I once inadvertently lost 30 pounds. I was 23, and I had just moved to Portland, Ore. I started my job search with high hopes: I'd gotten one writing job while still in college, so I naively imagined that with experience under my belt it would be a snap to get another, better position. Despite my happy obliviousness, Portland's famously bad job market yawned its dark maw.
While job and house hunting, I paid rent to sleep on a friend's couch, which I shared with her reprehensible golden retriever. As the weeks passed, my budget dwindled. I set my sights lower and broadened my job search. I whittled my diet down to three items: protein cereal, broccoli and eggs.
I'd always hated eggs, but they were the cheapest source of protein that came to mind. For breakfast, cereal. For lunch, scrambled eggs. For dinner, scrambled eggs and broccoli. I learned to eat eggs without gagging, but it was a long three months. I'm guessing the reason I lost weight was because my normal obsession with food dwindled in the light of unceasing monotony.
Despite the boredom, I could have done worse. Protein rich, eggs are high in riboflavin and vitamin B12. An egg also contains selenium, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. Eggs have long been maligned by health-conscious people for their high levels of cholesterol, but if you aren't getting much cholesterol from the rest of your diet (if, for example, the rest of your diet is broccoli and protein cereal), it's not a problem. And recent data from the USDA shows that eggs are 14 percent lower in cholesterol than previously thought.
Flash-forward 10 years. The current economy has me once again relying on eggs as a major source of protein, but this time I have a few advantages: improved cooking skills, superior cooking equipment, the inclination to supplement my diet with foraged ingredients, the beginnings of a garden and a better source of eggs, which means eggs that are lower in cholesterol and higher in nutrients.
We usually buy our eggs from a friend and neighbor with a passel of fat, happy chickens. When I go by her place to buy eggs, I enjoy watching the speckled chickens strutting about, pecking bugs from her rolling lawns. Their eggs are beautiful: The shells range in hue from blue-tinged to cinnamon; some shells seem spackled, others smooth. The yolks are deep orange and delicious. Eat a quiche made with farm-fresh eggs and wild mushrooms and it's easy to feel rich, or at least fortunate.
Over the winter and spring I experimented with eggs. I made huevos rancheros with homemade black beans, nettle fritters, challah and wild mushroom omelets. We ate fried eggs, boiled eggs and egg salad sandwiches. It never felt like a chore. When we went to visit friends in the city, we'd take a dozen eggs. On our budget, it felt good to be able to contribute something that was a treat to city dwellers: farm-fresh eggs.
Recently, my newfound appreciation for eggs was tested. My mother-in-law, Kris, came to visit, and she brought us an offering from a friend who had (presumably) heard we were going through hard times. The gift in question? Seven dozen eggs from her chickens.
The eggs were beautiful and fresh, and I was certainly grateful for her gift. But I must admit that I felt a faint twinge of doubt about my ability to consume seven dozen eggs before they went bad. I stared dubiously at the stacks of cartons. They whispered "heart attack."
In the end, I gave a dozen to our neighbor Bill and another dozen to a friend in town. Rich boiled another dozen for his work lunches. Then Rich and I settled down to a diet featuring two egg-based meals a day. To make it fun, I decided not to cook the exact same thing twice. The first day we had omelets for breakfast and pasta in an egg-cream sauce for dinner. The omelet was tender and savory, and the pasta was sublime. I felt grateful for such bounty. The next day, I had a fried egg over vegetables for breakfast and huevos rancheros with red beans and rice for dinner. I had plenty of energy, and I hadn't had a heart attack yet. The wheels in my mind were turning: eggs Benedict with homemade sourdough muffins, crepes, popovers, custard, soufflé, quiche, homemade noodles, gnocchi...
The problem began when we ran low on other food. A lag between grocery runs and paychecks led to mostly bare cupboards. Except for eggs, of course. Soufflé gave way to hard-boiled eggs and fried eggs sans bread or potatoes or tortillas. We ate our nascent garden down to the nubs. Rich was doing heavy physical labor every day, and breakfast and lunch of hard-boiled eggs wasn't cutting it. We both admitted to feeling a little ill and instated a two-day hiatus from eggs.
Even a short period of deprivation can have an amazing effect on the senses. My check came in the mail, and we went grocery shopping. A vista of possibilities opened up before me: Suddenly I had cheese, and zucchini, and kale, and cream, and butter. We set into eating eggs again with enthusiasm (though this time I kept it to one meal a day). I whipped up a cat's-ear, arugula and Cheddar frittata. Friends came to visit for the weekend, and I made miniature oyster mushroom quiches in a chicken-fat-infused crust, and a traditional Nicaraguan breakfast with fried eggs and gallo pinto. Finally, nearly two weeks after the start of our egg challenge, I used the last dozen to make deviled eggs for a neighbor's barbecue. Lifting the last egg from its carton was almost surreal.
The pasta in egg cream sauce with radish greens was my favorite. Before this year, I would never have thought to eat radish greens, but I've discovered that cooking the leaves yields a silky green with a spice akin to mustard. It clings nicely to pasta. For this particular pasta dish, I heat cream to the simmering point in a saucepan, add the eggs, and turn off the stove. In a frying pan, I sauté garlic and oyster mushrooms for a minute, then add cooked angel hair pasta, parsley and radish greens. After the pasta is thoroughly coated in greens and herbs, I add the cream and egg mixture, stir, turn off the burner, and let the pan sit for a few minutes.
Heavy cream is certainly a luxury, but because the eggs were a gift and the vegetables, spices and mushrooms were homegrown or scavenged, this meal cost me about 70 cents per person. If I'd paid for the eggs, it would have been about 95 cents per person. The good news is that this protein-rich meal is still a decent value even if you shop for all of the ingredients -- radishes are not expensive and the oyster mushrooms are not essential to the dish. That said, I don't think I need to mention that I didn't lose 30 pounds on this diet.
Pasta with Radish Greens and Cream
- 1 cup whipping cream or half-and-half
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
- 1 teaspoon chicken fat
- 2 cloves garlic (chopped)
- 1/2 cup oyster mushrooms
- 1 tablespoon stock or white wine.
- 2 cups angel hair pasta (cooked al dente)
- 1 tablespoon parsley (chopped)
- 3 tablespoons chopped onion chives (chopped)
- 1 large handful of radish greens
- Parsley for garnish
- In a saucepan over low flame, heat cream. Stir constantly until cream is simmering. Add eggs and Parmesan cheese and kill flame. Beat contents of saucepan with fork.
- In a frying pan, heat chicken fat over medium-low flame. Add garlic and oyster mushrooms. Cook for a minute. Add stock or wine. Sauté until garlic is tender.
- Add cooked angel hair pasta, salt, parsley, chives and radish greens. Sauté for one minute. Kill flame and let pasta sit in pan for several minutes.
- Add cream, eggs and Parmesan. Stir.
- Serve sprinkled with Parmesan, fresh parsley and pepper.