens has far surpassed the supply, said Central Point rancher Larry Martin.

"We actually need more producers doing what we're doing," Martin said.

Martin Family Ranch delivers eggs every Tuesday to Ashland Food Co-op, where the large variety sells for $4.35 per dozen, the jumbo for $4.95. Starting next month, customers can expect to see discounted eggs during Ashland's growers market, located at the city's armory, 1420 E. Main St.

In Medford, the Applegate-based Heritage Meadows farm will sell eggs from free-range hens for $3.50 to $3.75 per dozen throughout the growers market season. The market debuts March 15 at the Medford Armory, 1701 S. Pacific Highway.

Consumers should be aware that not all "farm-fresh" eggs promise the humane methods of free-range ones, Martin said. Some come from chickens that are cooped. And an egg's outward appearance doesn't indicate quality, he added.

"It's the content of the egg, not the shell."

Consider springing for local, free-range eggs to try in the adjacent classic recipes.

Wild Mushroom and Gruyère Tart

11/3 cups flour

1 stick unsalted butter, cold and cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 shallots, thinly sliced

12 ounces mixed mushrooms (shiitakes and creminis work well), sliced 1/4-inch thick (about 3 to 4 cups)

Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh thyme, chopped

1/2 cup white wine

2/3 cup coarsely grated Gruyére cheese

3 egg yolks

1 cup heavy cream

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a food processor combine the flour, butter and 1/2 teaspoon salt and pulse briefly, or until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. The largest chunks in the mixture should be the size of small peas.

With the food processor pulsing, drizzle in about 1/2 cup ice-cold water. Stop adding water as soon as the dough comes together. Remove the dough and carefully form into a disk. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate while preparing the mushrooms, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the shallots and sauté until just translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the mushrooms and thyme and sauté until the mushrooms are wilted and have lost their moisture, 15 to 20 minutes.

When the mushrooms are nearly dry, deglaze the pan by adding the wine and scraping the skillet with a wooden spoon.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and quickly roll out. Set the dough into a 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom, carefully pressing it into the edge and up the sides.

Line the dough with foil or waxed paper. Fill the tart shell with dried beans or pie weights, then bake for 10 minutes. Remove the weights and foil and bake another 5 minutes, or until pale gold.

Scatter half of the cheese over the bottom of the tart shell. Spoon the mushroom mixture evenly over the cheese. At this stage, the tart can be refrigerated overnight.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 F.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and cream, then drizzle over the mushroom mixture. Scatter the remaining cheese over that. Bake for 35 minutes, or until just puffed and golden brown. Serve hot. Makes one 9-inch tart.

Zucchini and Mint Frittata

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, peeled

1 large zucchini, thinly sliced

Coarse salt, to taste

4 eggs

Peperoncino or freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

1 tablespoon caciocavallo or pecorino cheese, grated

Heat the oil in an 8-inch, nonstick skillet over a medium heat. Sauté the onion and garlic clove (whole) until the onion softens, but does not brown, about 10 minutes.

Add the zucchini and sprinkle lightly with salt. Sauté 10 minutes, or until the zucchini slices have softened but still retain their shape. The seeds should appear swollen and almost translucent.

In a small bowl, beat the eggs, then whisk in a bit of salt, the peperoncino or black pepper, mint and cheese.

Reduce the heat under the skillet to low, then pour the eggs mixture over the zucchini. Cook for 10 minutes, gently shaking the pan now and again, or using a spatula around the edges to make sure the frittata is not sticking.

The bottom of the frittata should be golden and firm, but the center should still have give. Remove the skillet from the heat.

Put a plate over the pan and quickly invert so the frittata slips out upside down. Carefully slide the frittata back into the pan (the top of the frittata now should be on the bottom) and cook another 5 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 2 servings.

Recipe from "Cucina Siciliana," by Clarissa Hyman.

Ham, Asparagus and Cheese Strata

1 cup (4 ounces) cooked lean ham, chopped

1 cup chopped onion

1 red bell pepper, chopped

8 ounces asparagus spears, cut into 1-inch pieces

11/2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard

6 ounces sliced French bread (1/2-inch slices)

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Gruyère cheese

6 large eggs

2 cups skim milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat an 8-inch baking dish or pie plate with cooking spray.

Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-high; add the ham, onion and bell pepper and cook, stirring, 1 to 2 minutes until ham is slightly browned. Add 2 tablespoons of water to the skillet and lower heat to medium. Add the asparagus and cook 3 minutes, until onions are softened and asparagus is bright green.

Spread the mustard on the bread and layer slices in the prepared baking dish. Top with the ham and vegetable mixture. Sprinkle with the cheese.

Whisk together the eggs, milk, salt and pepper and pour the mixture into the baking dish. Let sit for at least 30 minutes, or up to several hours (wrapped and refrigerated).

Bake 45 minutes, or until lightly browned and puffed.

Makes 4 servings.

NOTE: This dish can be assembled the night before and refrigerated.

Scrambled Eggs with Garlic Chives

4 large eggs

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

Pinch of freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons canola oil

1/2 cup chopped garlic chives (nira), cut in 1-inch pieces

Break the eggs into a bowl, add the salt and pepper and stir the eggs with a pair of chopsticks. You can beat them fully, or stir them so that there are still discernible whites.

Heat a wok over medium-high heat and add the oil, swirling to coat the pan. Heat until you see a wisp of smoke, then add chives, stirring.

Pour in the eggs and stir around until soft scrambled, about 2 minutes. Serve immediately.

Makes 2 servings.

NOTE: Garlic chives are available at Asian markets.

Crème Anglaise

2 cups whole milk

1/2 vanilla bean

5 large egg yolks

1/3 cup sugar

Pour the milk into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the milk and drop in the bean. Heat over medium heat until just simmering (do not boil), about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover and let steep half an hour. Reheat the infused milk over medium heat until almost simmering, about 3 minutes. Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar, then temper the mixture by pouring half of the hot milk into the egg-and-sugar mixture and whisking, then pouring this back into the rest of the hot milk.

Stir the mixture over low heat, stirring constantly, until the custard coats the back of a spoon, about 3 minutes. Be careful not to overcook, as it can curdle easily.

Strain the custard through a sieve into a bowl and immediately place it in an ice bath, stirring until it begins to cool. Keep the bowl in the ice bath until the custard is completely cool. Lay a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface and refrigerate until needed.

Makes 2 cups.

Meringues with Roasted Raspberries

5 egg whites, at room temperature

Pinch of cream of tartar

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

1 pint fresh raspberries

1 tablespoon toasted hazelnut oil

Heat the oven to 200 degrees. In the bowl of a standing mixer or with a hand-held mixer, whip the egg whites and the cream of tartar on high speed until soft peaks form, about 1 minute. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add 1 cup of the sugar in a steady stream; continue whipping until stiff and glossy, about 4 minutes. Whip in the cinnamon.

Fill a pastry bag, fitted with a medium star tip, with the meringue.

Onto a Silpat or oiled piece of parchment paper, pipe the mixture into rounds, starting in the center and moving outward in a spiral to form a 3-inch disk.

Bake for 2 hours, until crisp but not browned. Cool on the Silpat or parchment, then carefully remove the meringues. Set aside, uncovered, on a wire rack in a cool, dry place.

Increase the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Toss the raspberries with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar and the hazelnut oil. Mound the berries on a baking sheet lined with Silpat or parchment paper and roast them for about 5 minutes, until glistening and very fragrant, but not mushy. Remove from the oven.

Serve cooled meringues over crème anglaise (recipe on Page 2C), topped with the roasted raspberries.

Makes 12 meringues.

Sweet Crèpes

2 cups flour

4 large eggs

11/4 cups milk

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 tablespoon sugar

4 tablespoons butter, melted

Softened butter for the pan

In the jar of a blender, blend the flour, eggs, milk, salt, sugar and melted butter with 11/4 cups water at high speed for 10 seconds, stop and scrape down the sides, then blend for 10 seconds more. Strain batter through a fine-mesh sieve. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour or overnight.

Heat a crèpe pan or nonstick sauté pan over medium heat until a few drops of water sizzle when sprinkled on the pan. With a paper towel, spread a little butter on the pan, being sure to wipe most of it off.

Using a bowl or a measuring cup with a spout, pour enough batter to just cover the pan (for a crèpe pan, a little less than 1/4 cup), immediately swirling the batter around until it covers the surface.

If the batter seems too thick and doesn't spread quickly, add up to an additional 1/4 cup of water to the mixture and stir until blended. Adjust heat if necessary. If the batter sizzles when you pour it onto the pan, it's too hot; if it just lies there, it's too cold. The first one or two crèpes are usually experiments.

When the edges of the crèpe begin to turn golden and move away from the pan, after about 2 minutes, lift up the edge nearest to you using a spatula (an offset spatula works best).

Flip the crèpe over. Cook the second side only long enough for it to set, less than a minute. Remove from the pan and start a stack of crèpes, layering wax paper between each as you cook more. Add more butter when needed with a paper towel. Makes 18 to 24 crèpes.

NOTE: You can omit the sugar and use this recipe for savory crèpes.

Classic French Hollandaise Sauce

3 egg yolks

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco brand

4 grinds black pepper

8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted (not too hot)

Combine the egg yolks, lemon juice, salt, hot pepper sauce and pepper in a small, stainless-steel-lined (nonreactive) saucepan and whisk to combine.

Place the saucepan over direct, low heat and whisk vigorously for about 2 minutes, until the yolk mixture lightens to a pale, thickish foam that resembles a thin mousse.

Shake the pan with one hand while whisking with the other to keep the yolks from adhering to the bottom of the pan. Keep up continuous whisking.

When the mixture has turned completely to foam, remove the pan from the heat. Slowly whisk in a third of the melted butter until completely incorporated. Whisk in 1/2 tablespoon of water. Whisk in another third of the butter.

Whisk in another 1/2 tablespoon of water. Whisk in the remaining butter until well combined.

Serve immediately.

Makes 12/3 cups

Recipe adapted from Madeleine Kamman's version in "The New Making of a Cook."

Local farm-fresh eggs are among the first signs of spring.