Last week, Ophelia, my barred Cochin chicken, celebrated her first birthday.
Actually, celebrate might not be an accurate depiction of her day. Did she realize that the extra peanuts she was slipped were in honor of her birth? Highly unlikely. I guess it would be more accurate to say that I celebrated her first birthday.
Ophelia, who a year ago looked more like a tiny penguin than a future hen, has grown into a gorgeous bird, a big fluff-ball of black, white and gray feathers that extend down her feet. Her hindquarters look like a feather duster on steroids.
The other barred Cochin in the flock looks nothing like her. The chicken that I call Eustacia, after the protagonist in Thomas Hardy's "Return of the Native," whom she resembles, has black feathers on her head and neck; her other feathers are a deep gray. She is a beauty.
There are just eight girls in the flock; originally there were nine chickens, but when one began to crow at dawn, he was whisked away to an undisclosed location.
Five are from Dawn Russell's Ranch Hag Hens in Petaluma. Unfortunately, at least for those who have been hoping to start or add to a flock with Ranch Hag's superior chicks, there aren't any available. According to the ranch Web site, Dawn is at work on her book about chicken care and behavior, which will be published late this year or early next year.
Not long after our hens began to lay, one of the girls went broody, sitting in her egg nest all day and not eating. It was Dawn who saved the day with helpful instructions.
The benefit of having chickens, other than their considerable entertainment value, is, of course, having good eggs. Eggs from chickens that live free, in pastures and gardens and such, have more and better nutrients than eggs from hens confined in their tiny cages under 24-hour artificial light.
The taste of these eggs is so far superior to other eggs that it almost defies description.
A sure sign of spring is that good eggs are abundant again, at farmers markets and here and there along our back roads.
Chickens who live in a natural environment go through a down period, when they either lay fewer eggs or don't lay at all for several weeks. As the days lengthen and warm, they return to fulfilling their hen destiny, producing beautiful little packages of priceless protein.
If you see a sign that says "fresh eggs," consider stopping. Today's recipes — inspired by recipes in "Eggs" by Chef Michel Roux (Wiley & Sons, 2005) — should be made only with superior eggs, the kind with rich, deep yellow or orange yolks.
Eggs that are simmered gently for three to six minutes are called "mollet eggs," a term one does not see very often.
Even so, it is good to know it, just in case you come across it. This dish makes a lovely spring lunch or breakfast on a leisurely morning.
Soft-Cooked Eggs with Spring Greens, Dry Jack & Creamy Vinaigrette
Makes 4 servings
6tablespoons Creamy Vinaigrette (recipe follows)
— Kosher salt
— Black pepper in a mill