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...