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Seven ways to cook eggs for affordable and easy meals

Eggs or milk — which is nature’s most perfect food? If I had a vote, it would definitely be eggs. Good any time of day, they are versatile and nutritious.

At only 78 calories each, eggs are a rich source of protein and vitamins. A large egg contains about 6 grams of protein. Eggs have vitamin D (good for bone health and the immune system) and choline (which helps metabolism, liver function and fetal brain development). Egg yolks can be good for the eyes; they are significant sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been found to reduce the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in people 55 and older.

Of course, egg yolks are also known for their cholesterol, a fact that put them on the no-no list a few years ago. A typical large egg contains 186 mg of cholesterol, more than half the amount previously recommended for daily consumption. Cholesterol is an artery-clogging factor in heart disease.

In 2015, citing a lack of scientific evidence for a numerical goal, the Federal Dietary Guidelines dropped their concerns about eggs. In support, The Harvard School of Public Health looked at a population of 117,000 nurses and found no difference in heart disease risk between those who ate one egg a week and those who ate more than one egg a day. The Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that eggs tend to satisfy obese and overweight people more than a bagel breakfast with an equal calorie count. Eggs look to be a good diet food, too!

There is lots to know about the humble egg. The now defunct (unfortunately) Lucky Peach magazine published a great small book on eggs a couple of years ago, “All about Eggs” by Rachel Khong. She noted that among conventional egg producers, unsavory practices are commonplace. There’s “forced molting” — starving chickens so they’ll molt at the same time, go out of production for a couple weeks and return with rejuvenated reproductive tracts, making them better layers of better-quality eggs. There’s painful, stressful “beak trimming,” which prevents cannibalism and violence when hens are kept in close quarters.

There’s no question that seeking out better eggs is worth it. But when it comes to terminology, what do “cage-free,” “natural,” “organic,” “omega-3” and on and on really mean? Here’s a quick guide:

  • Natural: Means nothing. Think about it. Everything comes from nature, even gasoline and Velveeta. The USDA declares that egg products are natural when they contain no artificial ingredients, added color and are only minimally processed. Anything other than an Easter egg would probably qualify as natural.
  • Cage-free: According to the USDA, a cage-free chicken can “freely roam a building, room or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle but does not have access to the outdoors.” Though this is an upgrade from the conventional battery cage (roughly 8.5 inches by 11 inches), cage-free facilities, while allowing their hens more space, have much higher mortality rates (often the result of hen-on-hen violence) and lower air quality than facilities that use cages.
  • Free-range: Unlike cage-free hens, free-range hens must have access to outdoor space. It doesn’t have to be much — sometimes it’s a cat door to a screened-in porch.
  • No Added Hormones: This simply means the egg-laying hen did not receive hormones, which is a funny thing to mention, because administering hormones and steroids to poultry is prohibited across the board by the FDA. All eggs sold in the U.S. are hormone-free.
  • No Added Antibiotics: This term is regulated by both the USDA and FDA and means an egg-laying hen received no sub-therapeutic antibiotics. But only a very small percentage ever receive added antibiotics to treat sickness, and their eggs are “diverted from human consumption” anyway.
  • Vegetarian-Fed/Feed: “Vegetarian Fed/ Feed” means an egg-laying hen was fed a diet devoid of any animal products during its production, which is actually kind of sad! Hens aren’t naturally vegetarian, but omnivorous (they love worms and bugs). That said, conventional hens that aren’t vegetarian-fed are not likely to be fed those worms and bugs they love so much either, but a diet rich in animal byproducts, from feather meal to chicken litter. So really, when you’re buying vegetarian-fed eggs, it’s a lesser-of-two-evils situation.
  • Local: A term regulated by the USDA, “local” eggs must have come from a source flock located less than 400 miles from their processing facility or within the state where the eggs originated and were processed.
  • Organic: Eggs marked with the USDA’s National Organic Program label were laid by uncaged hens that are technically free to roam and have access to the outdoors in addition to being fed an organic diet produced without conventional pesticides or fertilizers. That all sounds good and is, for the most part, great — organic is a pretty decent option. But the problems with organically produced eggs are the same as those for free-range: the absence of cages in a barn or poultry house doesn’t usually translate to a wealth of free-roaming space per hen, and what qualifies as access to the outdoors can be as insignificant as a cat door to a wired-in patch of cement.
  • Omega-3 Enriched: Eggs with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids come from hens that were fed diets high in fatty acids: anything from flax to chia seeds to fish oil to algae, added to a bird’s regular wheat- and/or corn- and/or canola-based foodstuff. Omega-3-enriched egg cartons are required by the USDA to state the amount each egg contains. It can have five times the concentration of omega-3s than conventionally raised or free-range eggs.

The French, among others, are very particular about cooking eggs. I remember my French chef instructors telling me that it should take several minutes to properly scramble an egg. Here’s a simple recipe which illustrates the technique.

French Scrambled Eggs

Makes 4 servings

8 large eggs

½ teaspoon salt, or to your taste

Freshly ground pepper (preferably white), to your taste

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon or 3 tablespoons finely chopped chives

3 tablespoons creme fraiche or natural cream cheese (without stabilizers)

Add an inch or so of water to a large saucepan and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. In a stainless mixing bowl that will fit on top of the pan but not touch the water, whisk the eggs, salt and pepper until very smooth. Stir in the tarragon and creme fraiche and place bowl over the simmering water.

With a rubber spatula, constantly stir the mixture, scraping over the bottom and sides of the bowl so the eggs cook very slowly. The idea here is to take at least 5 minutes to cook the eggs, so regulate (lower) the heat accordingly. Cook the eggs until they are soft, custardy and will hold their shape on a spoon but are still very soft. Remove the bowl from the heat and continue to stir for another 30 seconds or so.

Serve on warm plates, as is. If desired, you can top with whatever sauce, grated cheese or sauteed vegetable you like.

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Every cook has their own variation on egg salad. I wouldn’t want to argue with your Mom or Grandma about which is best. Here’s my version. Egg salad is best served freshly made, but it can be refrigerated up to a day in advance. It’s great for a sandwich, on crostini or in crisp romaine leaves.

Classic Egg Salad and Variations

Makes about 2 cups

7 large eggs

¼ cup mayonnaise

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

A few shakes (about ⅛ teaspoon total) your favorite hot sauce, or to taste

1 tablespoon sweet pickle relish, or to your taste

Freshly ground black pepper

Fill a mixing bowl with cold water.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Use a slotted spoon to gently lower in the eggs; cook for 7 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat; use the slotted spoon to transfer the eggs to the bowl of cold water.

Place the bowl of eggs in the sink and run cold water into the bowl for a couple of minutes. Crack the eggs all around. Under a very gentle stream of cold water, peel them. The running water helps separate the shell from the egg.

Meanwhile, whisk together the mayonnaise, mustard and hot sauce in a small nonreactive bowl. Stir in the pickle relish, then season with pepper, to your taste.

Place the eggs in a mixing bowl. Use a potato masher to break them into small chunks. Fold in the mayonnaise mixture, including any of the variations below. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Variations: Any of the following ingredients would be a tasty addition: 4 teaspoons snipped fresh dill; 4 teaspoons coarsely chopped fresh parsley; ⅔ cup diced smoked ham; ⅔ cup diced steamed shrimp; ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika (pimenton; whisk it into the mayonnaise mixture); or 3 tablespoons diced roasted red pepper.

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This is a recipe adapted from Jacques Pépin. Maman in French means “mother.” Pépin noted that unlike traditional French souffles that call for separating the eggs, adding the yolks to the white sauce, beating the egg whites until stiff and gently folding them in, this recipe has you beat the eggs straight into the sauce. When his mother was newly married at 17, no one told her the eggs needed to be separated, but it worked! The results are less airy but every bit as delicious and easier.

You also can make the whole thing well ahead of time. As the Washington Post noted when they printed this recipe, “Let the mixture hang out at room temperature for a couple hours or in the fridge for a day. When you’re ready to bake, heat your oven and go.” Pépin's daughter Claudine wrote, “We usually serve it as a first course, but we love it for brunch and meatless dinners as well.”

Maman’s Easy Cheese Souffle

Makes 4 servings

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more to coat a 5- to 6-cup gratin dish

¼ cup finely and freshly grated Parmesan cheese

6 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk, cold

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

6 large eggs

2 ½ cups grated Swiss cheese, preferably Gruyère (about 6 ounces), plus three more optional slices for garnish (roughly 2-inch-by-3-inch)

3 tablespoons minced chives

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 5- to 6-cup gratin dish; sprinkle the bottom and sides with half the Parmesan to lightly coat. Set it aside. Melt the 6 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan, then add the flour and mix it in well with a whisk. Cook for 10 seconds, add the cold milk in one stroke and mix it in with a whisk. Keep stirring with the whisk until the mixture thickens and comes to a strong boil, about 2 minutes. It should be thick and smooth. Remove from the heat and stir in the salt and pepper.

Break the eggs into a bowl and beat well with a fork. After about 10 minutes, the white sauce should be cool enough to proceed. Moving quickly, add the eggs, cheese and the chives to the sauce and mix well to combine. Pour into the buttered gratin dish and cook immediately or set aside until ready to cook. If setting aside for a few hours, the souffle can remain outside at room temperature. If assembling a day ahead, refrigerate and bring back to room temperature before baking.

Sprinkle the surface with the remaining 2 tablespoons of Parmesan and arrange the three slices of Gruyère in a circle in the center, if using. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until puffy and well browned on top. Although it will stay inflated for quite a while, it is best served immediately.

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A simple custard is a wonderful foil for smoked salmon, a lively tomato sauce, to serve with sauteed greens or mushrooms or to use as the centerpiece for a salad of peppery greens dressed with a simple vinaigrette. All kinds of fresh herbs and other cheeses can be added to the custards.

Savory Cheese Custard

Makes 6 servings

2 tablespoons melted butter

2 large eggs

2 egg yolks

1 cup milk

1 cup heavy cream

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper, preferably white

¾ cup freshly grated Parmesan, dry Jack or aged goat cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush six 6-ounce custard cups with melted butter and place these in a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking pan.

Whisk the eggs and yolks together and then whisk in the milk, cream and nutmeg until well blended. Stir in salt and pepper to your taste and then stir in the cheese. Divide the mixture among the custard cups.

Place the pan with the custards in the oven and carefully pour enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the cups. Bake until custards are set, about 30 minutes. Carefully remove pan from oven and transfer cups to a rack.

Serve warm directly from the cups or cool and run a thin knife around the edge of each cup and invert the custards onto plates.

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This recipe is a riff on the Italian breakfast dish Eggs in Purgatory, where eggs are baked in a spicy tomato sauce. In this Mexican-inspired take, I have substituted a vibrant, fresh green sauce made with tomatillos.

Mexican Eggs in Purgatory

Makes 4 servings

1 pound tomatillos, husked and coarsely chopped

1 medium poblano, stemmed and seeded

1 teaspoon stemmed and seeded serrano chile

1 ½ cups roughly chopped cilantro leaves and stems

3 scallions, including greens, coarsely chopped, saving some for garnish

¾ cup chicken broth

3 strips thick-sliced bacon, chopped

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, minced

½ teaspoon brown sugar

2 teaspoons soy sauce

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

4 large eggs

3 tablespoons grated cotija or Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish

Warm corn tortillas, for serving

Preheat the broiler and position a rack about 8 inches from the heat source. In a blender or food processor, add the husked tomatillos, poblano, serrano, chopped cilantro, chopped scallions and chicken broth and puree until smooth.

In a large, shallow, flameproof casserole or skillet, cook the bacon in the olive oil over moderately high heat until the bacon is browned, about 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set on paper towel to drain. Add the minced garlic and cook for 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the tomatillo puree and cook over moderate heat until the sauce is thickened and dull green, about 6 minutes. Add sugar and soy sauce and season to your taste with salt and pepper.

Using the back of a spoon, make four depressions in the tomatillo sauce. Remove the casserole from the heat and carefully crack the eggs into the depressions. Sprinkle the eggs and tomatillo sauce with the 3 tablespoons of cotija cheese. Broil the dish until the egg whites are set but the egg yolks are still runny, about 4 minutes. Garnish with more cotija cheese, reserved bacon and chopped scallions and serve right away with warm corn tortillas.

Note: The green tomatillo sauce can be refrigerated covered for up to two days. Heat the sauce before adding the eggs.

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Known in Korean as Soondubu Jjigae, this one of my favorite go-to healthy dishes. Chile garlic paste, soft tofu and kimchi are available in many markets but always in Asian markets.

Korean Kimchi Soft Tofu Stew

Serves 4

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 medium onion, peeled and sliced

1 teaspoon Korean or other Asian chile garlic paste, or to taste

2 cups zucchini, cut in large dice

1 tablespoon finely minced ginger, or to taste

¾ cup shimeji mushrooms, lower stems cut and discarded (optional)

1 ½ cups or so cabbage (or daikon) kimchi, coarsely chopped

3 cups or so vegetable or chicken broth

1 teaspoon soy sauce, or to taste

6 - 8 ounces silken tofu, drained

4 large eggs

2 medium scallions, both white and green parts, thinly sliced at an angle

Steamed white or brown rice, for serving

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottom soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to soften.

Add the chile paste, stir to combine and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the zucchini, ginger and mushrooms, if using, and stir to combine. Add the kimchi and cook, stirring occasionally, until simmering, about 2 minutes. Add the broth and soy sauce and bring to a boil.

Using a large serving spoon, add the tofu by very large spoonfuls, taking care not to break the tofu into little bits. Gently press the tofu with the back of the spoon so the broth is mostly covering it. Simmer until the tofu is heated through and the flavors have melded, about 3 minutes. Taste and add more kimchi, broth and/or soy sauce, to your taste.

Meanwhile, poach the eggs in simmering water to which you’ve added a little white vinegar. Whites should be set but yolks still runny, about 3 minutes. Divide the stew among four bowls, being careful not to break up the tofu. Top with the eggs and sprinkle scallions over. Serve immediately, with rice on the side.

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We all need a few quick and healthy dishes when we are cooking for ourselves. Here’s one of my favorites that can be done in less than 5 minutes. It’s inspired by Dr. Seuss’ beloved children’s classic, “Green Eggs and Ham.”

Greens, Eggs, No Ham

Makes 1 serving

1 slice good, whole-grain or crusty artisan bread, such as ciabatta

2 teaspoons unsalted butter or olive oil

¼ cup chopped scallions (1 large), including the green tops

2 cups lightly packed savory young greens, such as arugula, baby spinach and/or watercress

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons or so freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese

2 eggs

Toast the bread lightly and set in the middle of a plate or shallow bowl.

Meanwhile, heat 1 teaspoon butter or oil in a small, nonstick skillet over moderate heat. Add the scallions and saute for a minute or so or until softened. Add the greens and saute for another minute so they just begin to wilt. Season to your taste with salt and pepper and place on top of toast. Sprinkle half the cheese on top of that.

Place remaining teaspoon of butter in the skillet. Break the eggs into the skillet and cook them sunny side up or done to your liking. Place on top of greens and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Immediately invert the skillet over the eggs and let stand for a minute or two to melt the cheese and firm up the eggs.

John Ash is a Santa Rosa chef, teacher, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and radio host of KSRO’s “Good Food Hour” airing at 11 a.m. Saturday. He can be reached through his website, chefjohnash.com.

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