Audubon’ counts his eggs

In parishes and cathedrals up and down the country the English tradition of Shrove Tuesday is very much alive – well, partially alive. Reheated leathery pancakes are served up drenched with sugar and lemon juice, chocolate spread, or cream from a can. Choristers run around picturesque cloisters in their cassocks and throw them on the floor. Inevitably there is an embarrassing photograph of a senior clergyman joining in. Not much shriving happens that day: many of those who do make their confessions now to the box after Ash Wednesday.

Just as the name of the day now bears little relation to what we do on it, the point of eating these fried flat treats comes from a stricter Lenten discipline in which eggs and sugar are eschewed for the whole season. Their moreish attractions, together with the pastoral opportunities afforded by having the curate burn them at a parish party, have ensured the practice stays alive. But it’s much more common to give up chocolate, meat, and alcohol, rather than eggs and sugar. This is of course, good news for the cook, if not for our souls. Eggs are a superb basis of meat-free meals.

Most people’s egg repertoire stops after omelette, fried, boiled, scrambled, and poached. But the versatility of the egg is great. Try them en concotte: baked in ramekins in a bain marie. The basic dish calls for a knob of butter in the ramekin under the egg, which is then seasoned. Place them in a baking dish and fill with boiling water as high up as you dare, then pop them in a medium oven. This can then be varied almost infinitely: try a base of finely chopped fried mushrooms seasoned with parsley, or leeks sweated in a little butter, thyme, and olive oil. Almost any well-flavoured vegetable can be used – just make sure you cook out most of the water before placing in the ramekin and breaking in your egg.

Another long-forgotten method of cooking eggs is sur le plat. For this method you need very fresh eggs and oven-proof tableware. Heat the oven to high with the plates inside. When the oven and the plates are hot, break your eggs on to them, having first dropped on a knob of butter and allowed it to melt and bubble. Season, pop them back in the oven and watch them like a hawk. They are done when you like the look of them. You will find that because of the all-round heat it is much easier to get a set white and a runny yolk than with frying on the stove. Less fat is used, too, and the spitting and spluttering is contained in the oven. A sprinkle of cheese to gratinate for the last few minutes of cooking set things off. Otherwise, some finely chopped herbs as it goes to the table. Or both.

Getting a little more adventurous, there is the fine dish called variously shakshouka, huevos rancheros or “eggs in purgatory” – all variations on the theme of eggs poached in tomatoes. The great thing about this dish is that you can make it almost entirely from cupboard ingredients, excepting the eggs. Make a spiced tomato sauce with whatever is to hand in a high sided frying pan. A true sauté pan with a lid is best. Begin with chopped onions and garlic, some herbs (dried or fresh), and a touch of chilli or pimento (again, dried or fresh). Add chopped peppers, or indeed any vegetable you have to hand. Frozen peas or broad beans work well. Once you are happy with the taste of the tomato sauce, gently deposit the eggs into it, making sure they don’t touch. Cover and cook gently until they are done to your liking – a runny yolk is the ideal. Serve on toast or tortillas, over rice, or just as it comes.

Hard boiled eggs lie at the other end of the spectrum. These are not to everyone’s taste, but need not be just a timing mistake. Cold and chopped finely, they make an excellent accompaniment to smoked salmon or indeed any smoked oily fish. Bound with mayonnaise they are of course a classic sandwich filling. But a favourite way to enjoy them is as a garnish to kedgeree. This combination of smoked haddock with rice, peas, and eggs is possibly the best Lenten breakfast possible. Recipes abound for this, but there is one element that most pass over with a quick instruction, and yet it is essential to the success of the final dish. The onions must be sliced as thinly as possible and cooked as slowly as possible, without browning, for at least twenty minutes. Do this and it will merit the crowning glory of quartered hard boiled eggs.