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!