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Cooking with cast iron

The hottest trend in cookware goes back thousands of years

August 4, 2017
By Susan Clotfelte - GRIT magazine , Farm News

By Susan Clotfelter

GRIT Magazine

When Food Network stars Mario Batali and Paula Deen, genius Mexican restaurateur Rick Bayless, and domestic diva Martha Stewart are all pitching lines of cast iron, you know it has to be scorching.

Article Photos

-GRIT magazine photo by Lori Dunn
CHICKEN APPLE FRY cast iron makes a great partner when you’re in search of quick breakfast.

When French stalwart Le Creuset, longtime maker of Dutch ovens for the gourmet class, serves up its old faithful designs in colors like Kiwi and Caribbean Blue, there has to be some serious luring of youthful tastes going on.

If you talk to kitchen connoisseurs - from cowboy cook-off champs to trendy chefs - one pan rules them all. It's the pan you'd want if you were stranded on a desert island, or had to move into a new home with mouths to feed and no luggage except what you could fit in the trunk of a Prius.

That pan would be the cast-iron skillet.

The conductive quality of cast iron smoothes out the uneven heat of the crankiest electric burners, gently sweats onions and brings frying oil to just the right temperature and keeps it there. The skillet leaps into service to flatten a chicken breast, crush cookie crumbs or, in a pinch, hammer a nail or clobber a mouse. Iron puts the perfect crust on corn bread, releases frittatas without regrets. You can sear a sesame-crusted salmon fillet one moment, rinse the pan, wipe it clean with a paper towel and then poach pears for dessert. Fire it up dry to toast nuts or spices. Plop it on a wooden cutting board at the table to keep a gratin warm. Exploit its willingness to go from stovetop to oven to table. Use it. Use it again.

Cast iron views frequent use as proof of your love.

Perry and Rosalind Wells of Loveland, Colorado, surely love theirs. They do most of their everyday cooking in pans that bear on their bottoms the mark of Griswold, a foundry in Erie, Pennsylvania, that began operating in 1865 and sold its operations to Wagner in 1952. Griswold and Wagner pans are collectibles that can sell for hundreds of dollars, especially the rarer sizes and cast-iron muffin, or "gem," pans.

But the Wellses found most of theirs at relatives' estate sales or at flea markets for as little as $30. They're especially fond of a pan they call their "chicken cooker" - a deep, Griswold skillet that came with a second, shallower skillet that fits onto it and can be used as a lid. "The versatility of that set is just wonderful," said Perry Wells, who believes the pan belonged to his father's second wife.

His advice to pan scavengers? "If you're looking at a pan to cook with, the finish is all-important. Rosalind's mom's pan has no name on it, and it has a beautiful finish."

They also own a Griswold waffle maker, which they tried to adapt to home use but gave up on. "It's a gorgeous little tool," said Wells, a passionate collector of old tools, "but the waffles still stick to it."

The smooth-as-glass finish inside the Wellses' skillets makes them virtually nonstick when kept properly seasoned. That willingness to let go is one of the sterling qualities of cast iron, and it's supremely important for releasing eggs, a universal measure of a pan's seasoning.

In fact, when Cooks Illustrated magazine tested cast-iron skillets in 2007, the ability to release scrambled eggs was one of the first tests - and one of the last. Cooks found most of the skillets held on to way too much egg until the second egg test, which came at the end of a barrage of other cooking hurdles. In just those few uses, the releasing ability of most of the pans had markedly improved.

And a whole realm of recipes opens up when you consider the enameled, cast-iron, covered oven. Braising. Searing and then braising. Stews. Chowders. Roasts. Ragouts. At The Cupboard, an independent kitchen store in Fort Collins, Colorado, cookware buyer Polly Erickson carries multiple lines of enameled cast iron and preseasoned, unfinished cast iron.

Chicken-sausage

fry-up

Chicken-apple sausage, already fully cooked, is available at most groceries and natural food stores; Applegate Farms makes a great one. You can also experiment with the cheese on this dish. A raw-milk Monterrey jack works well, but so could an aged Gruyere, a smoked Gouda, or any of the Dutch cheeses that melt well. This dish has no additional seasoning; the sausage adds all the necessary salt and usually other herbs and spices as well. Yields 4 servings.

1/2 pound Monterrey jack cheese

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 package chicken-apple sausage, sliced into 1/4-inch chunks

1 to 2 zucchini, cut into quarters lengthwise, then sliced

1 large or 2 small poblano peppers, diced

Cut cheese into 1/4-inch slices, then roughly julienne those to be small enough to melt, but not disappear into dish. Oil large iron skillet with 1 tablespoon olive oil; heat to medium, then wipe out some of the excess with paper towel.

Saute sausage chunks until crispy on both sides; remove to plate. Add half the remaining oil and saute zucchini until soft; return sausage to skillet and add poblanos, stirring with spatula. Add remaining 1/2-tablespoon of oil if necessary. When smallest bits of zucchini have become limp, add cheese and remove from heat. If cheese hasn't begun to melt, plate servings and microwave each for 10 to 20 seconds on high. (You want it to be still noticeably separate, not completely melted into the dish).

Broccoli frittata

From Capper's Farmer archives

Yields 8 servings.

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

1 large onion, sliced

2 heads broccoli, cut into bite-size pieces

1 cup water

1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 large eggs

9 large egg whites

1 teaspoon oil

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 to 3/4 cup shredded Swiss cheese, to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat.

When skillet is hot, add and melt butter. Add onion slices, and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, or until onions are translucent. Add broccoli and water, and cook until broccoli is tender and liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Stir in salt and pepper. Transfer mixture to a large bowl and allow it to cool completely.

Clean skillet, then set it on the stovetop over low heat.

In a mixing bowl, combine eggs and egg whites, beating with an electric mixer until they are extremely light and fluffy, 7 to 10 minutes.

Increase to medium heat, and add oil to skillet.

Fold Parmesan and broccoli mixture into eggs, and mix well. Pour mixture into hot skillet, but do not stir. Sprinkle Swiss cheese over top, and cook, without stirring, for about 2 minutes.

Remove skillet from stovetop and place in oven. Bake until top is golden and center is set, about 30 minutes. (If the cheese starts browning too quickly, cover the skillet loosely with a sheet of aluminum foil.)

Let frittata stand for a couple of minutes to cool slightly before slicing and serving.

Sauted green beans

From Capper's Farmer archives

Yields 8 servings.

4 strips bacon

4 cups green beans, trimmed

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/2 cup slivered almonds

In cast-iron skillet over medium heat, fry bacon. When crisp, remove from skillet and drain on paper towels. Allow bacon to cool, then crumble and set aside.

Add green beans to the skillet of hot bacon grease, and saute until crisp-tender. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Stir in the crumbled bacon and almonds, and heat for 1 to 2 minutes longer. Serve immediately.

Savory sage and

peppered cornbread

From Grit's archives

The great thing about cornbread is that it can be altered to your liking. Bake this cornbread in a skillet or muffin pans for individual servings.

6 slices bacon

1 1/4 cups cornmeal

3/4 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon crushed, dried red chili pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

1 1/4 cups buttermilk

1 egg

2 tablespoons molasses or honey

3 tablespoons freshly chopped sage

2 tablespoons chopped green onions

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In 9- or 10-inch cast-iron skillet, fry bacon until crisp; reserve fat. Crumble bacon.

In medium size bowl, mix cornmeal, flour, salt, baking powder, peppers and paprika; blend with fork.

In small bowl, mix buttermilk, egg and molasses, then mix with dry ingredients. Add chopped sage (using generous tablespoons), green onions, Parmesan cheese, and crumbled bacon.

In skillet, heat 1/4 cup reserved bacon fat to near smoking, then pour into cornmeal mixture. Immediately return batter to hot, greased skillet and bake for 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown on top. Do not overcook.

Make gingerbread

By Kathleen Halloran

This, like cornbread, is best cooked in an old-fashioned cast-iron pan. Yields 24 servings.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup sugar

1 farm-fresh egg, beaten

1 cup light molasses

2 1/2 cups unbleached flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup hot water

1 1/2 cups dark raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two cast-iron cornbread pans (12 pieces each) or, if you do not have cornbread pans, two 9-by-9-inch square cake tins.

In large bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Add egg and molasses, then sift in dry ingredients and mix batter well. Add hot water and beat until smooth. Stir in raisins.

Fill prepared pans half full, place in preheated oven, and bake 25 to 30 minutes, or until done.

Blueberry wheat

skillet cake

By Andrew Odom

2 cups wheat flour

2/3 cup white flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/4 cup sugar (double this for sweeter muffins)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 eggs, room temperature (I used brown eggs from the *girls* outside)

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk, at room temperature

3/4 cup melted butter

1 1/2 to 2 cups berries (fresh or frozen, allow to thaw a bit if using frozen)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put cast-iron skillet in oven for 5 minutes. In large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, sugar, salt and lemon juice. Stir to combine.

In another bowl, crack eggs and whisk. Add vanilla extract and buttermilk to eggs and stir to combine.

Remove cast-iron skillet from oven and melt butter in skillet swirling around to coat skillet.

Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and lightly fold until almost combined. When almost combined, add berries and stir to incorporate. If batter is too thick add a little regular milk. You want this batter to be too thick to pour, but not too thick to smooth into edges of pan.

Spoon batter into cast-iron skillet and put in oven. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on wire rack for 5 to 10 minutes.

Excerpted from Grit, Celebrating Rural America Since 1882. To read more articles from Grit, please visit www.grit.com, or call 866-803-7096. Copyright 2017 by Ogden Publications Inc.

 
 

 

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