Just an egg?

Today I have decided to stand by the egg, which in my opinion, is the least celebrated ingredient in the kitchen despite its fundamental importance to so many recipes.
Nowadays, we get so used in taking everything for granted that we have lost the sense of appreciation and respect for what we eat.
Like kids, we think that just because we buy food every day at the markets,  there is an obvious and never-ending source of all the food we eat. But where does our food come from? And what if, all of a sudden, everything we have taken for granted about food is no longer available to us? Ignorance is bliss, so they say… but I try, with my small contribution, to open eyes and consciences every day. Let’s respect what we eat, and we will be respected as well. How? By living a longer and healthier life.
The egg is for many, such a cheap ingredient but for many others it is revered as such an incredible gift of life. And that is what it is: a real gift of life. When I hear someone saying about an egg that did not come out right: “Oh it’s just an egg, 40 cents, throw it out and make another one” my blood starts boiling.
Do people ever realize how that egg got there to begin with? Probably not. Well, there is a hen behind it and it used its body to produce it. Many people do not care where their food comes from, what it took to produce it or how it was made. What a shame. And I am not talking about just the egg. It is the same for milk, meat, fish and all that involves animals. The question does not cross people’s minds or hearts. It is just an egg! 40 cents.
We, as chefs, should have the mandatory task to treat meat and fish and everything else we eat with respect. It should be taught in the elementary school. The animal was sacrificed for our stomach,after all. Let people know this. It will change the perspective on food.
I am not a vegan by any means, however I respect vegans immensely for their message. I chose to be a chef, but one who respects animals and their well-being, that’s how simple it is. Let them have a decent life before they become your meal.
We should teach our children where food comes from and consequently, to respect it.
The egg, this 40-cent miracle of life, is basically the best part of so many recipes: egg pasta (one of my recipes calls for 40 egg yolks per kilo of flour) pastry creams, gelato, sauces, stuffings, batters, pastry and cookie dough. Not to mention their main role in frittata and omelettes. It shows on the table fried , boiled, scrambled, poached, marinated, deviled, Benedict, poached and then fried…
Is this really just an egg? Time to give it some more credit don’t you think?
I have 30 hens (and each one has a name) and a gigantic white and black rooster, Oreste! I get 30 fresh and incredibly beautiful eggs every day. Nobody will ever kill them as they are my pets. I treat them as royalty, and they thank me with their eggs, making my food taste amazing.
Even the art world would not have been what it is without eggs: from Sandro Botticelli to Leonardo da Vinci, from Piero della Francesca to Renee Magritte (La Clairvoyance) and from Hieronymus Bosch to Faberge. They all have used the egg in different ways to produce what we now appreciate as the most beautiful and powerful masterpieces ever painted or made. The egg yolk used to prevent paintings from molding and the egg white mixed with colors would give birth to more resistant pigments. For the Renaissance, this was quite the innovation.
So what came first? The chicken or the egg? I can easily answer: the chicken! So many subliminal messages inside this cosmic egg. In the Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch shows a chaotic world with a gigantic egg and people breaking into it trying to go back to a peaceful state, to when they were conceived. The egg has so many symbolic meanings, in every culture and religion. So why is it not as prized as other more celebrated foods? Time to change our point of view and consider it not just a big staple in our diet but a priceless element in our recipes. And always remember who is behind it: a hen!
Easter has always been the period of the year in my house where the egg was the star of the feast. And I am not talking about just the Chocolate Easter Egg. After a well-respected period of Lent, where my grandma used to x-ray everyone’s mind and stomach to make sure nobody was transgressing the “no meat” rule, Easter day was finally coming. And that day had no rivals. Eat all you can eat and maybe explode in the end! Growing up in a Catholic family means many things: traditions, celebrations, family reunions and more important…endless meals where lunch fades into dinner and sometimes dinner fades into breakfast. Seriously. Those 10 lbs so painfully lost during Lent, were immediately re gained with the holidays. That was the rule back then.

Let me rewind the tape to the days before Easter. Nonna was the real chef of the family and she would not ask for help. She was quite the General. The holiday meals were her thing, the moment every smile and clean plate meant that she had been incredible, as usual. The preparation of just the Easter lunch would start a couple of days before. Collecting the eggs from her 40 some chickens every day was my duty. If I wanted to have enough eggs for her, my job had to start al least a week prior. There were no supermarkets in my village. There were no supermarkets in the area in the 60’s. Being on egg duty was a huge responsibility for me as the number of the eggs she would have used was incredible. “if you break the eggs, there will be no Easter egg for you!” The pressure was on.
That very day, after Mass, the whole side of my mother’s family, with no exception or defection was all waiting for the feast! Grandma would appear in her best image of herself, solemnly carrying a porcelain plate with the blessed shelled hard-boiled eggs, surgically cut in as many pieces as there were family members. Just a handful of hours before, my cousins and I had painted those eggs to present them to God in their most glorious look. At that point everyone would sit down, and Great Grandpa Celso would get up, making the sign of the cross and starting a long chain of prayers. Everyone, despite salivating at the sight of what was displayed on the table, would pray with him until he had made another sign of the cross, starting the so coveted meal.
The menu was always the same, every year: First we would eat our piece of blessed egg with the pasimata bread (unleavened bread with fennel seeds) then the attack of the fortress would start, to last for hours! Crostini with chicken liver pate, deviled eggs, cured meats, pickled veggies, chicken broth with egg pastina, her incredible meat stuffed Tordelli served with a meat ragu that had slowly cooked for 8 hours, and then a display of roasted lamb, beef, pork and fried meats, assorted vegetables in every style, boiled chicken to finally end with the bang! Her cognac-soaked ladyfingers drowned in the silkiest most luscious rich custard were always a hit. Zia Ro’s huge and creamy torta di riso coi becchi (a chocolate and rice cake) always followed and of course the unmissable Chocolate Easter Egg, the party boy, concluded the meal. And we normally survived it!
My Aunt Ines was from Massa Carrara. For my grandma she was a clear outsider. What did she know about our family traditional meals? Nothing according to her. But she was her daughter in law and as suche, ‘ma had to bite her tongue during her superlong life. Ines’s tradition was to make the Torta Massese, which consisted of a thin layer of cooked rice topped with a mountain of a yellow crème caramel- like pudding baked in the oven. My grandma never considered that, part of our very own family lunch. But she would kind of accept it on the table. Obviously, lol. Laughter, so much talking, children giggling, smoke of cigarettes in between the courses, clinking glasses…that atmosphere and that noise were so special. That was what an Italian celebration of Easter at my grandma’s house sounded like. All that meal was featuring eggs, in hidden or physical forms. I cannot imagine that meal without all those courses.
Zia Marina, my grandma’s cousin, was famous for her fritto. When we say fritto in Tuscany we refer to fried assorted veggies and meats and not necessarily to the fish fritto misto, almost unknown in those days despite we are just 10 minutes far from the sea. In those days the fritto featured any type of meat and seasonal vegetables: lamb, rabbit, chicken, beef, sweetbreads, brains, zucchini, artichokes, pumpkin, onion rings, potatoes, cardoons, cauliflower. Generously dipped in an egg batter and slowly fried until golden and crispy. If she could, Zia Marina would have fried her curtains as well! She was the family frier and she would wait for us at some point in between lunch and dinner. That was her way of welcoming people to her house on Easter day. I am so glad the words cholesterol, diet, sugar intake were ignored in those days! A occhio e croce (give or take) each one of us had probably ingurgitated easily 12,000 calories that day.
The number of eggs used for just Easter day was immense and despite this evidence, the egg was still considered just one of the ingredients. Nobody ever thought about its importance in terms of origin. Eggs are eggs, used to say my grandma. And the hen? Well, like the old saying goes…an old hen makes a good broth!
And now? Would you look at the egg in a different way?

Calzinperio (Eggs in a Tomato Sauce)

This humble but delicious recipe originated in Versilia where it is also simply known as Uova al Pomodoro. It consists of a quick tomato sauce made with slivered garlic, extra virgin olive oil, fresh ripe peeled tomatoes, fesh eggs, seasonings and fresh basil or parsley. Enjoy!

4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic, peeled and slivered
4 large ripe tomatoes, skin crossed with a knife, quickly boiled and shocked in cold water, then peeled and chopped
sea salt to taste
4 large fresh eggs
freshly ground black pepper
fresh basil or freshly minced parsley

Using a heavy gauged skillet ( I normally use Lodge cast iron skillets) place extra virgin olive oil and garlic. Gently cook for a few seconds, without coloring the garlic. Add the chopped tomatoes, season with salt and cook for about 10 minutes on a low heat. Once tomatoes have reduced, break the eggs directly into the sauce and cook for 2 minutes, scrambling the whites directly into the sauce. Cook until no liquid shows anymore, about 2 more minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Garnish with basil or parsley.

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