When I got my copy of Happy Hens and Fresh Eggs by Toronto author Signe Langford I judged it, yes judged it, by its cover. Cute quirky name, I thought, guessing this was yet another cookbook on eating local with a beautifully art-directed cover.
This cookbook is a keeper.
Who knew I’d be racing hungrily through its 200 smartly designed pages to learn all the ins and outs of hen-keeping while simultaneously salivating over 100 egg-filled recipes, brought to life by Donna Griffith’s brilliant food photography? It doesn’t hurt that there are so many stunning portraits of Langford’s so-called Ladies- be it white-feathered Miss Vicky, her two ex-battery hens Ginger and Lizzy Borden, or that stunner on the cover with her black and white patterned feathers: Big Mama.
Langford is a former chef, Toronto food writer and illegal hen-keeper. She dotes over her recipes and her Ladies with equal attention, thus readers will find tips on how to cure hen maladies such as bumblefoot or calcium deficiency interspersed with designer food shots of “teeny tiny lemon meringues en coquille d’oeuf ”. On one page you learn that egg whites are the secret behind truly crispy sweet potato fries and on another Langford winds you down her garden path, chases down a sick bird and before you know it, there’s a slightly TMI segue into the how-to’s of egg extraction from an egg bound hen that is soaking in her hot sink.
Needless to say, Langford is not your regular city girl. Her passion for hens, gardening and cooking (not necessarily in that order) joins forces with her sharp-witted (some might say ballsy) writing style to create a treasure of a book. She sidles perilously close to cutesy and cliché lingo- yet gets away with it with bravado, waxing lyrical about tucking her hens into bed at Cluckingham Palace; happily bringing them indoors to roost if they are ailing or nearing Henopause; laughing when “Ginger all drumsticks and bum-fluff” gets into a group cluck; and full of sage advice not only for a backyard garden but the kitchen – because this city farmer has a lot of eggs.
Having an entire cookbook devoted to the noble egg is heaven. I’ve been an admirer of the sheer simplicity and comfort of eggs for too many decades, yet I’ll be the first to admit that Langford’s ode to the hollandaise may give me just enough strength to tackle that obstreperous sauce. That’s because simple ol’ eggs can be deceptively tricky and Langford’s approach to recipe writing is thorough, instructive and full of neat solutions. She’s got the cure for the dreaded separated hollandaise and when it comes to the soufflé she writes, “Gingerly slip the soufflé in the oven. Yell at anyone who walks with more weight than a cat stalking a mouse, and bake until puffed and lightly golden – about 20 to 25 minutes. Rush to the table and serve immediately to grateful oohs and aahs.”
But it’s the basics that I really appreciate in Happy Hens and Fresh Eggs. Langford has an easy, timer-free solution to hard boiling eggs and reveals that eggs can be frozen for later use in baking. In a section titled, “essential egg recipes done perfectly… my way” she walks readers through scrambled, fried, coddled (woah!) and poached with the authority a brunch line-cook survivor. While she’s a purist when it comes to fresh eggs she’s no Prohibitionist, encouraging cooks to add “a couple of glugs of fruit brandy” or pop a scraped and cleaned vanilla bean “into a mickey of vodka for a real treat”. As I said, these are tips we can all use.
A wide variety of Canadian cooks have contributed recipes to this book, including grill king Ted Reader who supplies “Mucked UP Eggs” (possibly the least appetizing food shot in the book), scotch eggs from Chef John Higgins, Director of George Brown College’s Chef School and Meeru’s Curried Devilled Eggs, a recipe also found in another of my favourite cooking tomes Vij’s at Home: Relax Honey by Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij.
My grandmother Maim made devilled eggs showered with chives that would have been worthy entries in this cookbook. She served them weekly when our onslaught of hungry family appeared for her Sunday buffet lunches. Back in the 70s, devilled eggs were a common feature at any formal lunch. Now they’re making a comeback as are the classic, indented devilled egg dishes that hold the slippery mouthfuls in place. Here’s Langford’s take on the little devil.
5 hard-boiled free-run eggs, peeled and rinsed ¼ tsp (1 mL) fine sea salt, or more to taste ¼ tsp (1 mL) white pepper, or more to taste 1 tsp (5 mL) dry mustard ¼ cup (60 mL) mayonnaise 1 tsp (5 mL) pickle juice Paprika for garnish
My Devilled Eggs
5 hard-boiled free-run eggs, peeled and rinsed
¼ tsp (1 mL) fine sea salt, or more to taste
¼ tsp (1 mL) white pepper, or more to taste
1 tsp (5 mL) dry mustard
¼ cup (60 mL) mayonnaise
1 tsp (5 mL) pickle juice
Paprika for garnish