The Writer’s Notepad

As I’ve hinted at, I’ve decided to start a new column on my blog. It’s based on the food writing course that I am taking as part of my master’s in gastronomy at Boston University. The instructor is Sheryl Julian, editor of the food section of the Boston Globe. Each week we write a different type of journalistic food writing, and I will be publishing what I write on my blog. Any feedback and comments are greatly appreciated!

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An unseasoned cast iron pan

The Cast Iron Come-Back

Once coddled by housewives in the 19th century, and even taken by Lewis and Clark on their expedition in 1804, cast iron pans have become the neglected stepdaughter of modern cookware. These skillets are now more likely to be found rusting in tag sales than in kitchen cupboards. Their versatility in the kitchen and their natural nonstick characteristics are bringing them back into fashion.

This millennium-old cookware is made by pouring (or “casting”) molten iron into molds to create different shapes. Frying pans are only one type of cast iron available: Dutch ovens as well as flat griddles are also common forms. The cookware is incredibly durable and has often been passed down from generation to generation.

These family heirlooms, after hundreds of bacon and egg breakfasts, are naturally seasoned. Some cast iron comes with an enamel coating. Enameled pans have a vitreous finish, which helps to prevent rusting and makes them easy to maintain. However, seasoned pans, which have no coating, require only a little more care; their protective sheen has been developed over years and the pans can withstand much higher temperatures.

The seasoned cast iron pan is the original nonstick skillet. Unlike its modern counterparts, the hefty cast iron contender doesn’t give off harmful chemical fumes when heated. It is an all-around kitchen servant, employable not only on the stove but also in the oven. The pans are especially good for frying fatty foods (bacon) or things that tend to stick to untreated stainless steel or aluminum (eggs). Despite its nonstick benefits, many people still shy away from seasoned cast iron as a healthy alternative to Teflon because it’s said the seasoning is difficult to maintain. However, some simple guidelines can help to dispel this myth.

Seasoning a new pan takes a couple hours. Most of this time the pan spends baking in the oven, so you are free to check off any other items on your to-do list while the magic happens. Essentially, the process of coating the pan with shortening and baking it for an extended period of time creates the first layer of protection from rust and clingy foods. Baking in a roasting pan not only intensifies the radiant heat of the oven to create a better seasoning, but it also makes for easy clean-up. After this preliminary finish is created, the seasoning is enhanced with each use. Be careful to only use non-acidic foods in the pan (at least in the beginning) and to wash with a brush and hot water only, as acids and detergents tend to break down that protective layer. After the pan is used and rinsed, it should always get another light wipe-down with vegetable oil to protect its coating.

The key to a well-seasoned cast iron pan is to use it, and use it often. The skillet is great for everything from corn bread and omelets to French toast and burgers (try toasting the buns in the pan for extra-flavorful results). Perhaps one of its simplest applications is rösti. These large Swiss hash browns are a quick and easy dinner, best served hot out of the skillet with a green salad. Not exactly the dinner of hungry explorers, but you could always throw a freshly caught fish and some foraged mushrooms in the pan to round out the meal.

TO SEASON A PAN

1) Set the oven at 350 degrees and clean the pan with a mild detergent and hot water.

2) Dry the skillet with a kitchen towel and place it in the warmed oven for 15 minutes to dry and open the pores.

3) Remove the pan and, being careful not to burn yourself, generously apply vegetable shortening on the entire pan, including the outside and handle.

4) Place a rack in a roasting pan and carefully put the pan upside down on the roasting rack. Bake uncovered for 2 hours. Let cool well before using.

 

RÖSTI

Serves 4

 

1/2 cup bacon, diced 1/4 inch

4 Yukon gold potatoes, coarsely grated

1 cup Swiss (Ementhaler) cheese, coarsely grated

1 onion, diced 1/4 inch

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 Tbsp butter (for the pan)

1) Place the well-seasoned cast iron pan on a medium burner and add the bacon. Cook for three minutes or until slightly crisped, stirring occasionally.

2) Remove the bacon and let cool on a plate lined with paper towels. Drain the bacon fat and return the pan over medium heat.

3) Put the butter in the pan and let it melt. Meanwhile, toss the potatoes with the cheese, onions, bacon, salt and pepper.

4) Make a patty with one fourth of the potato mixture on the bottom of the pan and let it slowly brown evenly until golden.

5) Carefully flip the rösti onto a plate, raw side down, and then slide it back into the pan to brown the second side. Repeat three more times with remaining potatoes. Serve immediately.

recipe adapted from Christiane Nüsslein-Vollhard in Mein Kochbuch

2 Responses to “The Writer’s Notepad”

  1. All I have to say is cassoulet. Some dishes really call for a cast-iron teapot, so good topic and good lead-in (I had no idea about Lewis & Clark- very interesting)!

    Cheers,
    Annelies

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