Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Cooking with cast iron

When I think of a country kitchen my mind's picture always includes a row of neatly spaced cast iron pans hanging on the wall. For a lot of years, as a city dweller, I turned my back on cast iron. "Too rustic" and "too countrystyle" for my urban, contemporary kitchen and cooking style back then, I chose instead to furnish my kitchen with hard anodized cookware and pricey accessories. The only cast iron I was really interested in was enameled cast iron from Le Creuset. Friends offered me different skillets and grill pans to try and convince me I should try it, but I was stubborn. 

Vintage cast iron deep pan for frying
Ohhhhh life is filled with regrets, is it not? Now, several years later, I don't live in a big country farm house but I do embrace a different kind of life and after all this time cast iron cookware has a piece of my heart. My "collection" consists of one solitary skillet given to me by my sister but using this one skillet has started me on a journey I wish I had begun long ago. I think of all the times I passed on a rough looking old skillet in a thrift store that my friend Jessica would snap up in a second. Garage sales with the odd piece here and there that I left on the table continue to haunt me. I think the biggest reason I wasn't interested in getting any was not wanting to mess with seasoning and not wanting to worry about getting them completely dry after cleaning. My Calphalon is just too easy to care for and I was spoiled.

We all know cast iron has been around for centuries. What is it about this ages-old material that keeps cooks all over the world in the fan club? I asked my cooking friends to share their thoughts on cast iron and here is what they had to say-

Becca's awesome thrift store treasure is
featured on her blog,
Leslie says she loves the ease of being able to cook and bake in hers. She also loves the easy clean up and good flavors that a well-seasoned pan provide. Marie also loves using hers for baking.

Jennifer owns three skillets and loves them, although she feels eggs don't do as well in them as in other pans. 

Mary stresses NO SOAKING to reduce the risk of rusting. I agree completely. I have never had to soak mine. Even if stuff appears to be stuck really bad, just a few minutes wet loosens everything right up. She has skillets that once belonged to grandparents, and says they are the best for fried chicken.

Chef Todd's innovative use of cast
iron in the restaurant kitchen.
Paul likes his for cooking bacon (which is the easiest way to quickly and continuously season the pans too!) and for using on the grill. He is an advocate of the No Soap Policy, which I agree with. Todd had a very clever use for his skillet- he flips it and uses the flat bottom like a grill, perfect for searing tuna. Ingenious! As a professional chef he uses this clever idea in the restaurant kitchen, where single-use items are a hassle and finding multiple ways to use cooking equipment is important to your overall efficiency and creativity.

Deb's cast iron collection
My good friend Deberah has an awesome collection of cast iron skillets in a range of sizes. I NEED this in my life! She has a big ol' skillet for frying up piles of food for her hungry household of guys, and one of the small ones I really really want bad! 

Becca scored a piece at a thrift shop for 50 cents! Even though it had a badly corroded spot she reseasoned it. It's not perfectly non-stick but she says it's awesome for fried chicken and cornbread.

It's interesting to me that my friends who responded represent a wide difference in cooking styles yet they all expressed the same basic pro and cons- durability, ease of use and great for frying. Some of them are home cooks like me and others are professional chefs, food writers and bloggers, culinary students and cookbook authors. I can't think of too many other kitchen items that have such a broad appeal. 

My one and only cast iron skillet
Now I have an overwhelming need to get to as many thrift stores, estate sales and auctions as I can to search for vintage pieces. I'm sure I'll be learning all about restoring cast iron to it's beautiful, usable form. Of course, I'd love to find a larger, deeper skillet for frying chicken and things like that. A Dutch oven is a must-have and something I would use all the time for breadmaking and a cornstick pan would make a nice addition. I could use several small skillets for table service, hot dips, baking cornbread and such. This is one hunt I'm looking forward to!

Right now, let's cook something in cast iron. Something simple, rustic and homey that will demonstrate everything we love about cast iron- the perfect crusty sear, the nonstick seasoned surface and the heat distribution you only get from a heavy solid pan. I'm going to make a quick German style toss of crispy fried potatoes, perfectly sauteed cabbage and juicy kielbasa slices, seared golden brown outside and perfect on the inside. This is a favorite weeknight meal for me, easy to pull together and on the table in minutes- simple flavors, easy techniques, just toss in a bowl and add some spicy mustard.

Fried potatoes are nothing else if not amazing when cooked in cast iron. Most people who use cast iron proclaim fried potatoes as THE best in cast iron. Yukon Gold potatoes are a great choice for fried potatoes. They are firm and less starchy and get that delicious crunchy brown exterior while staying tender and creamy on the inside. For this dish I leave the skins on (well, for every dish really) and cut the potatoes in half lengthwise before slicing. Give them a nice toss with oil and place in the hot pan, avoid crowding them as much as possible which tends to steam the potatoes rather than crisp up and fry. I am frying uncooked potatoes here, which is typical in the German kitchen, so they take a little longer than American "home fries." Turn the potatoes often to evenly brown, and place in a large bowl when they are all done. Season with salt and pepper. I like to use my giant stainless steel bowl and hold it in a warm oven.

Next up we are going to fry the kielbasa. This is the quickest step, as the sausage is already fully cooked. We just need to get that golden brown sear on the slices. Cast iron is made for searing meat. I put the sliced sausage in a bowl and toss with some oil, and add to the hot skillet. Just a couple minutes on each side usually does the job and into the bowl they go to rest with the potatoes.

Now the skillet has lots of gooey, crusty browned bits inside. We want to get that incorporated into our dish. Frying the cabbage last is a great way to do that. The vegetables release a little bit of juice, which deglazes the pan and the browned bits help caramelize and flavor the cabbage. This method is very similar to stir frying and demonstrates how versatile cast iron can be. I have a small head of green cabbage which I have cut into bite sized chunks (usually I use about half the head since it's just two of us). I add one onion, also cut in chunks, to the bowl, four minced garlic cloves and add to the sizzling hot skillet. Cooking over fairly high heat gives good caramelization to the edges of the vegetables without overcooking and the fat from the sausage adds tons of flavor. I like the cabbage a little on the crunchy side still so after a few minutes I season with salt and pepper and toss with the potatoes and sausage in the big bowl with a scoop of homemade German style mustard and a splash of vinegar.

Toss with a bit of grainy mustard- delicious!
That's it! Quick German-style dinner that is delicious with some grainy rustic mustard and buttered crusty bread. Cast iron makes dinner easy and delicious and cleanup is a snap. A quick rinse, wipe, heat to dry completely and that's it! 

I'd love to hear some of your cast iron stories!

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