Geni, a dear friend and reader, commented on my Essential Tools post on Facebook. She said she couldn’t wait to hear me wax poetic about cast iron. To be honest, I’ve been pretty eager about this post as well.
In truth, my love of cast iron has been slow to mature. When I first started cooking I knew it was something I should like, but I didn’t really use it that much. Let’s be honest, cast iron is heavy. And for most people that’s a turn off. I recently saw an online article, clearly not aimed at me, touting the virtues of some other pan, fundamentally superior to cast iron, simply because it was lighter.
Which is a shame, because it's the weight of cast iron that gives it its value. I have a thinner, lighter cast iron skillet that I almost never use. Why? That thinness gives inconsistent heat control, it's more likely to scorch and burn my food.
As a youth I was attracted to flash, as one is wont to be when young, uninformed, and drawn by sparkly things. In my early days of cooking professionally I worked at a restaurant in Athens, GA called The Grit, a simple, vegetarian restaurant, specializing in comfort foods. Most of the food was prepped before hand and the line cook’s job consisted mainly of reheating and plating. One of our signature dishes was called a Golden Bowl, fried tofu over brown rice with nutritional yeast gravy. Simple delicious and hearty, with lots of umami flavor. This is where I perfected my pan flip, where one tosses the ingredients with a shake of the pan and a flip of the wrist. Flashiness personified.
It looks cool. And because it looks cool we all wanted to do it and show it off. If you haven’t put the two together yet, pan flipping with a cast iron skillet is a lot harder. As such the cast iron skillet didn’t have the appeal of a light weight, Teflon coated, saute pan.
Today, I’m disappointed if I can’t use my cast iron skillet. I do still use the pan flip where appropriate, but with pans that are also appropriate. If I want to move food in my cast iron skillet I use a spatula or a wooden spoon.
It’s the one pan I use every single day. I have a cast iron Dutch oven that I also adore, but the nature of how I cook doesn’t include a daily braise, stew, or soup. (Writing this I now question why it doesn't. Maybe I should reassess my priorities.)
My go to breakfast is some version of steak and eggs. I usually don’t eat until late. During the week I rise at 4:30 am, either to teach my first class at six or to attend my jiu-jitsu class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Coffee is the only thing I consume first thing. I drink two cups of coffee every morning, either while I’m getting ready and during my first class, or after jiu-jitsu. Sam always has it waiting for me when I get home. I teach and train before eating on gym days and write and do computer work on jiu-jitsu days. I like to break my fast sometime between 10:30 and noon depending on how busy my morning is and how hungry I’m feeling that morning.
I get my eggs from a friend with a small homesteading operation. She has ruined me for commercial eggs. Occasionally, her hens will brood and stop laying for a week or two. In those instances I’m forced to rely on what passes for a commercial egg. Even the most expensive organic, grass fed, free range eggs are pale imitations of the rich, bright orange yolks Tonya’s hens faithfully provide.
The steaks are either the kinda small, but well intentioned steaks I get from my Butcher Box subscription or those marked half off at my neighborhood Piggly Wiggly. Beef is one of the more expensive grocery items you can buy. Personally, I’ve set a rule that I won’t pay more than $10.99 a pound. Here lately I’ve had to turn my nose up at steaks priced for quick sale at $19 and $29.99 a pound. Quick sale. 50% off because tomorrow they can no longer sell it. Which means somebody out there is paying $60.00 a pound. What has this world come to?
I generally toast a bagel on our cast iron griddle. (See a theme?) I sear the steak in the cast iron skillet and while the steak is resting I fry up my eggs in the tallow and drippings from the steaks. Once I plate the eggs I immediately rinse out the pan in the sink. I run a quick scour to make sure there are no food bits left and put the skillet right back on the flame to dry. Every time I do this I can't help but admire the deep black seasoning this pan has developed. There is something deep and profound here - a reverence that has to be experienced to be fully understood. Oddly enough, no other element of the kitchen does this, not even my knives.
There’s just something very primal about cast iron. It goes way beyond grandma and her kitchen. Imagine generation upon generation of cooks going back to the earliest days of cast iron cooking, which according to the interwebs was as far back as Han Dynasty China (220 A.D. Thanks, Google.) each one of those cooks aglow with the satisfaction that comes from a well seasoned pan.
It’s just so versatile and, properly seasoned, it's the original non-stick pan. What's properly seasoned? Cast iron is porous. As it heats up those pores expand. A seasoned pan is one where sufficient fat has been added to the pan, while it's hot, to help fill in those pores. The result is a slick, smooth surface that food slides off of. That's why you never wash your pan with soap once you've got it seasoned. Soap strips the fat and exposes those pores. If you do wash your cast iron with soap plan on re-seasoning immediately after. As I mentioned before, the thickness of the pan helps deliver a more steady heat.
I sear steaks, cook eggs all kinds of ways, saute vegetables, fry bacon, peppers, and chicken, caramelize onions, bake cornbread, stir-fry, the list goes on. If I had to eliminate every pan in my house except one, I’d keep my cast iron dutch oven. And the only reason that I’d keep it over my skillet is that I can do everything I do with the skillet plus soups, braises, blanch and steam vegetables, and make pasta or boil potatoes. It truly is the one and done pan. The only thing you absolutely cannot do with a cast iron Dutch oven is a pan flip. Which may be why the skillet is still my favorite, because every once in a while, if I'm in a hurry or just feeling burly I have been known to give that cast iron skillet a shake and a flip.
Braised Chicken and Rice
This is the time of year for braises and this won't be the only braise recipe I share with you. Over time you'll come to recognize that most of my cooking consists of techniques, bake, pan sear, braise, stir-fry, etc., and the ingredients involved are based largely on my tastes and what happens to be on hand.
Braising is economical, both of your time and your budget. It's the best way to prepare those cheaper cuts that tend to be amazingly flavorful, but also much tougher.
First off, grab a dutch oven. It doesn't have to be cast iron. I have a stainless steel one and an enameled one. I like the cast iron not only for it's heat distribution, but because its porousness absorbs flavor. Over time that cast iron begins to impart another layer of flavor you just can't get any other way. I mean they call it seasoning for a reason.
If possible, it's best to salt your chicken a good hour before cooking. Let it sit at room temp. Don't worry, nothing is going to grow in a n hour. I like to take a whole chicken and cut it up. I separate the leg from the thigh and cut the breasts into quarters (a breast is two boobs. One boob cut in half is a quarter.) That way all the pieces are roughly the same size. You can also just use parts, in which case I highly recommend chicken thighs. But as always, you do you. Just know that white meat by itself is likely to come out pasty.
While the chicken is just sitting there go ahead and prep your vegetables. These are usually referred to as aromatics. Over the course of the braise they're going to cook down to almost nothing, but they add a rich layer of caramelized vegetable goodness. I dice onions, carrots and celery. For this one that was two smallish onions, a large carrot and two ribs of celery. But you can play around with other vegetables you have on hand. Just think about similar veggies to those basic three, like fennel instead of celery, or parsnips instead of carrots.
Add some fat to the dutch oven (clarified butter, olive oil, bacon fat or some other rendered fat. Do yourself a favor and throw out those seed oils.) and heat it over medium high heat. Once it's hot, sear the chicken. Let it cook long enough on each side that it develops that yummy brown crust then set the chicken aside.
Toss in the carrots, onions and celery. Now cook those veggies. Cook 'em real good. The longer you cook them the more the sugars in there caramelize and the more flavor you get. Watch the heat. Don't let them scorch, but do let them get soft and kinda brownish.
Once you're there, toss in some garlic you sliced while the veggies cooked and some spices you ground in your mortar and pestle (you do have a mortar and pestle, don't you?) during that same time. If you don't have a mortar and pestle you can use a coffee grinder, ideally one you've dedicated to spices because coffee is strong and not everything should taste like coffee. But what about the spices? Which ones? How much? Here you get to play.
Years ago a foodie friend suggested I come up with my own "Bistro Spice Blend." Just a blend of spices that I like that I could use as a go to for seasoning. It's a great idea and one I heartily endorse. Here at Chez Sasquatch, I take cumin and coriander seeds, cardamon pods, and a few dried chilies. I toss them into my aforementioned mortar and pestle and give them a rough grind. Into the pot they go. Don't worry if there's still chunks of cardamon pod or chili those will cook down in the braise.
You don't want to cook the garlic or the spice blend too long. Just long enough for the heat to release the aroma. Once the smell of garlic and spice hits your nose it's time for the next step, which is to add an acid. For this braise I went with white wine. We still had a box of wine (yes, I said box) left over from my birthday party so I added enough to cover the veggies. Then the chicken goes back into the pot. If there's not enough liquid to cover the chicken, add stock. If you don't have stock add water and remind your self that once you've eaten this braise you need to save the bones to make stock.
Put the lid on the pot and pop it into an oven you've preheated to 275. For a whole chicken I'd let it cook for around three hours. This is the beauty of the braise, once it's in the oven you're basically done until supper. About 30 minutes before supper time cook some Basmati rice and maybe toss some arugula with salt and pepper, a whole lot of extra virgin olive oil and the juice of half a lemon.
When the chicken comes out it's going to be fall off the bone tender. Serve spooned up over the rice with the salad on the side or on top (that's what fancy restaurant folks do they just stack their food on top of each other. Why not? it's gonna end up that way later.) If you skipped on the salad just add some minced parsley and a squeeze of lemon.
Odds are you're going to end up with more veggies and jous than you want to eat at this first sitting. If you have leftover chicken save it all together. It will reheat beautifully. If you just couldn't help yourself and the chicken is all gone save the veggies and jous. This is just pure flavor. Add it to a batch of rice the next time you make rice. Use it to season a reheated medley like you might use for a Best Use of Leftovers Omelet. Reheat it and spread it over toast for a savory snack or just eat it cold out of the refrigerator with a spoon. I won't judge you.
These types of meals are perfect for me and my schedule, especially jiu-jitsu days when I don't finish teaching until 7 pm. I can prep everything after lunch, put it in the oven, and it's done by the time I'm finished with class. You can even play with the temp a little bit to better fit your schedule. Bump it up to 300 degrees and you can probably be done in two and half hours. Drop it down to 225 or 250 and you can stretch it out to four.
At this point you may be asking, why don't I just toss everything in a crock pot and be done with it? You can do that, but you'll never achieve the depth and complexity of flavor a true braise can offer. Later on I'll show you how I do this with a chuck roast or even fancier cuts like Osso Bucco, short ribs, or ox tails.