Love, that inherently human emotion reserved for the collision of common interests, pheromone-induced chemistry and unerring friendship.
I have that kind of love. And I also have another kind of love: One that that is fired by the chemistry, stalwart consistency and generation-spanning resilience of cast iron cookware.
|My basic cornbread in a cast iron skillet that is now serving|
a third generation.
That was the frying pan. There was also the cornbread pan -- a similarly sized skillet that was so perfectly seasoned that it rivaled today's high tech non-stick surfaces.
I still have both wonderful skillets. And, yes, the cornbread skillet is still reserved for cornbread. A pone turns out perfectly without sticking and cloaked in a crispy, golden brown crust.
As I began acquiring my own cookware, I trolled auctions and yard sales looking for cast iron. I poured over every "dollar box" and pile of rusty hardware I could find, then scouring off layers of thick rust and re-seasoning cast off Dutch ovens, corn stick pans and muffin pans, knowing that beneath the rust and the $2 price tag was a work of culinary art. These poorly cared for vessels still had plenty of life and the ability to render subtle and mouthwatering nuances to any food that found its way atop the sizzling hot cast iron.
Along the way, I discovered cast iron by French foundries Le Crueset and Staub and, of course, the wonderful American artistry of Lodge Manufacturing Company.
Englishman Joseph Lodge chose tiny South Pittsburgh, Tenn., as the company's headquarters in 1896. The company has survived and continually innovated to become the lone domestic manufacturer of cookware in America today.
As home cooks evolved and left the kitchen for the workplace, care for traditional cast iron became a deterrent to using cast iron. Modern home cooks needed easy care surfaces, without worrying about seasoning and cleaning. Lodge answered that call early in this decade with its foundry-seasoned cookware -- and a new generation of cast iron cookware devotees was secured.
Why I love cast iron cookware
For me, nothing surpasses cast iron for creation of fond -- the crunchy bits that remain in the pan after browning that add flavor to a recipe. It's the perfect surface for searing, for holding steady heat for braising, roasting and baking.
One of my prized Lodge pieces, a huge skillet that will easily accommodate four to five roasting chickens, was the centerpiece of a cooking demonstration that converted nearly every member of the class to cast iron.
I was preparing a roasted chicken recipe from Chef Thomas Keller's "Bouchon" cookbook. The directions called for searing the chicken in a hot pan, then moving the trussed bird to a preheated 450-degree oven for 45 minutes of roasting. The class had nearly 30 participants, and I had four birds browning away in my big Lodge skillet.
The electric oven had pre-heated and I was just preparing to transfer the birds to the oven when the power went out. I put the skillet in the oven with a remote control thermometer in the chicken and closed the door.
With a pre-heated skillet, a pre-heated oven and a thermometer that allowed me to monitor temperature without opening the doors, those four chickens roasted in exactly the same amount of time -- without the oven heating element ever coming on again. I think everyone in the class that night took home Lodge cookware.
I use the cookware for everything: Bean soups and stews, baking cobblers, biscuits and cornbread and searing steaks, chicken and chops.
The cast iron primer
You can get even more ideas in the recently published "Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook."
The cookbook gives a brief backgrounder on the company and history of Lodge but wastes no time getting to a collection of more than 200 recipes that range across breakfast, soups and stews, main courses and desserts. Along the way, beautiful color photographs depict several dishes and there are plenty of sidebars to address things like making a roux or digging your own backyard bean hole -- a staple of my Scouting days.
You will learn about caring for your cast iron and read more than one love note from cast iron aficionados. This is a cookbook with highly accessible ingredients -- not a cookbook for culinary snobs. It's the basics for people who love -- or want to learn to love -- cast iron cookware, whether in the modern kitchen, over a backyard grill or a crackling campfire.
There is a cornbread recipe for every occasion -- not surprising given that the company hosts the annual National Cornbread Festival. The berry cobbler recipe is nearly identical to one I've used for more than 20 years -- and the soups, stews and gumbo recipes are as heart-warming to read as they are rib-sticking main dishes.
It seems fitting to include a regional dish from the cookbook -- the popular Savannah Red Rice.
Savannah Red Rice
|Chef Steven Satterfield's Savannah Red Rice.|
The first is using Carolina Gold rice, an heirloom variety of long-grain rice that is hand-harvested by its producer Anson Mills (buy it online at ansonmills.com).
Sautéing the rice in fat for a good 5 minutes helps to deeply infuse flavor into the individual grains. Lastly, no peeking while the rice is cooking—the covered cast iron pot is key to the development of a delicious crust on the bottom.
Steven likes to serve this with a green salad and roasted okra.
4 tablespoons bacon drippings
5 tablespoons butter
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 cup diced celery (inner leaves included)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons plus
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
2 cups canned organic whole plum tomatoes (with their juice), chopped
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons pepper vinegar or cider vinegar (if you use cider vinegar, add a pinch of red pepper flakes)
1 1/4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon dried thyme
2 bay leaves
2 dried chiles d’arbol, chopped, or pinch of red pepper flakes
2 cups raw Carolina Gold long-grain rice
1/2 pound andouille or chorizo sausage, grilled and sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 pound shrimp (preferably fresh), peeled, deveined, and cut into bite-size pieces
1. Heat 2 tablespoons each of the bacon drippings and butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat until foamy. Add the onion, celery, garlic, and 1 tablespoon of the salt and cook, stirring, until the onion and garlic are tender. Add the tomatoes, stock, vinegar, another tablespoon of the salt, 1 teaspoon of the pepper, the thyme, bay leaves, and chiles and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, tasting for seasoning.
2. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons bacon drippings and 2 tablespoons of the butter together in a large cast iron skillet over medium heat until foamy. Add the rice and cook, stirring frequently, until it is opaque, 5 to 6 minutes. This step is very important to the final flavor of the dish, so don’t stint on the time but also don’t let the rice burn.
3. Add 4 cups of the tomato mixture to the rice, stir to combine, and cover. Set a timer and cook the rice for 25 minutes over very low heat. DO NOT LIFT THE LID. After 25 minutes, turn off the heat and let the rice sit for 5 more minutes. AGAIN, DO NOT LIFT THE LID. In the meantime, add the sausage to the remaining tomato mixture in the saucepan, cover, and keep warm over very low heat.
4. While the rice is sitting, melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat until foamy. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring, until just cooked through; add the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Add the shrimp to the sausage and tomato mixture and stir to combine.
5. Pour the shrimp and sausage mixture over the rice. Gently fluff the rice (you don’t want to break the grains) to combine. Serve immediately.
Recipe courtesy of "The Lodge Cast Iron Cookbook"