Wednesday January 30, 2013 | 01:00 AM

The next time you buy eggs packaged as organic, free-range and pastured take a look outside.  Is there snow on the ground? Is the temperature below freezing?

If so, at that moment you may not be getting what you think.
The nomenclature that gives provenance to much of our farm-raised local food is a staggering morass of phraseology. Can you really get pastured eggs newly laid by chickens living in the tundra?

Perfect egg yolks

For the most part Maine farmers will list their eggs as seasonally pastured.  They can be organic year round based on how they’re fed, and the terms free-range and cage free are open to interpretation. 

A chicken doesn’t need much roaming room to be called free range.  Enough space in the pen or cage to do elongated figure eights would qualify as a devil-may-care roamer by industry standards.

Honest to goodness free-roaming birds are put in pens placed outside where they have their (large) patch of grass and bugs to eat. Or some farmers let them have the run of the land, which is a risky proposition given that larger creatures are just crazy about yowling free-spirited chickens.

This time of year, conscientious farmers may shovel away the snow in front of their pens so that the chicks have room to scamper.  MOFGA’s Diane Schivera, for instance, keeps a small patch of land free of snow for her wintertime chickens.

At $4 to $6 per dozen, farm eggs are usually packaged in varying sizes from medium to extra large

If you’re looking for eggs with those deep orange yolks, ask the farmerswhat he feeds his chickens.  A grass-fed diet will produce yolks with a deep orange-yellow color.  Corn, grass-sprout seeds and wheat have the same effect.

Another test of a great egg is whether it holds its shape after being cracked open.  Those that fall apart in the bowl are older eggs.

Free-rangers at Balfour Farm Dairy in Pittsfield

Finally who has the best eggs in our area?  I rotate amongst a few select producers.  But remember winter is a tough time for laying hens.  They don’t like the cold or the shortened daylight hours, all of which drop the yield dramatically.  

Some of the best local  egg farmers whose chickens produce those coveted orange yolks include  Balfour Farm, Alewive's Brook Farm, Straw Farm, Gryffon Ridge, Goranson Farm, Buckwheat Blossom Farm and Apple Creek Farm,whose box label says it all: Eggs from happy, adventurous, free-roaming hens.

Put your eggs to good use in this rich custard-style pie known as Chess Pie, a southern baker’s staple.

Egg-rich chess pie

It’s an exceedingly sweet butter-and-egg-rich custard that’s fortified with a touch of cornmeal, buttermilk and lemon juice and has an almost candy like crust that forms while it bakes.  It’s  delicious and easy as pie to make.

Lemon Chess Pie
(Adapted from Bon Appétit, Y’All by Virginia Willis)
Servings: 8

9-inch prebaked pie shell, lightly baked
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1/1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon flour
Pinch sea salt
1/2 cup melted butter, cooled to room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. 

Prepare the filling by whisking the eggs until smooth.  Add the sugar, cornmeal, flour and salt.  Whisk until well combined.  Add the melted butter, buttermilk, lemon zest, lemon juice and vanilla extract.  Whisk all together.  Pour into the warm pie shell. Bake for about 35 to 40 minutes.  The pie may puff and crackle during baking, which is OK.  It will settle as it cools.  Remove to a rack and cool to room temperature before slicing.

Serve the pie just slightly warm with a dollop of whipped cream

Pastry: An exceptionally flakey pie crust can be made by cutting in 6 tablespoons sweet butter and 2 tablespoons lard to 1 1/4 cups flour that has been seasoned with a pinch of salt and 1 teaspoon sugar.  Add 4 to 5 tablespoons ice water, mixing until somewhat moist and dough holds together.  Pat into a ball and flatten slightly.  Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before rolling out.  Enough for a single-crust 9-inch pie.

 Flaky pie dough works well for chess pie




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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.

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