les oeufs, Louisiana-style

This is the time of year when eggs are much in demand, first as a source of penitential protein during the meatless Lenten days and then again on Easter Sunday, when parents hide brightly colored eggs around the yard for well-scrubbed and eager children to find. On this spring day, the egg ascends to the throne as a celebratory food, a symbol of rebirth, renewal, new beginnings — a symbol of life itself. Even in its starring role, however, the humble egg must compete for attention with luxurious chocolates masquerading as eggs in their shiny gold foil wrappers.

Those dual roles must sometimes create confusion for the egg, as it cycles from anonymous understudy to its brief starring role, then back again to its modest position. In truth, the egg rarely gets the respect it deserves. Eggs are an important part of our diet throughout the year, but we tend to take them for granted and hardly give them a second thought.

If we think about eggs at all, it is most often at the breakfast table, where they appear in a variety of preparations, either on their own or as an ingredient in pain perdu (lost bread), pancakes, waffles, muffins and breakfast breads. There, in the fog of our early morning hours, eggs serve again as symbols of new beginnings, though, if asked, many likely would assign that importance to their morning coffee, relegating the egg, once again, to a supporting role.

Eggs definitely are the stars of such famous brunch dishes as eggs Sardou, eggs Benedict and eggs Hussarde. In addition to the poached eggs that crown those elegant creations, egg yolks are essential to the silken hollandaise sauces that enrobe them. And what of the egg whites that share their shell with those rich yolks? They may be scrambled or made into an omelet for abstemious dieters, but they really have their moment of glory piled high in fluffy meringues atop cream pies or served as floating islands in a sea of luscious custard made with egg yolks.

Eggs also come into their own in the form of deviled eggs, much loved by both adults and children and a staple on holiday and picnic tables, where they are eaten in quantities that would alarm a cardiologist.

In The Glory of Southern Cooking, James Villas notes: “In the South, the special compartmentalized plates (in ceramic or glass) used to serve deviled eggs are as important as the eggs themselves. As one hostess uttered to me not long ago, ‘Anybody who serves deviled eggs on a plain ole white plate is just  … tacky.’”

Pickled eggs also have their adherents, but they are another matter altogether. They most definitely are not served from special plates but are fished, without ceremony, from gallon jars and plopped down on bar napkins accompanied by a shaker of salt and often a Slim Jim or a bag of pork rinds or both. Rarely, if ever, making an appearance in polite society, those bracing, vinegared bombs are at home in the company of cold beer in a raucous barroom or roadhouse filled with the lonesome wails of country music. Sometimes beet juice has colored them a pale pink so that they resemble pastel Easter eggs, though it is unlikely that even a child would be fooled by such a masquerade.

There would be no bread pudding without eggs, but it is the bread and not the egg that gets the credit. Crème caramel and crème brûlée owe their very existence to eggs, though it is the caramel and the burnt sugar that people remember and long for. A plain egg custard or a nutmeg-scented custard pie will have loyal fans, but they are few compared with the crowds that flock to their more embellished cousins.

Eggs have been –– and still are –– of supreme importance for people living in hard times, particularly those in rural areas who keep chickens and rely on eggs as a source of cheap protein and as a way of extending scarce provisions. The practice of adding hard-boiled eggs to a chicken gumbo probably began for that reason, and some continue it to this day, though often out of preference or nostalgia rather than necessity. The potato salad that usually accompanies a chicken gumbo owes its luxurious richness to an already egg-rich mayonnaise further embellished with chopped hard-boiled eggs. Without eggs, potato salad would be nothing more than plain boiled potatoes.

Eggs Acadiana
This dish consists of a broiled boudin patty topped with a poached egg and covered with tomato-hollandaise sauce. Because it is very rich, I find that one egg per person is enough. Serve with a green salad and hot biscuits or French bread.

1 pound boudin
4 egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon cane vinegar
4 teaspoons tomato paste
1/2 pound unsalted butter, softened
Cayenne to taste
4 eggs

Slit the boudin casing, remove the boudin, and discard the casing. Form the boudin into 4 patties. Place the patties on a lightly greased broiler pan, and set aside. Preheat the broiler.

In a stainless steel mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks, salt, water and vinegar. Whisk to combine. Place the bowl over a pot of simmering water, and cook, while whisking, until the mixture thickens. Add the tomato paste, and whisk to combine. Add the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, whisking well after each addition and moving the bowl away from the heat and then back, as needed. If the sauce becomes too thick, whisk in a little hot water. Turn off the heat under the pot of water, season the sauce with cayenne, and place the bowl on top of the pot to keep warm.

Broil the boudin patties until browned, about 8 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, poach the eggs.

Place a boudin patty on a warm plate, top it with a poached egg, and cover with tomato-hollandaise sauce. Serves 4.

Shrimp-and-Egg Stew
If you have heads-on shrimp, you can replace the chicken broth in this recipe with shrimp stock made by simmering the heads and shells in water. Seasoning preferences vary greatly here. Some like the stew spicy; others prefer mild seasonings to accentuate the sweetness of the shrimp. I am in the latter camp.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons dry roux
2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 eggs
Salt to taste
Cayenne to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup chopped green onion tops
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Steamed rice

Heat the oil in a heavy pot; add the onion, bell pepper and garlic; and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the broth in a small pot, whisk in the roux to dissolve, and add this to the vegetable mixture. Cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the shrimp, and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in another pot, cover the eggs with water, bring to a boil, cover, turn off the heat, and let sit for 10 minutes. Drain, and place the eggs under cold running water to cool. Peel the eggs, and chop them finely.

Add the eggs to the shrimp mixture; season with salt, cayenne and black pepper; and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the parsley and green onions, and serve with steamed rice. Serves 4.

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