It's Spring at the dinner table: from foraged ramps and fiddleheads to rhubarb and asparagus, there's no shortage of love being made to the season's bounty. Too bad more is not made of eggs, seasonal throughout most of their history and now seasonal again -- if you want the very best -- in any part of the country too cold for hens to spend the winter outdoors.
Well-treated chickens that are not fed things you don't want to think about produce tastier eggs year 'round, but the eggs that are really worth crowing about are super-fresh local eggs from hens that spend a lot of time on pasture, getting exercise and fresh air, eating bugs (concentrated protein, lots of minerals) and green vegetables. (Many kinds of dark green leaves are rich in carotenes, precursors to vitamin A and a much better way to have deep yellow yolks than putting annato -- a spice that acts as a yellow dye -- in the chicken feed).
Backyard eggs (from right up the road) , from an assortment of heirloom chickens. Cost: $4/ dozen, 33 cents each
Pastured eggs cost more than conventional eggs, but they deliver a lot more pleasure, a better environmental bargain and a cleaner conscience (you do not want to KNOW how cheap eggs are produced). And pastured eggs have thicker shells, a significant benefit given how useful eggshells are for things other than enclosing eggs:
In the house:
* great for cleaning narrow-necked bottles and vases. Crush a shell, working it between your fingers so the bits aren't stuck together. Stuff it into the bottle, add a small amount of very hot water and swish/shake vigorously until all looks clean. Pour out, catching the shell in a strainer in case you missed a spot and have to shove it back in.
In the garden:
* Dig one or two thoroughly crushed shells into the soil around tomato plants. The lack of calcium that causes blossom end rot is usually a result of inconsistent watering, but a little extra insurance never hurts and eggshells are almost pure calcium.
* Rinse and dry shells, then crush to roughly rice-sized bits and spread a carpet of them under hostas and similar plants to discourage slugs and snails. Many advisors say "sprinkle" the bits, but a sprinkling won't have much effect in the deterrent department. This carpet is not beautiful. You can make it a little less sock-in-the eye by soaking the crushed shells in strong tea for several days to stain the white parts brown.
* Excellent in the compost. No need to crush if you don't want to bother, but as with everything else, the smaller the piece the sooner it rots.
* Substitute for peat pots. NOT. In An Island Garden (1894), Celia Thaxter charmingly describes starting poppies in halved eggshells instead of little pots. It sounds like a great idea: Biodegradable, easy to transport and free. In my experience, however, it's difficult to get the shell halves reasonably even, even when you hard boil the eggs so you can slice them across.
Then you've got to bore a drainage hole (darning needle better than icepick). They don't hold much soilless mix, so they won't support plants for long. And then you've got to fracture them before planting so the tiny roots can get out. Applying just the right force to the squeeze is an art all by itself.
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