Monday, February 16, 2009

Recipe: Broiled Scallops with Corn Meal

In my experience, you either love scallops, or you hate 'em. I happen to love scallops. I'm not talking about those tiny little bay scallops that get overcooked in about 1.2 seconds and are devoid of flavor even when not overcooked. I'm talking about sea scallops. Big honkers, ideally.

This recipe combines some of the finer ingredients available to the connoisseur of seafood: bacon, white wine, fresh herbs, and lemon. Enjoy!

Ingredients
  • 10 large sea scallops
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 large cloves garlic
  • 1 medium shallot (or a quarter of an onion)
  • 2 oz chopped bacon (about 3 slices)
  • 4-5 sprigs of fresh parsley or basil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (about half a lemon's worth)
  • 2 teaspoons dry sherry
  • 1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon or so of kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil (extra virgin, ideally)
  • 1/4 cup corn meal
  • 3 tablespoons dry white wine (e.g. chardonnay)
Procedure
Pre-heat oven on 500 degrees F. Pulse garlic and shallots in a food processor to mince it finely—maybe 20 seconds total. Add fresh herbs and hit it for another few seconds to mince the herbs. Then add the butter, lemon juice, sherry, salt and pepper. Mix it around a bit with a spatula to incorporate everything. Turn the food processor on, and pour in the olive oil. The whole shebang will turn into kind of a soupy paste.

Remove it from the food processor, and add the corn meal and mix around. Taste it. Adjust as necessary with salt and pepper... taste should be robust. Then add the (uncooked) bacon and mix one final time.

Pour white wine in a medium cast iron skillet, and then place the scallops in the wine. Be sure to leave space between each scallop so they can broil (and not poach). Pour the corn meal mix over each scallop liberally, and then toss in the oven to broil.

Monitor the scallops closely. You want to pull them and serve immediately when they are not quite cooked through (depending on your tastes). This will probably take 10-20 minutes depending on the size of the scallops. If they are 1-2 inches in diameter, it may take 10 minutes. If they are 2-3 inches, it might take a bit more time. Keep poking them as they cook. You'll feel the flesh really start to tighten up once they are cooking through. Did I say serve immediately?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Recipe: Scrambled Eggs



Folks kept asking for more information about making scrambled eggs in a cast iron skillet. So here goes. In this video, I'm only making one egg (for my hungry 1 year old), but the basic principles apply universally, and they are:

  • Make sure the pan has a nice sheen of oil on it before you start (ideally, from the last time you used it, when you cleaned and stored it properly)
  • Wait until the pan is hot. The butter should foam when you put it in the pan
  • Scrambling eggs in a cast iron skillet typically means fairly constant stirring due to a higher pan temperature
Ingredients
  • 1 egg
  • 1 pat of butter
  • splash of milk (optional)
  • salt

Procedure

Beat the egg with a fork in a bowl, add a dash of salt. Also add a tiny splash of milk if you like (this makes the eggs more fluffy). Heat the cast iron skillet on medium high heat until it is good and hot (a flick of water on the cooking surface should dance around and disappear quickly). The pan should not be smoking, however, since this will cause your butter to brown before you can get your eggs in.

Add the eggs, and stir around until they are done. Serve immediately.

Feel free to check out the cleaning up from cast iron scrambled eggs video.

Article: Cleaning Cast Iron after Making Scrambled Eggs (video)



We're demonstrating basic cast iron cleaning techniques using a Dobie pad and water. In this video, we had just made scrambled eggs in our cast iron skillet, and now we're cleaning up from it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Recipe: Stuffed Mushrooms

Stuffed mushrooms, when properly prepared, are a savory appetizer that will disappear quickly from the table. The secret to dynamite stuffed mushrooms is using crushed goldfish crackers in the stuffing (or other cheese-flavored crackers).

This recipe calls for bacon, onions, and Parmesan cheese to complement the cheese crackers, but you can stuff just about anything into a mushroom cap. Feel free to experiment. You'll generally want some bread-like substance as well as fat to help hold things together.

Ingredients
  • 1 lb button (or "regular old") mushrooms
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped onion (about 1/4 of an onion)
  • 6 oz finely chopped bacon
  • 3/4 cup goldfish (or other cheese flavored) crackers, finely crushed
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • black pepper and salt to taste
Procedure
If you're preparing these just before serving, then go ahead and pre-heat the oven at 350 degrees F. You can also make these ahead of time and bake them off shortly before serving.

Heat a medium cast iron skillet on medium heat. While the pan warms, gently snap off the stems of each mushroom, and finely chop them. Once the skillet is hot, saute the bacon until it's just starting to cook through and getting brown around the edges. You should have a good bit of rendered bacon fat in the pan. Add onion, and cook for a minute or two, then add the chopped mushroom stems, and cook for another 5 minutes or so, stirring frequently.

Once the bacon is crisp and cooked, and the mushrooms and onions are cooked and starting to brown, add the Parmesan cheese and cracker crumbs. Mix everything together, and then pulse it in a food processor for 20 seconds or so to bring it to a finely ground consistency. Taste the mixture, and adjust with salt and pepper if need be. Remember, this is finger food, and the mixture will be accompanied by a relatively bland mushroom cap, so be sure there's enough salt. Use a spoon to fill each cap with mixture.

Wipe out the cast iron skillet with a paper towel, and pack in the stuffed mushrooms for baking. Bake them in the oven for 25 minutes or so.

If you're headed out to a party, bring the mushrooms unbaked... and bake them off at the party. They're pretty resilient, and can hang out in the fridge for a day or longer unbaked.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Recipe: Skillet Fried Potatoes

Cast iron skillet fried potatoes over the open fire
Note: While this recipe details the campfire and camp stove method for skillet fried potatoes, you can enjoy your cast iron skillet potatoes at home, too.

In summer, during our teen and college years, my brother and I would usually get a group together to paddle through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota and Quetico Provincial Park in southern Ontario.

The Boundary Waters and Quetico are special. There are no roads, no powerlines, no real buildings to speak of, and very few people. You can still drink the water straight out of the lakes, and (on the Canadian side anyway) there are no motorboats allowed. There are moose, wolf, bald eagle, deer, and fox. Native American pictographs can be found tucked here and there on the vertical faces of lake-side rock. If you know where to look, you can find log cabins slowly disintegrating back in the woods—leftovers from the mining and logging activities of the early 20th century.

The secret is keeping the heat low on a camp stove
My grandma Ruth always got a bit wistful as we took over her living room in St. Paul (and raided her Ziploc stash) while packing for these trips. She had never been to the Boundary Waters despite having grown up in Minnesota. So when I was a Senior in high school, we took Ruth (72 at the time) on an 8-day trip through the lakes, rivers and overgrown portages of this amazing wilderness. Grandma Ruth was pretty hardcore.

On these canoe trips it was nearly always part of the evening ritual to have two or three people hunched over the flat part of a wooden canoe paddle, cutting potatoes with a Swiss Army knife. We'd stay out 8 or 9 days, but would only bring 4 or 5 dinners—assuming we'd catch fish. While our piscatorial luck nearly always held, we were sure to bring a large sack of potatoes just in case. If the fishing was bad, we had skillet potatoes. If the fishing was good, we still had skillet potatoes.

Ingredients

  • 2 Russet Potatoes
  • 1 Small Onion
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Garlic
  • Oil


Procedure

If you're like me and have a white gas backpacking or camp stove (mine's an old MSR Whisperlite), you can approximate a simmer by leaving the fuel tank somewhat under-pressurized. Before you fire it up, release any tank pressure, and then give it just a few pumps to build enough pressure to light it. Leave the burner flame as low as you can get it, and as it gets close to dying, give the tank a pump or two. Place your medium cast iron skillet on the burner to get hot.

You can also fry potatoes over an open campfire. Again, keep the heat low (you can always add more coals or wood).

Cut potatoes into flat chunks about an inch across. The thickness of each chunk should be no more than 1/4 inch. Cut thinner and they'll cook faster. Dice the onions.

Once it is hot, oil the skillet with about 1/4 inch of canola, and then add the raw potato to the hot oil (hold the onions back, for now). Salt and season well as you cook them. Taste them to make sure you've gotten enough seasoning on there. When potatoes are softening up and beginning to brown (maybe after 15 minutes or so), toss in the onions.

Fry until everything is done, stirring frequently to prevent burning on the bottom of the skillet. Potatoes usually take about about 25 minutes to cook.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Recipe: Skillet Roasted Home Fries

>> Skip to recipe
Skillet potatoes are the earliest dish I can remember making as a boy. I have a recollection of my brother and I in the kitchen at the old house on Churchill Drive, frying up little pieces of potato in a Club cast aluminum skillet. Our mom was standing by to make sure we didn't burn the place down, but she let us do the decision-making about taste and technique.

Us boys got really excited as the potatoes transitioned from starchy, raw white hunks into browned, savory morsels. After we had sprinkled a little salt on top, we were sure that we had created a potato dish that was wholly unknown to mankind, and might even make us famous.

Our proud mother exclaimed that we had stumbled upon a version of "American Fries". I remember feeling a tinge of disappointment when she had a ready name for our creation, which suggested it was not a new invention. So maybe we weren't going to write a cookbook after all. But we were still satisfied that we had created a tasty dish without parental input.

There are (at least) a thousand ways to cook potatoes in a skillet, and this is just one of them (Skillet Roasted Vegetables and Skillet Fried Potatoes are two others). In our house, when the grill is on and the burgers are ready and waiting, there's a good chance some skillet-roasted home fries are in the works as well.

Be sure to serve with ketchup. Tomato ketchup is one of the few widely-available substances on earth that contains all five essential flavors:  sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami.

Ingredients
  • Russet Potatoes
  • Salt
  • Canadian Steak Seasoning
  • Oil

Procedure

Pre-heat the oven on 500 degrees F. This recipe goes quicker in a convection oven, so use that setting if you have it.

Cut potatoes lengthwise into long "steak fries", The fat part of the fry shouldn't be much thicker than about a half inch. Cut thinner and they'll cook faster.

Oil a cast iron skillet, and then add the raw fries. Salt and season well with Canadian steak seasoning. If you don't have Canadian steak seasoning handy, you can use pepper and garlic. Mix the oil and seasoning around to coat all fries, and then put the skillet it in the oven on the top shelf.

Roast until done, stirring every 10 minutes or so to prevent burning on the bottom of the skillet. Fries usually take about about 25 minutes to cook.

Recipe: Pan-Seared Salmon in Cast Iron

Pan-seared salmon with a wedge of lemon

This recipe is really simple. And really tasty. All you need is a cast iron skillet and some salmon, salt, and pepper.  I like skin-on filets, but you can use skinless salmon filets, or salmon steaks.

Pan searing salmon with the skin on helps hold in the flavor. Also, right next to the salmon skin is gray flesh, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and tends to keep the salmon filet more tender.

The key to just about any salmon recipe is to not overcook your salmon. Salmon filets that are an inch and a half thick (3.8 cm) can go from "almost perfect" to "dry and tough" in about two minutes at stove-top skillet temperatures. Also, unless your guests are seated and all side dishes served, your salmon filets may sit around for 5-10 minutes prior to being consumed (this is where a lot of otherwise perfectly-cooked filets cook through to over-doneness).

For these reasons, while I provide rough times as guidelines, you must check your salmon filets for doneness about every 30 seconds right at the end. And if you can't drop your filets right onto plates in front of seated guests, you need to compensate by under-cooking the salmon just a little bit.

No one wants their pan-seared salmon quivering and cold, but you can always put an under-cooked salmon filet back on the heat. Once it's over-cooked, you're hosed. Remember: salmon (or sake) is one of the most popular sushi choices in the United States.

Any recipe that promises time-based doneness guidance is full of you-know-what. There are just too many factors that affect the speed with which salmons filet cook through. While some factors are obvious... like cooking temperature and filet thickness, things like burner heat distribution, initial filet temperature, and timing-to-flip play a huge role.

BOTTOM LINE: If you want perfectly-cooked salmon, you have to peer inside your filets as they cook in order judge doneness.

You'll do your doneness-checking with a sharp knife. Ideally you'll slice right between two "flakes" of flesh, and hardly make a noticeable mark. And in any case, your guests will always prefer a slightly-marred-but-perfectly-cooked salmon filet to one that's immaculate looking but overcooked. I promise.

Of course, you can always cover your slightly-marred-but-perfectly-cooked salmon filets with a sauce. Or just strategically add butter, lemon juice, or herbs on top after cooking.

Note: Not sure what type of salmon to buy? Check out my discussion (rant) on salmon varieties.


Generously salt and pepper your filets
Ingredients
  • Salmon filets (1 per person)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Olive Oil
Procedure
Heat a cast iron skillet on medium heat.

While the skillet is heating up, salt and pepper the flesh (non-skin) side of the salmon filets generously. You want a good teaspoon of kosker salt (half that with table salt) on each salmon filet. About a half teaspoon of cracked black pepper (or 1/8 teaspoon of ground) should do it.

If you're using skinless filets or steaks, season both sides generously.

When your cast iron skillet is just starting to smoke (after perhaps 5-7 minutes), add a tablespoon or two of oil, and spread it around to cover the entire cooking surface. Immediately add the salmon filets skin side up.

Sear the salmon for 2-3 minutes until each filet is browned a bit on the underside. Flip the filets so they are skin side down.

Cover the skillet and continue cooking. Check the interior salmon flesh for doneness every 30 seconds or so once you've made the flip and 3 minutes have elapsed.

If you're using skinless filets or steaks, the cooking at this stage happens even more quickly.


As soon as the darker, not fully-cooked (middle-portion) of the filet is less than a quarter of the total filet thickness, pull the salmon and serve immediately.

The fish will keep cooking once removed from heat, and ideally the filet is just starting to cook through in the middle as it is being eaten.

Remember, you can always put it back in the skillet for a minute if it isn't quite done enough. Once it is over-cooked, you're hosed.

Enjoy!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Article: Seasoning Cast Iron Cookware

Well-seasoned cast iron cookware is shiny and non-stick
The essence of seasoning cast iron cookware is to get some fat on the pan, and then apply heat via a stove burner or oven. It is important to get the pan above the smoke point of the fat you are using. Using the right fat or oil is also important.

Heating the cast iron opens up the pores of the metal so the fat can flow in and fill the holes. The heat applied during cast iron seasoning also changes the chemical makeup of the oil to harden it.

A well-seasoned cast iron pan:
  • performs better during cooking (since it is non-stick),
  • is easier to clean up from (since it is non-stick), and
  • can tolerate a bit more abuse than a new cast iron pan.

Cooking frequently with your cast iron and properly cleaning and drying your cast iron after use will go a long way toward developing a healthy seasoning. If your pan is rusted, see directions for rescuing abused cast iron cookware.

I use organic canola oil for my cast iron seasoning (also called rapeseed oil). Canola oil has a fairly high smoke point, and also a fairly high ability to polymerize, and is a drying oil.

NOTE: there's an interesting discussion about pre-seasoning, polymerization, iodine values, and more brainy stuff that you should read if you've got the time. If you are seasoning a naked bare cast iron skillet for the first time, you might consider using flaxseed oil as Sheryl suggests in the aforementioned article.

A well-used cast iron pan will actually acquire most of its beautiful coat of seasoning while you are using it to cook... as opposed to through repeated oven-seasoning sessions. But sometimes a good oven seasoning is in order.

Here's how you do it:

Oven Seasoning for Cast Iron

Start with clean and dry cast iron. Put a quarter-sized pour (1/2 teaspoon?) of canola oil in the center of the pan. Use a paper towel or clean cloth to liberally spread the oil all over (bottom too). Place the cast iron pan upside down in a 450 degree oven for 1 hour. Put a cookie sheet or aluminum foil underneath the pan to catch drips.

After an hour, the oil will likely appear somewhat mottled on the pan. Turn the oven off, and very lightly re-oil the pan (you can probably just use the same paper towel you used at first, with no additional oil). Stick your pan back in the oven to cool down very slowly. You may wish to re-oil it very lightly a few more times as it cools down to avoid mottling.

You can oven-season cast iron as many times as you like. But regular use is the best way to season your pan.

This process does generate a fair bit of smoke! It will probably stink up your house a bit. Consider oven-seasnoning your cast iron with your windows open and/or your stove hood fan on (assuming it actually vents to the outdoors). All the more reason to roast things (like chicken and vegetables) with your cast iron to develop seasoning.

Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron
Many cast iron skillets and dutch ovens come pre-seasoned these days. Lodge, in particular, has begun selling nearly all of their cast iron using their Pro-Logic seasoning method. While this pre-seasoning is helpful for getting a base coat of protection on the pan, true non-stick cast iron seasoning comes only from repeated use and proper care and maintenance.

Article: Enameled cast iron vs. bare (un-enameled) cast iron

A selection of enameled (blue, top left) and bare cast iron

When most people think of cast iron cookware, they envision black, heavy metal skillets or dutch ovens.  Bare cast iron cookware requires seasoning to retain its non-stick capabilities, and needs more care to keep the rust off.

An enameled cast iron dutch oven being used for popcorn
Enameled cast iron, on the other hand, encases the rust-prone cast iron base metal in a coating of porcelain (essentially powdered glass that is melted and baked onto the metal underneath).

Enameled cast iron is typically easier to care for, and comes in a variety of bright colors. But enameled cast iron is not non-stick like properly-seasoned bare cast iron is.

Both bare and enameled cast iron have their advantages and disadvantages, and here they are:

Key differences between enameled cast iron and non-enameled (bare) cast iron

  • Bare cast iron is non-stick, making it ideal for scrambled eggs, omelets, etc.
  • Enameled cast iron is non-reactive, which can make it better for heavily acidic dishes (e.g. tomato soups or sauces)
  • Enameled cast iron requires almost no seasoning, and is therefore somewhat easier to clean and maintain (you should periodically oil the bare cast iron rim if your cookware has one)
  • Enameled cast iron will not hold flavors (e.g. fish) as readily as bare cast iron
  • Bare cast iron is typically thicker, which produces a more even heating surface and reduces hot-spots
  • Bare cast iron delivers heat more evenly and efficiently due to the unique radiative properties of dark metal
  • Bare cast iron introduces extra iron into the food—a bonus if you're anemic
  • Bare cast iron is cheaper
  • Bare cast iron will probably last longer, although you can expect both types to last for decades if properly cared for
  • Bare cast iron is generally better for high-heat searing applications, which can damage enameled cast iron

A bare cast iron skillet being used for
frying bacon over an open fire

Typical brands of bare cast iron are Lodge, Wagner, and Camp Chef.

 For enameled cast iron, typical brands are Le Creuset, Le Chasseur, and Staub.

 My recommendation is to buy cookware that is manufactured in the United States or Europe (rather than China) to hedge your bet against the presence of lead or other toxic chemicals in the pan or coating.

If you live in the European Union, there are much more stringent regulations about what chemicals can be present in the cookware that is sold, so it may well be safe to buy cookware made in China in the EU.

Article: Rescuing Abused Cast Iron Cookware

If your pan falls into disuse and/or suffers an egregious insult (such as dishwashing, heavy deglazing, overnight soaking, or a shipwreck) it will probably develop rust.

If the rust is light, you might get away with scrubbing the pan with a non-abrasive pad, oil, and kosher salt. Once the pan is rust-free, rinse in hot water, and then follow directions for seasoning cast iron.

If your cast iron has developed heavy rust, or the salt and oil treatment isn't up to the task, you'll need to burn off everything and start over.

Luckily, this aspect of cast iron care is easily accomplished, and is kind of fun.

First, you'll need to remove the rust, dirt, old seasoning, or other detritus. The best way to do this is to use your electric oven's "clean" cycle... throw the pan in, and run a full cleaning session.

You can also burn off the seasoning using your propane barbeque grill. Put the pan on the grill on high heat until it is clean... probably an hour or so.

You can also throw your pan in a fire. Build a large campfire and throw the pan into the coals for an hour or so. (Note: on older, thinner pans, this can cause warping. It can also warp the steel wire handle of dutch ovens). If you are not able to build a suitable campfire, a fireplace will work just fine. A charcoal grill also works well (throw the pan on the grill over a hot fire for an hour or so.

Once the pan is totally "naked" wipe off any remaining dirt or ash (be very careful of moisture at this stage, as the naked pan will rust very easily). Now season the cast iron (a few times wouldn't hurt).