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Austin's egg rolls jump as more chickens take up roost in backyards

Raised awareness of food safety and healthly eating prompt more Austin residents to buy and raise chickens in the backyard.

Denise Gamino
With Martha Stewart as her model of self-sufficiency, Judith Haller was going to start with three chickens. She now has nine, and gets about five eggs a day.

Austin's backyard egg production line just keeps getting longer.

A young Silver Lakenvelder chicken living behind the garage of Judith Haller's Central Austin home is trying out for one of the jobs.

"Bawk, bawk, bawk, bawk, BAWK!" goes the pullet as it scrambles inside a wire enclosure.

Haller is caught by surprise.

"I've never heard her do that," she says. "That's the laying song.

"That means she's getting more mature. Usually, it means someone is about to, or will, lay an egg. She's a wannabe egg layer."

The bird is only four months old. Chickens don't usually lay their first egg until they are 18 to 20 weeks old.

But who can blame the young bird for wanting to hurry up and join the egg rolls of Austin?

Nobody in Austin goes door to door to collect census stats for backyard chickens, but everyone agrees the numbers are growing. And fast. It's a big, boisterous backyard party out there.

"It's phenomenal," says Mike Young, manager of Callahan's General Store, near the Montopolis neighborhood in East Austin.

This year, Callahan's sold 1,000 chicks over Easter weekend, a store record.

"It's not about Easter chicks for toys," Young says. "These chicks were sold to be raised as food or egg producers, not to be used for children's playthings or dyed pink because it was Easter."

More homes in Austin are serving the deep golden yolks that are the signature bull's eye of eggs that come straight from the yard instead of the grocery store cooler. And online forums such as the Austin Backyard Poultry Meetup Group are building networks and educating people about all aspects of raising chickens, including how to — as one meetup member put it — "send my rooster to freezer camp."

Austin now has the second-largest Backyard Poultry Meetup Group in the country. It began in May, 2009 and now has more than 700 members, including Haller, and is dwarfed only by the group in Atlanta.

You're as likely to find a coop full of chickens behind a duplex rental as in the yard of a home worth nearly $1 million. Ask about chickens, and someone can point you to the nearest coop.

This is how it begins:

"I'm going to be like Martha Stewart and have my own compost and my own chickens, and this is going to be really swell," Haller told herself in 2008.

"I was going to start with three," she says while surveying the current flock of nine chickens at her home near the Omelettry restaurant on Burnet Road.

"I had these three little chickens, and I had them loose running around. They just lit up the whole backyard. They are just so adorable. And I quickly became enthralled with these three little birds, so, of course, I had to go out and get a couple more."

Now she shares her yard with Agnes, Florence, Bertha, Salome, Ida, Etta, Ethel, Barbie and the pullet who is nearing egg-laying age.

Haller, spellbound by chickens, made some unusual lifestyle modifications. She found room in her broom closet for the chicks until they were old enough to live outdoors. She bought large amounts of writhing, gold mealworms so she could have good protein to feed the chickens. Mealworms cost about $7 per 100 worms in a pet store, but they cost Haller only pennies on the dollar because she raises them. She keeps them in an uncovered plastic bin in her house.

"I have a gallon of worms in my house," she says. "I've got a bin full of beetles, too. This is weird, isn't it? We chicken people get weirder and weirder."

Fellow chicken wrangler and Austin Backyard Poultry Meetup Group member Susan Bollinger understands. She keeps six pampered chickens across town in the Travis Heights neighborhood near Interstate 35 and Riverside Drive.

"This is where people would think I'm insane. You know how some people give their dogs treats? I go and get a bunch of inexpensive organic spinach from H-E-B, and then I feed (the hens) a few spinach leaves every day.

"But then that goes into me. When you think about how everything that goes into them is, therefore, then something that I'm going to eat, you feel a lot more justified in feeding them organically, feeding them the green vegetation that you would eat.

"It's really concrete. You are feeding them, and you get the egg and you bring it up here and put it in the pan."

That direct transfer of nutrition is what makes a yard egg such an excellent source of protein, says Austin chef Jesse Griffiths, whose popular Dai Due Supper Club serves only local, seasonal food grown without chemicals.

"You can go two routes," says Griffiths, who has three laying hens at his East Austin home. "You can put ten thousand chickens in a warehouse and feed them genetically modified grain and antibiotics, and then you can eat that in turn. Or, you can have some chickens in your backyard to know and trust, feed them organic grain and vegetable scraps, and you can just see the difference in the eggs.''

Yard eggs, he says, are superior to factory eggs.

"In the first place, they're fresher. You get a yolk that is golden like the sun. It stands out, it's firm, the whites aren't runny.

"They just taste better. It's buttery. The texture has a richer, fattier flavor. It's just more vibrant. When people who aren't used to eating them eat one, they know that egg is special somehow.

"A lot of times eggs from the store can be a little sulfurous. There's a smell. They can have a fishy odor from being old."

About 80 percent of eggs produced in the United States come from 600 farms, each of which has more than 50,000 hens, according to the federal government.

The U.S. egg market took a hit over the summer when two large operations based in Iowa recalled more than 500 million eggs because of salmonella contamination. Government inspectors found infestations of rodents and flies and mounds of manure at company egg factories. More than 1,500 people were sickened by the bacteria.

The Texas AgriLife Extension Service recommends washing backyard eggs to rid them of any fecal matter, washing hands after handling the eggs and refrigerating the eggs as soon as possible. Nesting boxes need to be kept clean as well, said Skip Richter, director of the Travis County extension service.

Food safety is a top reason for the popularity of backyard chickens.

"Austinites are very interested in knowing where their food source comes from," says Michelle Hernandez, a computer project management consultant who organizes the Austin Backyard Poultry Meetup Group. "More and more people are raising chickens.

"My birds get to be on pasture daily, eating insects and helping till my soil. I get bright orange-yellow eggs every time. I use the chicken 'black gold' in my compost. I get beautiful organic veggies from my garden, which I eat and can also share with my chickens."

Haller's hens, which she calls "pretty girls," provide up to five eggs a day. She freezes, gives away or sells her extra eggs.

In July, she attended a chicken processing event at Eden's Cove farm in Cedar Creek that drew about 30 people and about that many birds. Most of those attending had never killed a healthy bird for its meat. Haller had trepidation, but was determined to overcome avoidance of how a chicken breast lands on the dinner table. She dispatched two birds.

"I purchased one specifically for processing — a stranger chicken whom I didn't have a relationship with," she said. "Someone gave me another chicken and said, 'Here, you can process it and keep the meat.'\u2009"

Processing the chickens "was difficult, but that was the whole point: Are you serious about learning what it really takes?"

The Austin Backyard Poultry Meetup Group offers other chicken lessons, too. The forums are clucking with topics like these:

"My rooster attacked me!"

"Seeking Bantam Stud Service."

"It's Happening ... My hen is turning into a roo!"

"Rattler in the coop!"

"Do Chickens Eat Ants?"

When her first hen laid an egg last month, Bollinger was like a proud parent.

"The first egg is so exciting. I've taken photographs of it. There's a photo on my iPhone and there are photos on my Facebook page."

She even weighs each egg and marks the progress as the orbs grow bigger with time.

In her refrigerator is a special egg carton for her backyard eggs. She peeled off the label from the store and wrote in a new one:

"Our Own Chicken Eggs."

Bollinger, who next month begins a weekly radio show called "Food Love Austin" on KOOP 91.7 FM, is doing all she can to spread the chicken love.

She has posted a few videos on YouTube that she thought would appeal to chicken lovers who joke about trading television for sitting in the yard watching chickens.

"The first video that I put up on YouTube, I called it 'Chick TV.' And I checked the statistics on it randomly some months later (and wondered) 'Why do I have much higher hits from 17-year-old boys?' And then I realized it was because of 'Chick TV.'"; 445-3675.

Egg and chicken dish contest

What: Austin Backyard Poultry Meetup Group recipe and prepared dish contest

Where: Callahan's General Store, 501 U.S. 183 S., 385-3452

When: Saturday, 2 p.m.

Speaker: Jesse Griffiths, chef of Dai Due Supper Club

Judges: Sebastien Bonneu of Countryside Farms and Joy Casnovsky, director of the Sustainable Food Center's the Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre program


Skillet Frittata with Chard

Serves 4

4 to 5 stalks of Swiss chard, including stems

1 Tbsp. vegetable, nut or sesame oil

1 Tbsp. olive oil

2 Tbsp. sherry or red wine vinegar

6 large or extra large eggs

1 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove stems from chard and coarsely dice them. In an 8-inch ovenproof skillet, sauté the stems in vegetable oil until tender. Roll the chard leaves together into a tube; chop them diagonally into shreds about a half-inch wide. Add them to the skillet with the olive oil; stir until the leaves are coated and begin to wilt. Reduce the heat to medium; carefully add the vinegar and cover the skillet so that the leaves steam. When they are well wilted but not brown, remove the skillet from the heat. Whisk six eggs in a bowl until slightly foamy; add the salt. Pour the eggs into the skillet over the chard leaves. Stir to distribute the chard. Bake for 20 minutes or until mostly set (an inserted knife should reveal a center that's still moist; the frittata will continue cooking after it's removed from the oven). Serve warm.

— Michelle Hernandez

Nested Eggs

(A variation on the Basque dish pipérade)

1 red bell pepper (seed membrane removed)

1 small zucchini

6-8 oz. shiitake mushrooms, caps only

1 small can diced tomatoes

1 small sweet onion

1 medium garlic clove

A few Tbsp. olive oil for cooking

A pinch of cayenne

Salt and pepper to taste

Fresh or dried basil and thyme (Fresh: 1 cup basil, chiffonade; 3-4 sprigs thyme, destemmed. Dried: 1 tsp. basil, 1 tsp. thyme)

4 fresh eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Slice pepper, zucchini and mushrooms into very thin slices (no larger than pencil-width). Dice onion and mince garlic clove.

Heat a large, heavy sauté pan over medium heat and add mushrooms. Dry sauté mushrooms a few minutes until they begin to turn golden. Add oil and onions, cook for about 3 more minutes and increase heat to medium high. Add peppers and zucchini and continue to sauté until softened. Add garlic and fresh thyme (if using dried herbs, add thyme and basil). Stir together for a few minutes then add tomatoes. Continue to cook together over medium low heat, adding salt, pepper and cayenne to taste. (If using fresh herbs, add basil here.)

Spoon four small ramekins about half full with veggie mixture. Use the back of a spoon to gently press veggies to the sides, shaping a "nest." Crack a single egg into the center of each nest. Lightly salt and pepper top of each egg. Place on a baking sheet (for ease of transfer) and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until egg whites are just set (firm and opaque). Serve immediately. Best with warm crusty bread.

Note: If you don't have ramekins, one large nest could be made in a casserole or other baking dish, with four separate "nests" scooped out and equally spaced. For extra richness, a few teaspoons of cream could be spooned over each egg before baking. Left-over veggie mixture is great for pasta or pizza.

— Susan Bollinger

Tea-Infused Crème Brûlée

8 egg yolks (or 1/2 cup of thawed yolks)

1/2 cup sugar

21/2 cups milk, cream or half-and-half

2 bags of any favorite tea that tastes good with cream (try Earl Grey if you don't have a favorite)

Extra sugar for topping

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter six 6-ounce custard cups or ramekins.

Whisk eggs and sugar together in a bowl until smooth. In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, warm the milk or cream until tiny bubbles form around the edges of the milk. Remove from heat and add teabags. Allow to steep for 5-10 minutes.

Using a metal tea strainer, slowly pour the milk or cream through the strainer into the egg yolk mixture, whisking to keep it smooth. Fill ramekins or custard cups about 3/4 full. Set the dishes in a baking dish and add hot tap water until the water reaches about halfway up the custard cups. Bake for 25-30 minutes. The center should be slightly jiggly and soft.

Allow to cool. Sprinkle sugar over the top of each dish and caramelize with a kitchen torch or set under the broiler until the sugar melts and turns golden.

— Judith Haller

Deviled Eggs

12 large eggs

4 Tbsp. mayonnaise (or your favorite dressing)

Diced onion to taste

Diced garlic to taste

One small jar of diced pimiento

4 Tbsp. pickle relish (sweet or dill)

Hard-boil eggs and peel.

Cut each egg lengthwise; put yolks into a bowl and the whites on a plate.

Mash yolks and mix with remaining ingredients. Fill halved whites with yolk mixture and arrange on a plate. Sprinkle with paprika.

Chill and keep cold while serving.

— Sharon Bramblett, Mesquite Bean Llama farm in Manor, and owner of 12 chickens.

Lemon Pudding Cakes

3/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

3 large eggs, separated (or 1/4 cup yolks and 1/3 cup whites)

2 Tbsp. softened butter

1 cup milk, cream, or half-and-half

4-5 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice

1 tsp. finely grated lemon zest

1/4 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter six 6-ounce ramekins. Whisk sugar with flour. In another bowl, blend egg yolks with the butter. Whisk in the milk, lemon juice and lemon zest. Add lemon mixture to the sugar mixture, whisk until smooth.

In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites with the salt until firm peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the lemon mixture. Pour batter into the buttered ramekins and set them in a large baking pan. Put the pan in the oven and add hot tap water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins.

Bake the pudding cakes for 35 minutes. They should look billowy and be slightly golden on top.

Be careful handling the pan of hot water. The ramekins can be removed with tongs or a pair of spatulas and set aside to cool. The pudding cakes can be served warm or chilled.

— Judith Haller, owner of nine chickens

How to freeze poultry eggs

Crack eggs and separate the yolks from the whites. Stir yolks gently just to break them. Stir in a pinch of salt for each yolk if the eggs are to be used later for a breakfast dish, or a pinch of sugar per yolk if the eggs are to be used for a dessert. (Important: Do not beat air into yolks or they will get freezer burn.)

Put yolks in a zip-top bag, squeeze out the air and freeze. Do the same for whites, which can go straight from the shell into a bag; no stirring is necessary.

Label and date the bags. When ready to use, let eggs thaw in the refrigerator or on the counter. Put the whites and yolks in a bowl; whisk together.

— Judith Haller, owner of nine chickens