#spring

Dying Eggs with Natural Colors

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I first started exploring natural food dyes when trying to decorate my son’s birthday cake without using artificial colors from a little squeeze bottle. I knew there had to be ways to get vibrant colors out of actual foods. After discovering how to make pink, blue, green and yellow frosting, I moved on to coloring pasta, which is by far the most forgiving medium for natural food coloring. One can easily adjust moisture levels in pasta dough, which absorbs colors from solids, pastes, liquids and powders. Eggs, which are dyed in a quick bath of a colorful liquid, posed a new set of challenges.

Since we dunk eggs into liquid dyes, the pigments from colorful foods need to be transferred as much as possible to the water they are cooked in before straining off solids like shredded beets or dried flowers. And ground spice powders, like turmeric and paprika would ideally dissolve into the liquid. Not the case. Many formulas for natural dyes will tell you to use powdered turmeric for yellow. I love spices and figured I’d try others too like paprika, sumac, & chili powder. Why not?

Left: Speckled orange egg created with ground turmeric, ground paprika and oil based dye. Right: Blue polka dot egg created with butterfly pea dye and stickers.

Left: Speckled orange egg created with ground turmeric, ground paprika and oil based dye. Right: Blue polka dot egg created with butterfly pea dye and stickers.

It’s challenging to get clear vibrant color from these ground spices. First, ground spices are fat soluble, which means they work better with oil to break down and disperse their colors. But dunking an egg in oil sounded unorthodox and messy. So I followed the advice and simply simmered ground spices in boiling water for 20 minutes & then strained. The color was there, but it required a multi-hour, if not an overnight soak to dye eggs, and it left a little grit on the eggs, no matter how fine the strainer. So I revisited spices 101 and decided to bloom them first (or sauté them in a little bit of oil) before adding some water to make the liquid dye. The colors were certainly more vibrant and adhered in under 20 minutes, but the oil left a splotched rather than smooth finish on the egg - check out the orange speckled egg made from a combination of paprika and turmeric. Up next, I will attempt a dye made 100% from the ground spices bloomed in oil.

Fresh turmeric root. Grated.

Fresh turmeric root. Grated.

So, how do you get the best clear liquid yellow dye? If you have it available, fresh grated turmeric root works best. I simmered it in water just like the other fresh vegetables, and then strained off the solids. While the turmeric root itself appears orange, the liquid it creates makes a beautiful soft and natural yellow. If fresh turmeric root is not available, shredded golden beets work as well.

Top left: blue butterfly pea dye; Top right: yellow turmeric root dye; Bottom: Green dye made from combining

Top left: blue butterfly pea dye; Top right: yellow turmeric root dye; Bottom: Green dye made from combining

I had such success adding greens of all shades and varieties — sautéed, steamed, juiced and blanched spinach, kale, parsley & chard — to pasta dough & frosting that I didn’t expect it to be so challenging to dye eggs green. And, green eggs & ham, right? Wrong. For egg dying, not only do the green colors become terribly diluted in liquid, but the key ingredient required for getting dye to adhere to eggs destroys the green pigments. We add vinegar to egg dyes to create an acidic mixture that reacts with the calcium in the egg shell, allowing colors to be absorbed. While this acid creates vivid blues and bright pinks, any acid (lemon juice, wine, tomato sauce) deteriorates green rapidly and transforms it to an unappetizing olive or brown. The answer? Create vibrant greens by combining yellow and blue dye immediately before dunking eggs.

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How to Produce a Rainbow of Natural Dyes

To make most types of natural liquid dye:

  1. Boil or steep vegetables (1 cup), spices (1 tablespoon), or dried flowers or teas (1/2 cup) in water (1 1/2 - 2 cups) for 10-20 minutes.

  2. Strain through a fine mesh strainer. Discard, compost or reuse the solids.

  3. Add vinegar and stir. Use ~1 tablespoon vinegar to 1 cup liquid dye. Use less for acidic mixtures like berries cooked in lemon juice.

Steep: to soak (food, tea, etc.) in hot water so as to extract its flavor or color or to soften or reconstitute it

Boil: to cook (food) in boiling water over a heat source


Recommended formulas

For a quick reference list of formulas for these and a full rainbow of dyes, click here.


General Tips and Hacks for Dying Eggs

Scallion Surplus Solutions

Why am I writing about scallions? It's not merely to highlight my alliteration abilities. I was recently reflecting on the fact that many of my spring recipes include a sauce that purees scallions beyond recognition. Each spring, I find myself with a surplus of scallions. Not one to gobble raw onions of any variety, these beautiful green alliums pile up in my fridge. Before they can wilt however, I whip them into a marinade or sauce. Some marinades get put to use immediately and others are stored in my freezer, with or without protein for a quick fall or winter meal.

Here are seven solutions for your scallion surplus followed by my recipe for Spring Jerk Marinade to be used in Jerk Lamb Shepherd's Pie (featured below) or to marinate some chicken wings or tofu steaks. All other recipes will be featured on the blog eventually or write and I'll send you the no-frills version pronto.

  1. Korean Beef Marinade

  2. Shrimp Scampi

  3. Scallion Pancakes

  4. Scallion Tart or Pizza

  5. Salsa

  6. Cheese and Scallion Biscuits

  7. When all else fails, add them to a crudité platter for dipping or drizzle with olive oil and grill.

Now on to the piece de resistance. I can't get enough of this jerk marinade and once you try it, you'll be making it in big batches again and again as well. This spring jerk marinade came about because two of the earliest plants available to me in the northeast are thyme (which often survives the winter and regrows on its own) and scallions. Add some ginger, garlic, spices, and of course habañero chili peppers into the food processor and you are good to go.

My jerk marinade has countless uses -- the expected chicken wings, marinating grilled vegetables and tofu, but my most unexpected and new favorite discovery has become Jerk Shepherd’s Pie. This creation was born out of a freezer clean out where I discovered some sautéed mixed greens, about a cup of jerk marinade and a 1lb package of ground beef. The resulting creation screams British pub food meets Caribbean beach BBQ. I since replaced the beef with ground lamb and have interchanged sweet potatoes for the red potatoes & yukon golds. If you use sweet potatoes or yams, I recommend baking those whole to soften them before mashing as boiling or steaming will add too much moisture.

Spring Jerk Marinade

Yield: ~ 4 ½ cups marinade

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What you need:

  • 2 shallots or small spring onions, about ½ cup large dice

  • 20 garlic cloves

  • 1 bunch scallions, top ⅓ of green removed, roughly chopped

  • 4 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled & roughly chopped, about ¼ cup

  • ½ cup brown sugar

  • ½ cup canola oil

  • 6 tablespoons tamari soy sauce or shoyu

  • ½ cup lime juice, approximately 4 limes

  • 1 ½ ounces fresh thyme, leaves and tender stems only, approximately ½ cup

  • 6-8 habanero peppers

  • 6 tablespoons ground allspice

  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon

  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

  • 1 ½ tablespoons kosher salt

  • ¼ cup water

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What you do:

  1. Put all ingredients into the bowl of a food processor. Process on high until completely pureed.

  2. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Be judicious with the chili peppers. The heat level will intensify over time.


Jerk Lamb Shepherd’s Pie

Yield: Serves 6

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What you need:

  • 3 red or yukon gold potatoes, about 1 ½ cups cut into ½ inch cubes

  • Kosher salt

  • 2 tablespoons butter (optional)

  • 3 medium carrots, small dice

  • 1 - 2 tablespoons olive oil or canola oil

  • 1 bunch cooking greens, chopped (such as mizuna, chard, kale, mustard greens)

  • 1 lb ground lamb (or beef)

  • 1 - 1 ½ cups jerk marinade (above)

What you do:

  1. Place the cubed potatoes in a large stock pot and cover with cool water. Add a generous handful of kosher salt. Bring to a boil, lower heat to medium and cook until potatoes are fork tender. Drain. Using a ricer or potato masher, mash the potatoes, adding butter if desired.

  2. In a medium pot fitted with a steamer basket, add water to just above the basket. Bring to a boil. Add the carrots and a few pinches of kosher salt. Steam until the carrots are tender but still firm, about 5 minutes.

  3. In a large skillet, heat oil on medium high heat. Add the chopped greens and a pinch of salt and sauté until they are soft. Remove greens from pan and set aside.

  4. Using the same skillet, heat another tablespoon of oil. Add the ground lamb, breaking it up with a spoon until you have ½ inch crumbles. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper and sauté until cooked through.

  5. Add the jerk marinade to the lamb. Cook about 5-7 minutes until the marinade is absorbed into the lamb and the lamb breaks down further into smaller crumbles.

  6. Preheat the broiler. In an oven- proof casserole dish, layer the lamb, followed by carrots and greens and top with the mashed potatoes.

  7. Heat under the broiler on high for about 12 minutes or until the top is lightly browned and crisp.

To Freeze: Wrap casseroles tightly with plastic wrap. Label with contents and reheating instructions.

To Reheat: Thaw overnight or for at least 12 hours in refrigerator. Preheat broiler. Remove plastic wrap and broil under high for 12-15 minutes or until the top is lightly browned and crisp and the center is warmed.