An odd egg 

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The pickled egg is sentimental, ornamental, and monumentally tasty

In my college days in Ripon, Wisconsin, the extroverts could always be found flirting over pitchers at Benders or moshing on the dance floor at the Spot. But the quieter types, the philosophy majors, political science junkies, and anthropology students, were generally down the street, elbows propped up on the long wooden bar at Bunny & Ed's where the only amenities were a '60s-era jukebox and Bunny's pickled eggs. Ghostly orbs floating in a murky, greenish liquid with wrinkled peppers and unidentifiable specks don't set everyone drooling, but a spicy, tart, hardboiled egg is very satisfying with a cold beer. In college, it could be a meal.

So it may have been nostalgia that caused me to say, "and a jar of pickled quail eggs, please," after "a slice of pecan pie," last week at Joel's Bar-B-Q in Flatonia. Joel's is one of the few welcome sights on the long, ennui-inducing drive from San Antonio to Houston. The tables are shedding their barn-red paint, and the smell of smoked meat emanates from the walls, but Joel's chopped-beef sandwich and beef jerky are worth taking the turnaround if you miss Exit 661. I'd waffled over the quail eggs on our previous visit. Available in spicy or regular, the tiny eggs are packed into standard canning jars with garlic cloves, a spice blend that's heavy on the bay leaves and mustard seeds, and vinegar you could use to strip paint. They are pink, but not because quail lay pink eggs.

Historians believe pickles have been around for some 4,000 years, and at least one website claims that Jesus and his mother mention pickled eggs in the Bible. I couldn't find the verse, however, so for a pedigree we'll settle on the seventh edition of the White House Cook Book, published in 1929 under the reign of Lou Henry Hoover. Pickling eggs couldn't be simpler: Vinegar is brought to a boil with spices and, depending on the recipe, sugar. When the vinegar is cooled, it's poured over peeled hardboiled eggs. The Mrs. Hoover-approved recipe seasons the vinegar with white pepper, allspice, and ginger, and recommends adding mustard seed, garlic, ungrated horseradish, and whole cloves to the jar. For "An Ornamental Pickle," it continues, "Boil red beets until tender, peel and cut in dice form, and cover with vinegar, spiced; shell the eggs and drop into the pickle jar."

Pickled Quail Eggs

(Adapted from the White House Cook Book and Gourmet)

3 lbs beets, scrubbed and stems trimmed to 1 1/2 inches

1 c cider vinegar

1/2 c sugar

1 t salt

2 bay leaves

3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and slightly crushed

5 whole cloves

1 T white and black mustard seed, mixed

jalapeño or cerrano peppers to taste, seeded and sliced lengthwise (optional)

pinch of ground allspice

24 quail eggs

Cover beets with cold water by 1 inch in a 3-quart heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer beets, partially covered, until tender, about 40 minutes. Remove beets with a slotted spoon. Reserve 2 cups beet cooking liquid, discarding remainder. Bring beet liquid to a boil in a small saucepan with vinegar, sugar, salt, bay leaves, and cloves, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and cool completely.

While pickling liquid cools, cover eggs with cold water by 1 inch in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir gently to center the yolks (this will help tremendously when peeling). Reduce heat and gently boil eggs, uncovered, 3 minutes. Pour off water and gently shake pan so eggs crack lightly against one another. Cover eggs with very cold water and let stand 15 minutes.

Drain and peel eggs under gently running water. Pat dry and place in a glass jar or bowl. Pour pickling liquid over eggs and add garlic, mustard seeds, allspice, and peppers if desired. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Somewhere along the way, the diced beets were dropped, but the majority of pickled-egg recipes I've found still call for adding beet cooking liquid to the vinegar. This may be because un-ornamental egg whites can turn an unappealing shade of jaundiced yellow-gray when left to sit in the pickling juice - not a factor in the forgiving light of a bar. If you're making pickled eggs primarily for diners who are pickling their livers, you might not want to bother with the extra step of boiling raw beets just to obtain the dye. (You can save the cooked beets for another recipe, but baked beets retain more flavor for salads and side dishes.) Lazier versions of the dish use the liquid from canned beets, saving time and trouble, but add less sugar to the vinegar or your eggs will be more sweet than tangy.

Joel's pickled quail eggs, which have been soaking in their liquid for an indeterminate amount of time, are an assault on the senses. I ate one and couldn't feel my tongue. But 10 minutes and half a Guinness later, I was craving another; and so it went for a half-dozen mouthfuls. Daintier, ladies-who-lunch versions can be made at home, however, courtesy of Tokyo Mart on Hildebrand where 10 fresh eggs can be purchased for $1.75 (Ask at the front counter if you don't find them in the coolers).

Fresh quail eggs are roughly the size of small pecans and are beautiful enough to tip a borderline vegetarian solidly into the vegan camp. The shells are mottled brown and cream like the walls of an old piazza; the inside of the shells are a limpid, post-rainstorm blue, a prize not easily discovered because the boiled eggs are fiendishly difficult to peel. Follow Gourmet's suggestion to crack the eggs lightly against one another after they've boiled and soak them in cold water for 15 minutes before removing the shells, but you'll still fare better if you peel the eggs under running water and gently pat them dry before adding them to the pickling juice.

A Gourmet Entertains recipe uses only bay leaf and clove for spice, and two parts beet water to vinegar, which makes the eggs sweeter and earthier than their Joel's Bar-B-Que cousins. They are also pickled for a much shorter period of time, so the whites don't become rubbery (dyed-in-the-wool fans don't mind this so much). The resulting, milder pickled egg is excellent in a watercress or arugula salad, accompanying a charcuterie plate, or, one piquant bite at a time, with a stout beer.

By Elaine Wolff



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