A very busy Easter weekend has come and gone and all my plans of posting more ideas (recipes as well as decoration) have gone out of the window!
It was not for lack of trying, though: I made several attempts at finding alternative ways of dying Easter eggs, given that egg dyes are not available here in the UK. But alas, I didn't have much luck, as you will see below.
Much more successful, even though quite tricky to make, was a nice, seasonal starter I made on Easter Sunday: a thick & tasty soup of watercress and spinach, adorned with a beautiful Easter nest. I got the idea in a newsletter from a spa hotel I used to go to in Austria - the egg nest is tricky to make, but the visual effect is stunning. The base is made by cutting potatoes into very thin stips, curled up in a small sieve and deep-fried enough to hold its shape when removed from its container. If you're anything like me, the baskets will have you swearing to start with, but once you get the hang of it, they're not too difficult. They're certainly nice to look at with their potato straw baskets, salad cress lining and boiled quail's egg sitting in the middle and will earn you enough brownie points for presentation to make you forget all the fiddling beforehand.
But back to my attempts at dying. Following a request from a reader, I tried natural dyes for Easter eggs this year. Despite egg dyes being widely available in Austria, there were some years when my Mum dyed them naturally and I was convinced I could do the same. So off I went to my local Neal's Yard store (no, not the cheese shop, there's also a shop by the same name which specialises in natural remedies) to get some herbs which I wanted to use for tinctures or decoctions in which to dye the eggs. I knew that onion skins would work well, but they give you brown eggs... why would I go to great lengths to secure white eggs (these days, ALL hen's eggs here in the UK are brown) from ducks only to dye them brown? If I wanted brown eggs, I could just hard-boil the chicken eggs widely available in the supermarkets and polish them!
No, the plan was to use goldenrod or marigold (for yellow), hibiscus for red/pink and bilberries for purple eggs. So I washed the duck's eggs with vinegar to get rid of any dirt, boiled afore-mentioned fruits/flowers for 30 minutes, put in the eggs, boiled them for 12 minutes and left them to stand for the colours to really stick to the shell. At this point I wasn't even worried about their yolks turning a funny colour due to overcooking (which they didn't, amazingly), all I wanted was some beautifully coloured eggs.
I also decided to give some of them a pattern using herbs (coriander, dill) wrapped around the eggs and secured by stuffing the eggs in 10-den ankle-high tights... it worked amazingly well.
The hibiscus dyed the eggs beautifully, giving them a deep pink colour, the marigold was very disappointing, leaving the eggs with only the faintest hue of yellow, barely visible, despite being in their "bath" for many hours. I was very pleasantly surprised with the effect of the bilberries. I cooked them for 30 minutes, then puréed them with a hand-held blender, cooked the eggs in the resulting pulp and left them to cool in it as well. The result was a lovely pastelly purple.
So the dying does work in principle - however, as soon as I took the eggs out of their dye, the colour came off in a thick, greasy paste. It was as if the eggs had been treated with something, a protective layer which hadn't come off when I rubbed them with vinegar, but only through cooking them. If duck's eggs are not the answer, what is? I can't get white chicks' eggs (unless I lay them myself ;-)), the brown eggs all have nasty stamps on them, what am I supposed to use? Any suggestions?
Watercress soup with potato, cress & quail's egg nest
(serves 6 - 8)
For the nests:
2 large baking potatoes (about 10 cm long)
6 - 8 quail's eggs
2 punnets salad cress
oil for frying
For the soup:
2 shallots (peeled and roughly chopped)
20 g butter
160 g watercress (washed and tougher stems removed)
250 g young leaf spinach (washed)
100 ml Oloroso sherry
150 g potatoes (peeled and cut into small cubes)
1 l vegetable stock
50 ml single cream
generous dash Worcestershire sauce
First, prepare the nests.
Heat enough oil in a pot or pan to fry the baskets, about 10 cm deep.
Peel the potatoes. Using a very sharp knife or a julienne slicer, cut them into very thin strips (ca. 2-3mm). Divide into 6 - 8 heaps and proceed to fry in batches. Make sure you cut the potatoes just before frying them, or else they will discolour badly.
Place the potato strips for one basket on a large ladle and hold into the very hot oil, keeping the ladle close enough to the surface for the strips to soften up in the oil, but without "escaping" from your ladle. Fry for about 1 minute, so that the strips become soft and bendable. (If you are using a metal ladle, make sure to wrap the handle in a towel so you don't burn your hands)
Lift ladle with the potato sticks, letting all the oil drip back into the pot, then transfer the potato strips into a heat-resistant (eg metal) sieve of approx. 6-8 cm diameter. Curl the potatoes to form a nest against the mesh of the sieve, leaving a little space in the middle to hold a quail's egg.
Transfer sieve into the hot oil (again, if you have a metal handle, protect yourself against the heat) and fry the nest until the potato strips are coloured a medium brown. (If you undercook them, the potatoes won't crisp.) Lift, let the oil drip down, the use a fork or spoon to carefully lift the nest out of the sieve and onto some paper towel, salt and leave to drain, cool and crisp up.
Cook the quail's eggs in boiling water for 2 minutes, refresh and leave to cool before peeling them very carefully.
For the soup, melt the butter in a pot, fry the shallots until starting to brown. Add the sherry, watercress and spinach (if you have bought it in a bag, you can save space in the pot by microwaving it to package instructions beforehand) and leave to wilt. Placing a lid on top will spead things up a bit. Top with the vegetable stock and diced potatoes and cook until the potatoes are very soft, ca. 10 minutes.
Purée the soup using a hand-held blender, stir in the cream, then season to taste with the salt & pepper, nutmeg and Worcestershire sauce. If the soup is too thin, reduce to desired consistency.
Assemble the nests by lining the potato baskets with salad cress, then placing a quail's egg each in the nests. Spinkle sparingly with pepper.
Serve the nests in shallow bowls, ladling the soup around the nests at the table.