Monday, December 28, 2009

Recipe: Skillet Hash Browns

Cast iron skillet hash browns

On Christmas morning, as a gift to myself, I set out to create a recipe for hash browns that didn't involve a lot of fuss.  I'd heard from numerous sources that hash browns were hard to make and fraught with much peril (including burning, sticking, and potato disintegration).  Of course, it was essential that these hash browns were also produced using a cast iron skillet, since we threw Teflon out of our house years ago. Naturally, I still wanted crisp, flavorful, shredded potato hash browns without compromise.

Too much to ask for?  I think not.

After a few quarts of coffee, I recalled from somewhere that rinsing the cut potatoes was essential to removing surface starch, which can lead to sticking.  So, after shredding my russets in the Cuisinart, I rinsed them in cold water.  I then dried them in the salad spinner.

From there, it was a simple matter of cast iron skillet pan-frying: using plenty of oil, turning the hash browns before they got burned, and seasoning with enough salt to make 'em tasty.

Here's how it went down:

  • 4 large russet potatoes
  • Canola oil
  • Salt
Peel your potatoes, and then shred or grate them. The cuisinart makes quick work of this, but you could also use a grater or a mandoline (especially if you harbor a special hatred towards your knuckles).  Once the potatoes are shredded, rinse them thoroughly under cold water to remove surface starch.  When the water runs clear, drain and dry the shredded potatoes.  I dried them with a salad spinner, but if you don't have one of those use a colander and then a towel to pat dry.

Heat a large cast iron skillet on medium heat for 5-7 minutes.  Add a good quarter inch of canola oil to the skillet, and when the oil is shimmering and hot, add your potatoes.  Give the potatoes a good sprinkling of salt to start getting flavor into the innards.  Once the hash browns are browned on one side, flip them to expose the still-white surfaces.  Continue flipping the hash browns every few minutes to keep things browning evenly.

Be gentle. Try not to stir things around too much or the potatoes can break down.  Once the hash browns are mostly golden brown and have few sections that are wholly-white, taste them for seasoning and doneness.  If they don't burst with flavor, add salt as necessary. You may also need to add oil if things begin to stick. The potatoes will soak up oil in the beginning, and release it as they finish cooking.

When hash browns are cooked through and golden brown all over... you're done!  Serve immediately.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Recipe: Basic White Sauce (gluten free)

A gluten free white sauce comes together on the stovetop

The basic white sauce is an important sauce to master. Folks who don't have formal training or a bunch of restaurant experience are sometimes a little freaked out by making this sauce. Don't be afraid, gringo.

If you can make gravy, you can make white sauce.  Even if you can't make gravy, you can still make white sauce (after which, you can make gravy!).

Bechamel, which is a lightly-flavored but close cousin of basic white sauce, is one of the "mother sauces" of French cooking.  As the name implies, once you get the hang of these sauces, you can then spawn many others. The basic deal with a white sauce is to combine fat, flour, and liquid (just like gravy).

In the case of white sauce, the fat is butter, the flour is flour (gluten free in this case), and the liquid is milk. 

Here's how it breaks down:

(Makes a little more than 1 Cup)
Heat a small stainless steel saucepan on medium to medium-low heat.  Once the saucepan is warm, melt the butter, and then add the flour.  Stir things around with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon (one that fits into the corners) to combine evenly.  You should end up with a somewhat runny but playdough-like substance called roux (pronounced: "roo").

Cook the roux briefly (1-2 minutes), stirring constantly, while keeping the heat low so the roux doesn't brown. The idea here is to cook the raw flavor out of the flour (this step is important for wheat flour as well as gluten free flour).  Should you succeed in keeping your roux from browning, you have what is called a "blonde roux" (as opposed to a "brown roux," which is what you get when you let your roux brown a bit).   

Once you are happy with your blonde roux (or even if you aren't—don't worry) add the milk to the saucepan.  Upon adding the milk, immediately begin whisking your inchoate white sauce in order to break up the clumps of roux.  This whisking begins the process of turning the whole shebang into a smooth, creamy sauce.  You'll want to whisk fairly constantly until the sauce has heated up and is beginning to boil.

NOTE:  Many white sauce recipes call for scalded milk.  While the addition of hot milk to the roux speeds the process along, the finished product is the same whether you add hot or cold milk.  With hot milk, you spend less time whisking and worrying about things sticking to the bottom of the pan.  Since I normally have too many other things going on in my kitchen (like, say, a toddler swinging the meat cleaver at his brother) I usually just add cold milk rather than heating it ahead of time.

NOTE:  In the unlikely event that you you didn't cook all of the raw flour taste out of your roux, you now have a second chance (lucky you).

Once the white sauce is hot and just beginning to boil, go ahead and taste it to see if it has an unpleasant raw flour taste.  Chances are it doesn't.  But if you think it might, go ahead and cook it a few minutes longer (while whisking constantly).

Once you're happy with your sauce's taste (remember, you haven't added any salt or other seasonings... so it's gonna be pretty bland), remove it from the heat and set aside until you're ready for it.  Your white sauce is now ready for transformation into other sauces like Alfredo, Bechamel, Florentine, Mornay, and many others.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Cast Iron Cookware: Frequently Asked Questions

I get a lot of questions about cast iron cookware from friends, relatives, blog readers, and total strangers. Some of these questions come up quite frequently. Thus, I present to you these frequently asked questions about cast iron cookware.  (NOTE: If you have a question that I haven't answered below, please leave it in a comment and I will answer it as soon as I can. Thanks!)
  1. I've heard you're not supposed to wash cast iron. Is that true?  No. Wash your cast iron.  Use only hot water and plastic bristles (in a pinch, you can even use those mesh bags that citrus fruit comes in).  Soak it for a few hours if need be, but not overnight. Read more about cast iron care and cleaning.
  2. My scrambled eggs (or other foods) always seem to stick.  What am I doing wrong?  Chances are, you are not starting with a shiny pan.  The path to the shiny pan includes washing with hot water, drying with heat, oiling the pan all over while it is still hot, and putting it away greasy.  If you are starting with a shiny pan, you might need to let the pan heat up a bit more before tossing in your eggs (or other food).  Still having trouble with food sticking?  Leave me a comment and I'll happily investigate further. Thanks!
  3. I know you always say to "put it away greasy."  What if my compulsive nature makes me have a problem with putting oily cookware away in my cupboards?  First off, cast iron is about love. Love for your family. Love for your bloodstream. Love for your planet. Sometimes, love is best experienced by way of hot, hard, and well-lubricated tools.  All seriousness aside... the key here is that, because you 1) washed your cast iron with hot water and plastic bristles, 2) dried it with heat, 3) applied clean, fresh oil, and 4) cook with it often (you do cook with it often, don't you?); the surface of your cast iron cookware is no more unsanitary than the rack in your oven or the bottles from which your oil was poured.  Chances are very good that your cast iron cookware is in fact much more sanitary than your sink, countertops, fridge, or sponge. If the main issue is the oil that gets inside your cupboards, I'd recommend lining the cupboard shelves with corrugated cardboard.  The cardboard will soak up any residual oil from your cast iron pans, and you can change it out as often as you like.
  4. How do I deal with flavor transfer when I cook dishes like fish and pancakes in the same cast iron skillet?  I have found that most of this "transfer" is limited to the aroma of previously-cooked foods during heat-up of the pan.  The food itself usually doesn't pick up these flavors or aromas—even with fish, onions, garlic, etc.  That said, if you are finding that your Tuesday night fish is making your Wednesday morning pancakes taste like tuna... here are some remedies: 

    • Lemon and boiling water. Once your pan or skillet has been washed, give it an additional "how's your father" by rubbing it inside with a freshly cut half-lemon (or lemon juice and a plastic scrubber), and then pouring boiling water into it while continuing to scrub with the lemon. Then dry the pan as normal with heat, oil it, and put it away greasy.
    • Consider soap. I know, it's considered anathema to many cast iron aficionados, but oil absorbs other oils (e.g. fish oil), and detergents/surfactants remove oil. I would personally vastly prefer a slight fish taste to a slight detergent or artificial fragrance taste, but well-seasoned cast iron cookware can easily handle a light soap washing. Be sure to rinse thoroughly, dry with heat, and re-oil while hot to achieve the shiny pan.
    • Increase your fleet. Folks that cook on cast iron a lot will often have a "fish and meats" skillet and a "veggies and sweets" skillet (in a pinch, of course, you can also use both for one or the other to extend your capacity).

  5. What do I do if my cast iron cookware is rusted?  The first step is to get rid of the rust. Light rust can usually be removed with a mixture of coarse salt (e.g. kosher or sea salt) and oil.  Scrub with a plastic scrubber pad or brush until rust is completely gone (check for removal by rinsing under hot water and eyeballing it).  Once the rust is gone, re-season the cast iron by coating it with oil and putting it upside down in the oven (on 250 degrees F) for an hour.  Read more about seasoning cast iron cookware.  If your cast iron cookware is totally rusted, pitted, and in need of serious help, you need to burn the rust off and start over.  This is accomplished by tossing your cast iron in a fire for up to an hour, and then re-oiling it once it has cooled sufficiently. You can also use your barbeque grill or your oven's clean cycle. Read more about rescuing abused cast iron cookware.  
  6. I've heard it's a bad idea to cook acidic foods in cast iron. For example: A pot of tomato sauce. Thoughts? Advice?  All cookware contributes a little bit of itself to your meal. This is true for cast iron, stainless steel, Teflon, copper, aluminum, and even glass.  In the case of cast iron, many folks consider extra iron in the diet to be a good thing—especially women, and new moms in particular.   But the amount of iron contributed to the meal by cast iron cookware is increased when cooking highly acidic foods.  This can present two problems: 1) an overly acidic or metallic taste in the dish, and 2) destruction of the seasoning of your cast iron pan.  As you might imagine, the two are related. If you are noticing unwanted flavors, then I would recommend using enameled cast iron or stainless steel for these high-acid dishes.  Enameled cast iron is great for when you want to finish it in the oven. Stainless steel is just dandy for when you are finishing on the stovetop and/or would like to develop a deep fond for later deglazing.  
Some additional resources:
Still have questions?  Please leave a comment and I'll answer it as soon as I can. Thanks.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Recipe: Shepherd's Pie

Shepherd's pie in a cast iron skillet

In western culture, the shepherd has come to symbolize protection, guidance, and solitary perseverance. In the Christian tradition, shepherds were the go-to guys when the angels needed to spread the word about a certain important baby shower.

In my opinion, the pinnacle of Shepherd Civilization may well be the invention of shepherd's pie. Shepherd's pie (also called cottage pie), consists of a layer of minced or ground meat covered by a layer of mashed potatoes—all of which is baked in the oven until golden brown. That's pure genius.

As near as I can tell, this dish was invented in Great Britain in the 1700's (once potatoes had arrived from the new world). As we all know, however, the Incas were advanced in many ways, and I wouldn't put it past them to have hit upon the concept of this dish centuries before the Brits.

I first became acquainted with shepherd's pie in Alaska. My friend Ben made shepherd's pie about once a week (which is infinitely sensible when it's 30 below zero). The 200 pounds of potatoes left over from the kitchen's summer larder further augmented Ben's appearance of sensibility.

Carrots and onions add sweetness to complement salt
You can make shepherd's pie out of just about any type of meat. We've made it with lamb, beef, buffalo, ground turkey, leftover thanksgiving turkey, and even salmon. Sometimes it's just meat and potatoes. Other times it's full of veggies. The mashed potatoes might feature roasted garlic, chipotle sauce, or fire-roasted jalapenos. Shepherd's pie is at its best when each layer has its own distinct flavor profile, so consider varying your seasonings between the meat and the potatoes (this can be subtle: in this recipe I used garlic powder in the potatoes and onion powder in the buffalo, and salt and pepper in both).

No matter what type of meat you like in your pie, the secret to an outstandingly tasty experience is this: When you've finished browning the meat; add a bit of flour, and then some water or broth to create a quick gravy around the meat. The gravy helps alleviate any pooled fat at the bottom after roasting, keeps the meat from drying out, and provides a rich, flavorful foundation to the pie.

This recipe is a fairly traditional interpretation that uses ground buffalo and red potatoes. Just like this dish's inherent flexibility when it comes to meat, many varieties of potatoes are acceptable (including that old workhorse, the russet). I like to leave the skin on the potatoes, but you can peel them if you prefer. I added onions, carrots and peas to the meat layer in this recipe... but you can do as you like. The onions and carrots provide a nice sweetness to intensify flavor (in combination with the salt).

  • 2 pounds ground buffalo
  • 2 pounds red potatoes, halved
  • 4 carrots, cut into 1/4 inch rounds
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup frozen peas
  • 1-2 tablespoons all purpose flour (I used Bob's Red Mill gluten-free flour here)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Granulated garlic
  • Onion powder
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1 cup (or so) milk
  • 1/2 cup (or so) chicken or beef broth
  • Canola oil, as needed
Adding the top layer of mashed potatoes
In a large stainless steel pot, boil the potatoes in plenty of water until they are done—as you would normally for mashed potatoes. They should be tender to a fork (or you can always just taste a chunk to make sure). Drain the potatoes, and put them back in the pot with the butter. Mash them up, and add milk as needed to make them creamy. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and granulated garlic. Potatoes should be nice and flavorful—so don't skimp on the seasonings!

In a large cast iron skillet or dutch oven brown the buffalo over medium heat. Make sure to start with a shiny pan, and let it heat evenly before adding the meat. Buffalo is fairly lean, so I'd add a tablespoon or so of oil to start. When the meat is mostly browned, add salt, pepper, and onion powder to taste, as well as any vegetables or aromatics (onions and carrots in this case).

Continue cooking until the onions are beginning to caramelize, and the carrots are starting to soften (another 10 minutes, maybe). Add more oil if you need to, and then sprinkle in the flour. Mix things around, and then add water or broth until you have a small amount of gravy mingling with the browned meat. Add frozen peas and stir things around again. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and onion powder.

Ready to serve!
Smooth out the browned meat layer so it is of uniform thickness, and then spoon the mashed potatoes on top and smooth them over (this step is easier if your potatoes are thoroughly mashed, and contain a bit more liquid than normal).

Bake the shepherd's pie in the oven on 350 degrees F for 35-40 minutes, or until lightly browned on top.

 Pull from the oven, let cool 10 minutes, and serve.

And next time you encounter a shepherd, be sure to thank her or him for their contributions to society.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Article: Post-Ignite Boulder 7, Teflon Kicked to the Curb

As expected, Ignite Boulder 7 did not disappoint in the least.

Honestly, there were no bad presentations, but here are a few of my favorites:

Kristina Wang (shown above, with Andrew Hyde) delivered a fine talk on saving an endangered species: Engineers.

A tour of Antarctica and South Georgia Island, complete with penguin-eating skuas, shipwrecks, and more icebergs than you can shake a camera at. Nice work Alek Komarnitsky!

Groundbreaking research on sustainability, green living, and environmental responsibility via the F-bomb, from Erika Napoletano at ReadheadWriting.

More research from the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) covering From Wrong to Funny. Fantastic.

True to form, Ef Rodriguez starting things off with some outstanding caroling to banish the BahHumbugler from the evening (and beyond).

My talk entitled Cast Iron Cookware: Why Your Great-Grandma Schools Your Ass on Sustainability went last, and seemed well-received from what I recall. It sure was a lot of fun, and has generated many kind words. Thanks everyone!

I'll post the video once it is up... and in the meantime, here's a (kinda dark) photo of that Teflon cookware that I found kicked to the curb when I parked my car before the event. A good omen.

Thanks again to everyone who came, and especially to Andrew Hyde, Benjamin Chait, Kath, and the rest of the Ignite organizing team. And special thanks to my peeps at Foraker for suffering through lots of practice!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Article: Ignite Boulder 7

Looking forward to presenting on December 10th. Thanks all for your support and votes.

The topic?

"Cast Iron Cookware: Why your great-grandma schools your ass on sustainability"

The format?
  • 20 slides
  • 15 seconds per slide
  • 5 minutes
  • lots of fun

Find out more and get your tickets before they are all gone.

See you there!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Equipment: Medium Stainless Steel Saute Pan

Description and Uses
Stainless steel saute pans are perfect when you want to develop a heavy fond (browned bits of caramelized yumminess that stick to the bottom of the pan) and then deglaze it to make a pan sauce.

This stainless pan is the perfect size for 3-4 chicken breasts, a dozen shrimp, finishing green beans with butter, and many other quick meals for the family.

Inside bottom diameter: 8 1/2 inches
Outside top diameter: 11 1/2 inches
Depth: 2 inches

Care and Maintenance
Clean like you would just about any other pot or pan with soap and hot water, and either a non-abrasive or abrasive scrubber. Air dry in a drying rack. Most of these pans are probably fine in the dishwasher, too.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Recipe: Easy Sauteed Jalapeno Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts are a tough customer. Or rather, serving brussels sprouts to your guests can make them tough customers.

In my experience, there are few dishes that dinner guests will outright refuse to even sample (allergies and dietary restrictions aside). Brussels sprouts are among these select few. No matter. For those who will eat brussels sprouts, this recipe is quick, tasty, and has a little kick. For those that won't... there's always frozen broccoli.

  • 1/2 cup brussels sprouts
  • 1 tablespoon (or so) canola or olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon (or so) butter
  • 2 cloves pressed garlic (about a tablespoon)
  • 1 small jalapeno pepper, minced (about a tablespoon)
  • salt

Clean up the brussels sprouts by cutting off any protruding stalks, and then wash them thoroughly. Slice them in half from top to stalk.

Add oil to a medium stainless steel saute pan, and heat on medium heat until the oil shimmers. Toss in the brussels sprouts, and saute for 5-7 minutes until they begin to brown.

Clear a spot in the center of the pan, and add the garlic and jalapeno (add more oil if needed before this step to keep the garlic from sticking). Saute the garlic and jalapeno, stirring as necessary to keep from sticking or burning, for about 30 seconds. Add the butter, and swill things around for a few more seconds to mix flavors. Salt to taste and serve immediately.

And tell any brussels sprout doubters to grow up and try at least one!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Article: In Defense of Stainless Steel Cookware

My original objective in publishing a blog about cast iron cooking was to get my friends and family away from teflon-coated cookware.

I figured if I could demonstrate how simple it really is to care for and season cast iron cookware, it would help the people I love overcome their reservations about using "the original nonstick cookware." In the process, I was hoping to take a few toxic chemicals off their menus.

While an alternative to nonstick cookware seemed the most pressing need, not everything should be cooked on a nonstick surface. And there are several healthy options out there.

Stainless steel cookware is a great example. Stainless is just the thing when you want your food to stick to the pan. Such is the case when a pan sauce is desired... where you first develop a heavy fond (browned bits of yumminess that stick to the pan) and then lift the fond into the sauce through a process called deglazing.

Stainless steel is also a preferred choice for boiling darn near anything, making soups or traditional sauces like bechamels and marinaras, or for high-acid recipes where cast iron can negatively affect taste.

In terms of health and safety, stainless steel is considered one of the safest types of cookware by many.

Stainless steel is made of iron, nickel, and chromium.

Iron and chromium are recommended dietary minerals, and stainless steel cookware releases so little of these trace elements that it is considered safe—if not slightly beneficial.

Nickel is not considered a dietary requirement like the first two, but so little of it is released during cooking that no sources I could turn up consider it a hazard.

Here are some of those sources:

National Institutes of Health - Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Chromium

National Institutes of Health - Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Iron

Google Answers - How safe are stainless steel pots and pans?

So, there you have it. I can dig the stainless. I use it often.

I'll start featuring recipes cooked on stainless steel in the near future. Hope you like them!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Recipe: Crock Pot Buffalo Pot Roast

We're big fans of beef. But getting our hands on beef raised without synthetic hormones, antibiotics, or other nasty stuff isn't easy (or cheap). When our local warehouse-style grocery store started carrying buffalo (also called bison), we thought we'd give it a try.

Buffalo are about as well-adapted to America's grasslands as a beast can get, having been here evolving since the Pleistocene. This means that they pretty much raise themselves, and therefore don't require antibiotics or hormones.

Due to buffalo meat's relative leanness compared to beef, and the fact that it is typically grass-fed, buffalo has about 50% less cholesterol tha
n beef, and is high in essential fatty acids (like omega 3 and omega 6).

We've found the taste of ground buffalo and buffalo pot roast to be excellent. It isn't gamey at all, and has a nice "beefy" flavor that's mild, sweet, and would fool just about anyone if you didn't tell them it wasn't beef (I happen to think that rescuing American bison
from the brink of extinction and placing it on the dinner table is a story worth telling!).

Our story went like this:

  • 2-3 lb. buffalo pot roast
  • a dozen fingerling potatoes (or 2-3 russet potatoes)
  • 3-4 large carrots
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 quart chicken broth
  • 4-6 tablespoons canola oil
  • coarse (kosher) salt
  • cracked black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons flour (I used Bob's Red Mill gluten free all purpose flour)
  • a pinch of dried thyme
  • garlic powder
Heat a cast iron dutch oven on medium heat until hot, then add 3-4 tablespoons canola oil. While the pan is warming, liberally coat the pot roast with salt and pepper, and give it a lesser sprinkling of garlic powder. When oil is shimmering (but before it smokes), toss in the pot roast to sear and brown it. Sear it on all sides, which should take about ten minutes, turning every few minutes.

While you're browning the roast, cut potatoes, carrots, and onions into rough 1 1/2 inch chunks. Remove the pot roast from the dutch oven when browned and place it in a slo
w cooker. Add the remaining 2-3 tablespoons of canola oil, and then add the potatoes, carrots, and onions to the dutch oven. Turn up the heat to medium high to give everything a quick browning (maybe 5 minutes). Add the flour to make a rough veggie-filled roux (gravy base), and then add the broth.

Be sure to get loose any bits of fond (browned meat-love) that have stuck to the pan, and dump the whole shebang into the crock pot (slow cooker). Add a pinch (or a few whole sprigs) of dried thyme, and enough extra salt and pepper to make the liquid nice and flavorful. Because your hunk of meat, potatoes, carrots, etc. have not yet absorbed any salt, it is OK to have the liquid be slightly on the salty side.

Cook in the slow-cooker (on low setting) all day (8-10 hours). Serve when convenient. In this case, we served the pot roast over rice. You could also serve it over mashed potatoes if you decided to add some other goodies like celery, squash, etc. to the main dish (probably leaving out the potatoes in that case, lest your guests suffer from tuber overload).

Don't forget to tell people about the return of the American bison.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Recipe: Roasted Acorn Squash with Parmesean

We didn't plant acorn squash this year. Or last year. Or the year before. But once again, just before the first snowflakes of autumn fell on our garden, we harvested a handful of beautiful little acorn squashes.

Apparently, a few years back, we composted a very fecund squash. Ever since, we've had volunteer acorn squashes popping up within rows of carrots, underneath the jalapenos, and amongst the tomatoes. Most of these sprouts die a quick and (as far as we know) painless death in June, but we let a few grow to maturity each year to produce the fall's harvest.

This recipe is really simple, and one of the tastiest ways to eat squash that I am aware of. What's not to like?

  • Acorn squashes (as many as you feel like roasting)
  • 2 Teaspoons coarse kosher salt per squash
  • 3 Tablespoons shredded parmesean cheese per squash
  • 1 Tablespoon butter per squash

Cut your acorn squashes in half from "pole to pole" and clean out the seeds with a spoon. If you're feeling particularly sensible, you can cut off a thin slice of the husk so the squash will sit flat like a bowl.

Place squashes flesh side up in a large cast iron skillet (or whatever size works based on how many squashes you are roasting). Sprinkle with kosher salt, and let sit for half an hour or so to draw out moisture and let the salt penetrate the squash-flesh. Meanwhile, turn your oven to 350 degrees F and let it come up to temperature.

Add a nicely-sized pat of butter to each squash cavity (roughly a half tablespoon), and then sprinkle liberally with parmesean cheese around the cavity and up on the rim.

Place the acorn squash halves in the oven, and roast until they are done—about 45 minutes to an hour. Poke with a fork to determine doneness... they'll be nice and soft when they are ready.

Let cool for 5 minutes or so before serving. In this case, I chopped some fresh Italian parsley and tossed it on top for color. You could add other herbs if you had 'em, or some cracked black pepper.

If you like, add those seeds you removed from the squash cavity into your compost (you do compost, don't you?) to see what happens in the spring.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Article: Green Non-Stick Cookware?

As America's new-found desire to purchase "green" products sweeps through marketing departments everywhere, "green" nonstick cookware has begun showing its salesroom prowess. In some cases, manufacturers could hardly shove aside their standard messaging (insisting that traditional nonstick cookware was perfectly safe) fast enough to sell you their new fleet of non-cancerous cookware.

Cook's Illustrated magazine recently reviewed this new crop of feel-good consumer products in an article entitled Green Skillets. In typical Cook's style, they ran through the wringer 8 supposedly eco-friendly nonstick skillets:
  • Classicor Go Green Nonstick 11.5" Skillet
  • Cuisinart GreenGourmet 12" Skillet with Helper Handle
  • Demeyere-Resto 12.6" Ecoglide Frying Pan without Lid
  • Earth Pan 12" Hard Anodized Skillet
  • Greenpan Frypan 12.5"
  • Scanpan Professional 12.25" Fry Pan
  • Starfrit Alternative Eco Pan 11" Fry Pan
  • Xtrema 10" Open Skillet
As Cook's notes, ungreen (or tradtional) nonstick skillet coatings typically use two chemicals that have been indicated as likely carcinogens in studies: PFOA and PTFE. Today's "green" nonstick skillets either remove these chemicals entirely in favor of ceramic or silicone coatings, or just remove PFOA while keeping PTFE on the menu.

In addition to reducing and (possibly eliminating) the chances that you and your family will be poisoned to death by using their products, these manufacturers claim to have prolonged skillet life and improved pan slipperiness to boot.

When put to the test, however, "Not a single one of these 'green' pans was without flaws," according to Cook's.

In tests that included cooking scrambled eggs, fritattas, fish, and steak, the "green" nonstick skillets' performance was generally worse than traditional nonstick skillets (the kind that kill ya dead). Problems included sticking, uneven heating, and poor heat retention once food was added.

The conclusion drawn by the folks at Cook's Illustrated is this: "Until 'green' skillet technology improves, we're sticking with traditional nonstick or a well-seasoned cast-iron pan."

My conclusion? While a cast iron skillet is definitely some of the heaviest cookware you'll find, adding carcinogens to your family's food is no lightweight either. And just think, maybe you can quit the gym if you use cast iron often enough...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Recipe: Cowboy Eggs (aka "One Eyes")

This simple, self-contained bread and egg recipe could very well be the finest non-bacon-containing breakfast out there for the working man.

I have fond memories of my dad making these things on weekends (and school mornings in the winter). We had a special bread cutter just for the purpose.

When I lived in Alaska for a few years, Cowboy Eggs and pancakes made up my diet—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—for a whole year.

For me, this is a little taste of home.

Heat a medium cast iron skillet on medium heat. As the skillet is heating up, cut the holes in your bread. Ideally, the holes are about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. If you have a thin-walled glass, you can make beautiful round holes... or you can just cut the holes with a butter knife.

When the pan is hot (just beginning to smoke slightly, probably after 3-4 minutes), slap down a few large pats of butter, and put the "holes" in to let them soak up the butter. Turn the holes over to get both sides, and then put in the bread pieces and again swish them around a bit and flip them over. I usually add a couple of "helper" pats of butter to the middle spots where the eggs will go just before adding the eggs.

Break the eggs into the holes, and let them cook for a few minutes. Once the bottom of the eggs are cooked enough to flip without having things fall apart, flip them. It usually helps to work at the bottom a bit to unstick any stubborn spots before attempting the flip. A very thin spatula works best.

Once flipped, monitor your Cowboy Eggs closely. If you like your eggs runny, you'll pull them off in just another minute of two. If you like them well done, you've got another 3-4 minutes to go.

Serve immediately.

As a variation, you can add hot sauce, melted cheddar cheese, and chopped cilantro.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Recipe: Grilled Chicken Fajitas

This is, in my unbiased opinion, the finest fajita recipe known to mankind. I wish I could claim the credit for it, but I can't. I learned how to make fajitas while working for a tour company in Alaska.

A little strange, I know.

My boss in Alaska was a guy who grew up running restaurants in Mississippi, and he knew his stuff. Especially when it came to grilling meat.

Which brings up a good point. Strictly speaking, this recipe is not prepared using cast iron cookware. You can, of course, make this recipe with a cast iron grill pan, and I recommend carmelizing onions (and peppers) in a cast iron skillet. While my barbeque grill is extruded steel instead of cast iron, it is still a safe, non-stick cooking method... so I'm stretching the rules.

I highly recommend serving these with shredded cheese, caramelized onions, chopped scallions, chopped lettuce, chopped tomatoes, chopped cilantro, lime wedges, sour cream, guacamole, and a side dish like spanish rice. Of course, you'll want some warm tortillas to put everything in.

You can use this marinade on dang near anything. We typically use chicken breasts or beef top round. Buffalo is great, too. Pork wouldn't be out of place.

  • 1/2 cup tamari (or soy sauce if you don't care about gluten)
  • 1 cup worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon Canadian steak seasoning (or Italian dressing mix)
  • 1 cup oil
  • 5 large chicken breasts
  • 20 corn tortillas

Mix tamari, worcestershire, chili powder, cumin, and Canadian steak seasoning together in a blender. While blender is still running, slowly add the oil until it is well incorporated. (Note: If you put the oil in too fast, or just mix it all together... you'll never get the marinade to make an emulsion, and you have to start over).

Marinate the meat for 6-8 hours in the refrigerator.

Light a charcoal fire. I strongly recommend natural hardwood charcoal (actual chunks of charred wood, as opposed to briquets), and a grill chimney (shown at right) so you don't flavor your meal with petroleum distillates and coal dust. When the coals are ready, spread 'em around and place the grill over them. Once the grill has heated for 5 minutes or so over the coals, clean it with a wire brush, and then spray or wipe it with oil.

If you're using a cast iron grill pan for this recipe, prepare the pan by placing it on the second-highest rack in the oven, and then heat it up for 10 minutes (until smoking) under the broiler.

Place the marinated chicken on the grill, and cook until done, flipping often enough not to burn it. This will probably take 15-20 minutes (with either method). Internal temperature should be about 160 degrees F when you pull it. Once off the grill, rest the meat on a cutting board loosley tented with foil for about 10 minutes (Note to the FDA: the chicken will warm to 165 degrees F as it rests).

Slice the chicken into 1/8-inch thick slices, against the grain if possible, and serve immediately with warm tortillas and whatever toppings and side dishes you may have concocted.

Recipe: Caramelized Onions

Onions caramelized in a cast iron skillet

Cast iron's highest and best use may well be to caramelize onions. You get even heat, near-perfect blackbody radiation, a nonstick surface, good looks, charming personality, the list goes on...

Caramelized onions are a mainstay of proper fajitas; as well as a strong supporting cast member in many other tasty dishes like quesadillas, pizza, breakfast potatoes, tacos, enchiladas, and marinara sauce.

I like to include butter when I caramelize onions, as the browning of the butter helps add a nice nutty flavor. There's also salt in butter, which combines with the sweetness of the onions to further develop the flavor.

Here's how to make perfect caramelized onions in your cast iron skillet:

  • sliced onions (6 large yellow onions are pictured here)
  • oil (About 2 tablespoons are used here)
  • butter (about 1/4 stick is used here, use more oil if you're leaving the butter out.)

Onions being properly sliced
Slice the onions by cutting off the tops and bottoms. Then, cut the onions in half from what was formerly the top to the bottom, making two semi-spherical halves.

Remove the outer skin layers. Place each onion half flat side down on your cutting board. Slice the onions evenly at about 1/8 inch thickness—from one "pole" to the other.

This produces even, crescent-shaped pieces of onion that are easy to manage on the fork (see picture at right).

To begin caramelizing the onions, heat a medium cast iron skillet on medium heat until hot (just barely starting to smoke).

Add the oil and toss in the sliced onions. Stir the onions around the skillet every 4 minutes or so, gradually lowering the heat by a few ticks with each stirring to end up around medium low heat after about 15 minutes.

If you are including butter, toss in about 1/4 stick somewhere near the 10-minute mark. Turn off the heat when the onions are a deep golden brown. This will take about 20 minutes.

Serve caramelized onions right away, if appropriate according to your dinner or lunch plan.

Caramelized onions are resilient... so feel free to leave them on the stove in the cast iron skillet (covered, no heat) for up to 4 hours, and simply re-heat for 5-10 minutes on medium heat to serve with the rest of the meal when everything is ready.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Recipe: Oven Roasted Beet Salvation

Having grown up in the Midwest, I was taught at an early age to revere beets.

As a child, I attended Fourth of July picnics, family reunions, graduations, and other assorted events. More often than not, these events included beets. There were beet salads. Pickled beets. Boiled beets. Beet borscht. Beet relish. Beet soup. There were even candied beets with marshmallows for dessert.

Truth be told, I wasn't quite sure what to make of beets. Sure they had a beautiful bloody color, and were easy enough to grow. But I had hardly ever tasted a beet recipe that I liked. As a grown man who had mastered changing diapers, marketing websites, and framing out buildings; the prospect of preparing, cooking, and serving beets had me spooked.

This summer, we decided to give our local CSA a try... and low and behold, along with entirely too many scallions and fennel, up showed a steady influx of beets.

As luck would have it, my beet salvation arrived shortly thereafter.

We were up at Chatauqua poaching some Beethoven through the open doors and having some wine and sandwiches when it happened. Our friends Leslie and Ryan had joined us, and after a strenuous uphill battle on bikes, we spread out on the lawn for the drinks and grub. Leslie opened a tupperware containing a dark, chunky, vaguely salady concoction, and my wife asked for a bite.

"That's good. Those are beets?" she asked, somewhat incredulously.

"Yeah, I just roast them with salt, pepper and herbs, and they can kind of go anywhere," Leslie replied.

My beet salvation had arrived.

When we got home (after a few bottles of wine and a really "interesting" bike ride down the hill), I dove into the vegetable drawer in search of beets. I was not disappointed.

The next morning, here's what I did:

  • Beets, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
  • Canola oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Granulated garlic

Preheat oven at 350 degrees F.

Wash the beets, cut off the tops and bottoms, peel, and then cube them. Toss the beet cubes with oil, and spices. Place seasoned beets in an appropriately-sized cast iron skillet to avoid crowding.

Place in the oven, and roast until they're done. Keep turning them every 10 minutes or so to avoid burning... and after 30 minutes be sure to eat a larger-sized chunk each time you stir to test doneness.

Once they're tender, caramelized, and tasty; serve hot immediately as a side dish to any savory poultry, beef, or pork dish.

As my beet salvation suggests, you can also refrigerate the roasted beets and add to salads, soups, or casseroles. If you're really feeling randy, mash the roasted beet cubes into a paste and use on sandwich bread in place of mayo or mustard.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Recipe: Spanish Rice

If you eat as many quesadillas as we do, it's nice to have a variety of ingredients to add into them or place alongside. Spanish rice is a favorite side dish in our family since it is versatile, tasty, and easy to prepare. We've also found that the red variety of Hatch brand sauce seems to work for those of us that are gluten-free.

While the Spanish might cringe, we often make this with Basmati rice... mostly because that's the only type of white rice we routinely stock. It tastes darn fine, and I've kinda come to like the extra flavor component. Otherwise, use any white, fairly long-grained rice. If you have the time and preference, brown rice is also an option.

Ingredients (serves 4)
  • 2 cups rice
  • 2 1/2 cups broth (I typically use chicken, but you can use veggie to keep it vegetarian)
  • 1 14 oz. can of Hatch enchilada sauce
  • 1/2 cup frozen mixed veggies (corn, carrots, beans)
  • 2-3 T canola oil
  • Salt
  • Cumin
  • Chili powder
  • Granulated garlic

Add the rice and liquids (broth and enchilada sauce) to a stainless steel saucepan, and cook on high until boiling (stir it here and there to prevent sticking), and then reduce heat and simmer until done. Usually 20 minutes or so.

Then, heat a large cast iron skillet on medium heat, and once it warms up evenly (5-7 minutes) and just begins to smoke lightly, add a solid coating of canola oil, and spoon in the rice in small batches. If you just dump it all in at once... it tends to form a big blob.

Mix rice around with a wooden spatula to let it develop some crispiness, and to burn off excess moisture. Season to taste with salt and spices. Add in the frozen veggies when you're 5 minutes or so from pulling and serving. (Note: the skillet-frying step can be repeated on subsequent days to re-warm the rice, and can also be put off until a day or more after the initial rice cooking).

You can at this point, of course, use your already hot skillet to heat other ingredients like refried beans, beef tips, or what have you. If you are on the quesadilla program, it works great for those too.

Serve Spanish Rice immediately, as a side dish to damn near anything (including fried eggs for breakfast), or as a filling for quesadillas, enchiladas, or tacos.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Recipe: Nachos

On the surface, there's nothing particularly special about nachos: some corn chips, some cheese, maybe a few toppings. Nachos are, after all, finger food. Moreover, their reputation has been heavily tarnished by thousands of concessions vendors nationwide who pass off a nasty mix of stale corn chips and wish-it-was-good-enough-to-even-be-called-Velveeta cheese sauce as real nachos. For shame.

But the discerning snack-chef understands that nachos are a blank canvas on which to innovate in new and tasty ways. Can the reputation of nachos be saved? Only with your help and perseverance.

  • Corn tortilla chips
  • Jack cheese
  • Toppings, which might include:

    • Refried beans
    • Ground beef
    • Scallions
    • Black olives
    • Chopped Cilantro
    • Hot sauce
    • Jalapeno Peppers
    • Sour cream
    • Bacon
    • Chopped tomatoes
    • Lettuce
There ain't nothin' fancy here. Put the tortilla chips in a medium cast iron skillet, sprinkle toppings over the chips (cheese on top), and put the whole shebang in the oven on 400 degrees F.

If you've got lots of toppings (or a few massive toppings) you may want to pre-heat them in the microwave or on the stovetop so they are fully warmed-through before your cheese and tortillas chips burn.

Roast in the oven until the cheese is melted and all ingredients are hot. Usually 8-10 minutes.

Munch immediately.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Recipe: Campfire French Fries

For those of you who have tried my oven-roasted skillet fries, and are hoping for the same crispy goodness when you're out in the woods... I've worked out an adaptation for campfire cooking. No doubt there is much rejoicing.

Now, to be clear, this is car camping... and the U.S. Forest Service grill / fire ring thingy comes in handy for this one (for those of you who backpack with your cast iron, I apologize for my short-sightedness).

  • Russet potatoes
  • Salt
  • Canadian Steak seasoning (a mixture of lemon pepper, garlic, onion, and a few other odds and ends)
  • Canola oil


The key to this recipe is to pre-bake the potatoes. Unlike at home (in the oven) where the potatoes really have a chance to roast, over the open firepit these potatoes will fry. I recommend pre-baking the potatoes a full day in advance, so they have time to cool down, which vastly simplifies cutting them into fries. If you're really on your game, you'll plan to eat baked potatoes the night before, and throw in an extra one for each person. Of course, you can also cheat by baking all your potatoes at home before you go...

To begin, build yourself a campfire. You want a nice bed of coals for cooking, and very little flame. To achieve this, I recommend burning a hot fire made of smaller-diameter wood for 20 minutes or so. You may need to add some wood during cooking. These should be very small pieces that don't create a lot of flame.

While your fire is working out its issues, slice your potatoes into long wedge-shaped fries no more than 3/4 of an inch thick on the outside arc. I recommend leaving the skin on for flavor, nutrition, and to aid the structural integrity of the fry.

Oil a medium cast iron skillet with about a quarter-inch of canola, and toss in the fries. Use two pans if need be to avoid crowding. Salt and season liberally, and stir things around to coat the fries evenly with oil and seasoning.

Place the skillet (or skillets) on the fire grate once your fire is ready. Turn fries frequently to avoid over-browning. Watch for hot spots, and adjust the height of the grate so the fries don't get burned or cook too fast. It will take about 15 minutes to get a nice crust on and warm the interior of each fry. Ideally, you've been grilling your burgers on the same grate... and everything comes off together hot and delicious!

Mmmmm... time to go camping again soon.