wireless_kitchen (2007-09)

Cast Iron Chef

Lightweights need not apply

by Gay Lyons

In the 35 years we've known each other, my friend Mark Kelly and I have discussed many things, but I'm pretty sure we had not talked much about cooking until he became marketing communications manager for Lodge Manufacturing Company. Since then, he's been on a not-so-secret mission to convert me to cooking with cast iron, especially the new pre-seasoned cookware.  

I'm aware of the advantages of cast iron. It cooks evenly, retains heat well, adds a little extra iron to the diet and lasts forever. I also believe there are four things that must be made in cast iron pans. These things are corn bread, biscuits, pineapple upside-down cake and fried chicken.

But I bake cornbread and biscuits five or six times a year, bake a pineapple upside-down cake every other year and fry chicken once a decade. So my cast iron languishes in the cupboard while I use my non-stick and stainless steel skillets and pans. It wouldn't occur to me, for example, to whip out an iron skillet to sauté some vegetables or make a frittata.

For one thing, cast iron is not something you "whip out." It's heavy stuff. My 10-inch skillet is a hefty 4.5 pounds, almost the weight of the little barbells I keep around for the occasional attempt at well-toned arms. And you can't leave the pan in the sink to soak until after dinner. It needs to be quickly cleaned with hot water and a wire brush--no detergent. After scrubbing, you need to add a little oil to keep the pan seasoned, put it in a warm oven to dry and then store it in a cool, dry place.

Is cast iron worth the extra weight and the special care for anything other than cornbread, biscuits, upside-down cake and fried chicken? Mark persuaded me to give it a try, a culinary test drive, so to speak. Searching through Cast Iron Cooking for Dummies by Tracy Barr and Cast Iron Cooking by Dwayne Ridgaway for recipes for dishes I would not normally cook in cast iron, I came up with these: skillet cabbage, chicken pot pie and shrimp scampi with linguini. I also tested a recipe for drop biscuits because Mark recently gave me a cast iron drop biscuit pan---a round pan with seven round 4-by-1-inch holes.

The skillet cabbage was a simple dish of sautéed onion, green pepper, chopped cabbage and chopped tomatoes. Though seasoned only with canola oil and salt and pepper, the dish was not bland. The recipe called for sugar, but I skipped that ingredient. Sautéing over medium heat, I ended up with tender, juicy vegetables.

The chicken pot pie was excellent. To a sauce made of butter, flour, chicken broth and milk, I added cooked chicken (pulled from a grocery store rotisserie chicken) and frozen mixed vegetables. The top and bottom crust were made of refrigerated pie dough. In other words, this was not my Mamaw's homemade pot pie. I think her recipe, in the days when they lived on a farm, began with "catch a chicken and wring its neck." But this pot pie tasted like I'd fussed much more than I did. The creamy vegetables and chicken were encased in a perfectly browned crust. Served straight out of the pan, it looked lovely and stayed hot throughout the meal. I'd be proud to serve it at a dinner party.

The scampi was also very good. While the linguini cooked, I sautéed minced garlic and peeled, de-veined shrimp in a mixture of butter and olive oil seasoned with salt and pepper. After tossing in red pepper flakes, chopped parsley, lemon juice and parmesan cheese, I poured the mixture over the linguini and threw a little more parmesan cheese on top, though the recipe didn't call for it. Next time, I think I'll try adding the linguini to the shrimp and serving out of the skillet.

For the biscuits, I mixed all-purpose flour, baking powder and salt, cut in a mixture of vegetable shortening and butter and added buttermilk. I dropped the dough into the seven "biscuit holes" and after 10 minutes of baking lifted out biscuits with a smooth interior and slightly crunchy brown exterior. I prefer a rolled biscuit (better to pour gravy on!), but as drop biscuits go, these were as good as any I've ever had.   

Overall, I was impressed. Every dish was tasty and easy to cook. The food didn't stick, and cleanup wasn't laborious. I liked being able to use burly metal spatulas instead of lightweight silicon utensils. When I spotted a piece of bell pepper in the pan with the cabbage that needed to be cut in half, I was able to take the knife to it right in the pan, knowing the knife wouldn't damage the surface.  

I'm not tossing out my other pans, but cast iron is more versatile and easier to care for than I thought. It is heavy--but maybe that just means I should ditch the little barbells and cook with cast iron more often.