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Spring into eggs

The springtime start of open-air farmers markets should be a game-changing event for eat-local enthusiasts.

After the winter’s root vegetables, hard-shelled squashes, cabbages and leeks — augmented with the sturdiest field greens — farmers markets signify variety and freshness. So the staying power of those aforementioned root vegetables, cabbages and field greens, which farmers store and overwinter to safeguard sales before the soil warms and the days lengthen, can be a tad frustrating.

Even the most seasoned of seasonal eaters are guilty of unrealistic expectations at early spring markets. Asparagus is still a good two months off. Peas? About three months in the making. Even the bundles of tender herbs and salad greens are scanty.

Faced with scarcity, I’m never more thankful for eggs, which are among the most plentiful items at the first spring farmers markets. Perfect little parcels of protein, eggs are repositories of rich flavor and texture as a result of wholesome feed, fresh air and space to do what chickens naturally do.

Growing a seasonal garden has taught me more about food, cooking, economy and kitchen improvisation than any other influence in my life to date. Keeping backyard hens has only reinforced those lessons. Who knew that eggs have a season? It’s a cruel realization that comes with tending one’s first flock through winter.

The life cycles of everything on this planet entail periods of rest, an aspect that large-scale, commercial agriculture and factory farming attempt to all but eliminate, keeping the average consumer oblivious to animals’ — and humans’ — natural rhythms.

Hens are a prime example. Daylight — about 14 or 15 hours — triggers their egg production. When daylight wanes in the fall, egg production falls off. In the darkest months, hens may stop laying completely, like mine did this past winter.

But almost like clockwork, when the calendar page flipped to March, the flock roused from its winter stupor to lay again.

“About time!” I said, decrying months of feeding and watering without a single egg for my pains.

We could have staved off an eggless winter and deprived our hens of their annual respite — as the demands of modern society deprives humans — by lighting their coop to artificially stimulate laying. But it seems sort of selfish, particularly given that hens’ productive years can be shortened by the practice.

So we suffer store-bought eggs for a few months and are perhaps disproportionately grateful to have our own eggs again. Once we reach a critical mass of an egg per hen per day, I start planning for quiche and frittata and soufflé, arguably the height of egg enjoyment.

I came to soufflés late in my development as a cook. They arose amid the prospect of pleasing a friend’s refined palate — and his promise to a Japanese visitor that meals at my house often feature home-grown vegetables and locally raised meat or wild-caught Oregon fish.

But paired with young, tender, late-spring produce, meat seemed too heavy, and truly fresh fish was out of reach. So I wagered the meal’s success on the simple elegance of eggs, prepared with my untested hand.

As with many classic recipes, however, soufflé is much more accessible than I had assumed. Perhaps it was this concise, straightforward method from the 299-recipe tome “French Feasts” by Stephane Reynaud, that shored up my confidence. Maybe some innate finesse spurred the soufflés to glorious puffiness. Either way, I wondered what took me so long to finally make them.

If you can get your hands on some duck eggs, almost exclusively available at farmers markets, you’ll be rewarded with the ultimate in eggs’ unctuousness, owing to larger yolks in comparison with whites. Duck eggs make supremely moist baked goods and decadent sauces and custards. But recipes, like soufflé, that rely on whipped egg whites may require an additional duck-egg white or two.

Consider coating the greased soufflé ramekins with grated Parmesan, flour or breadcrumbs to prevent sticking and make cleanup easier.

Read more on Sarah Lemon’s blog at www.mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish and tune into her podcast at www.mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-whole-dish. Email her at thewholedish@gmail.com.

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Cheese Soufflé

6 eggs

2 tablespoons butter, divided

1/4 cup flour

1-1/4 cups grated Swiss-type cheese, including Gruyere, Emmental or Comte

7 ounces whole milk

1/3 cup heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Salt and white pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Separate the egg whites from yolks.

Make a roux by melting 1-1/2 tablespoons of the butter in a pan and stirring in the flour. Cook for 2 minutes over medium heat without browning. Remove from heat and add the milk and cream; return to medium heat and cook, stirring continuously, until mixture thickens.

Remove pan from heat and stir in the grated cheese, allowing it to melt. Stir in egg yolks and the nutmeg. Season to taste and pour mixture into a cold dish.

With remaining butter, grease a soufflé mold, or 6 to 8 individual ramekins, from top to bottom. Using an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites into very firm, shiny peaks. Fold them delicately into the egg mixture. Fill prepared mold or ramekins until one-quarter to one-third full.

If using ramekins, arrange on a baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes, less time for individual ramekins, until puffed and golden. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneEggs from Runnymede Farm in Rogue River were among the early treats at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market at Hawthorne Park in Medford Thursday.