Friday, January 30, 2009

Why Cast Iron?

In my post a few days ago, I recommended using (and buying) cast iron.

Cast iron cookware has many virtues. I'm not the first to point them out. But I'm going to point them out anyway.
  • Cast iron heats uniformly. Great for searing, toasting, and sautéeing, and great for baking.
  • It holds a lot of heat. So when you drop in a cold piece of something, the pan doesn't get cold, and the something sears. Or if the pan is full of oil, the oil doesn't get cold.
  • You can make cast iron REALLY hot. Simply put it on a high flame with nothing in it for a while. Great for searing and blackening. Cast iron can also go in the oven, and under the broiler if you are sensible about it.
  • Over time and with proper use, cast iron develops a pretty good non-stick surface. The more you fry in it, the better it cooks, the less it sticks, and the easier it gets to clean.
  • It is heavy, and will impress your guests and potential burglars.
  • It is nearly indestructible. You can use metal spoons and tongs in it all day long. Even if you mess up its finish, you can easily refinish it yourself.
  • It is a bargain, whether you buy it new or used.
Its downsides:
  • If you use it to cook things that are acidic or too liquid (spinach, tomatoes, stews, soups), it can oxidize, discoloring the food, and adding some iron to it. A little supplemental iron in our diets can be okay, depending, but black tomato sauce is a bummer.
  • Cast iron holds a lot of heat. If you want to be able to vary the temperature quickly, like when you're stir-frying or sautéeing something delicate, this can be a drawback.
When I'm not using a cast iron pan, I might use enameled cast iron (Le Creuset), anodized aluminum ("classic" Calphalon, not nonstick or "infused"), or stainless steel.

Enameled cast iron cooks very much like cast iron, except that its finish is impervious to acid and liquid. It is more fragile than cast iron; you don't want to bang it with a metal spoon, or burn things in it. It tends to be expensive. Great for soups, stews, and roasting.

Anodized aluminum heats nicely. Unlike cast iron, aluminum holds little heat; this can be nice when you want to vary the heat quickly and precisely. Anodized aluminum is also more fragile than cast iron, is expensive, and is increasingly hard to find. Anodized aluminum can really do everything pretty well; if I could only have one type of pan, this might be it. Fortunately, I have no such limitation.

Unfinished aluminum has nothing to recommend it over anodized aluminum, except that it's cheap. But unfinished aluminum oxidizes, and is pretty toxic, so I don't use it.

Stainless steel heats okay but not great, although some fancy stainless pans, like All-Clad and other laminated types, heat nicely. Stainless steel is impervious to acid and liquid, is not so fragile, and can be inexpensive (although not the All-Clad). A good choice for messy, sticky, or corrosive things, like dessert sauces and acidic reductions. Or for boiling water.

Non-stick is fragile, and can't safely be used on high heat because of toxicity. I can see the case for frying eggs and fish in non-stick, because fried eggs and fish are very delicate—but that's about all. I avoid it when I have a choice.

I don't have experience with glass cookware. My impression is that it heats poorly, is fragile, and is difficult to clean.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sally Fallon

I just got home from the Haley House Bakery Café in Roxbury (Boston), where I attended a dinner to benefit their Youth Cooking Program, a fabulous program that helps teens learn to cook and to broaden their outlook on the world. To quote the website:
Food can teach us to overcome resistance and negativity to something new (which is our inclination) by yielding to exploration or curiosity so that the truth can reveal itself…Learning to overcome pre-conceptions of unfamiliar foods and dishes through cooking is an excellent tool in learning how to overcome or shed resistance and prejudice in other parts of one's life.
Fabulous as that program may be, what got me there tonight was not this program, but the speaker, Sally Fallon. Every so often, I have an experience that fundamentally changes how I look at some part of the world. Reading Sally Fallon's first book, Nourishing Traditions, was such an experience for me. "The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats," says the front cover. In it, she claims that much of what the "experts" tell us about nutrition is wrong. Vegetable oils are bad—animal fats are good—pasteurization is bad—meat is necessary—and more. One giant difference between her book and any of the "diet" books of the last 20 years is that her arguments are airtight and backed up by copious unimpeachable references. Perhaps even more importantly, her ideas simply MAKE SENSE and ring true, in a way that the claims of the one-trick-pony diet books really don't. And what she describes is not a "diet" in the modern, punitive sense of the word, but rather a way of eating. I recommend her book to everyone who will listen. Are you listening? (I learned about her book when I read The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved by Sandor Ellix Katz, another great book about food, another book that catalyzed a fundamental change for me.)
I had arrived at the dinner early, and taken a seat at the table closest to the microphone, so that I wouldn't miss any of the action. I was very pleased when Sally Fallon and two of her cohorts joined me at my table for dinner. SF is the president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, and her cohorts are leaders of local chapters of the same foundation. (Weston Price was a health researcher in the first part of the 20th century whose work provided a starting point for Sally Fallon's. In creating his masterwork, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, after visiting hundreds of cities in fourteen countries, Weston Price found that groups of people eating "traditional" diets were healthy, and those same groups of people eating "modern" diets were not. Obviously the story is much longer, but that is the gist of it.) Our dinner conversation centered around the day's business: Sally's book, nutrition, food-related problems in the world, etc. We spend some time on the subject of raw milk, and came to the subject of the trial of Michael Schmidt in Canada for the crime of selling raw milk. One of us, perhaps I, had the idea of starting a religion that required the consumption of raw milk, as a defense against some of the legal impediments to the production and distribution of raw milk. SF thought that this was a great idea, and that I should do it. And in fact, when later during the night I asked her to sign my copy of her book, she said she would do it on the condition that I start a religion that required consuming raw milk. After thinking about it a little bit, I agreed. After all, I am already an ordained minister; it is only fitting that I have a religion; and it should certainly have something to do with food.

Haggis Hunters

If you don't find yourself out on a hillside in the highlands, and you are not able to hunt your haggis but must purchase it, I can refer you to:
British Food and Imports 1 Court St Plymouth MA 02360 508 747 2972
As you might imagine, they offer a range of British items. A serviceable haggis they sell, aye, although it has nae lungs in't, and it is not stuffed in a sheep's stomach, but rather in plastic. My understanding is that the lungs and stomach are not legal in the US. But maybe next time I'll make my own haggis, so I can use sausage casing rather than plastic.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Musings on Leftovers

So, you have some leftovers, and you don't feel like simply rewarming them and eating them again?

You are in luck!

There are many things you can do with leftovers. Here are a few ideas. Some of them may work better for some kinds of leftovers than for others.
  • Dice or shred your leftovers and heat them up in a skillet, perhaps with some lard or oil; put them in a warm corn tortilla; top it all with some chopped onion, cilantro, and maybe some salsa, cheese, shredded lettuce, crème fraiche, and hot sauce. Taco!

  • Dice or shred your leftovers. Heat a tortilla in a skillet over medium heat with some lard or oil. Top it with shredded cheese. Put your shredded leftovers on top. Once the cheese is melted, but while the tortilla is still pliable, fold it in half, and top it with fun stuff. (Don't neglect that avocado you've been holding on to.) Quesadilla!

  • Make some rice; dice or shred your leftovers and heat them up in a skillet with some lard or oil and some garlic, ginger, scallions, and perhaps a crushed dried hot pepper; scramble an egg or two, a bit underdone; mix the rice in with the egg and continue to fry for a few minutes; finally, mix in the leftovers. Season with sesame oil, hot oil, and/or a little soy sauce. Fried rice!

  • Put your leftovers on bread with some mayonnaise, lettuce, sauerkraut or other pickles or chutney, cheese, hummus, or whatever else is handy. If you're feeling a little wild, toast the whole thing in the oven, on the stove top, or in a sandwich press (a George Foreman grill works great). Sandwich!

  • Especially if your leftovers are meat, and include bones: Pull the meat off the bones, chop the meat into bite-sized pieces, whack the bones with a cleaver if they are large, and throw both the meat and the bones in a stockpot with some rough-cut carrots, celery, onions, a bay leaf, some parsley stems, some thyme, a shot of wine (red or white), some other root vegetables (light on the parsnips), some cabbage, some mushrooms (but not too many), and whatever else. Dried shiitake mushrooms are great (but not too many). Just barely cover the contents of the pot with cold water. Bring it to a vigorous boil, lower it to a simmer, and let it cook for a long time (many hours if your bones are big). Pull out the bones and the bay leaf (if you can find it). When you serve it, add some cooked rice or cooked pasta to each bowl. Season with salt, pepper, fish sauce, and whatever else. Soup! (Or stew.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Burns Supper Hangover

You've just hosted a winning Burns Supper. But blast! You have enough tatties and neeps left over to feed the cast of Braveheart for a month! What to do? Consistent with the general Scottish feeling that deep-frying anything makes it better, a feeling not foreign to my American shores, I present:

Tattie and Neep Croquettes

  • a mixing bowl
  • a deep skillet or chicken fryer, ideally cast iron, like this
  • spoons and spatulas for mixing and cooking
  • some paper towels
  • (optional) a slotted spoon or spider

  • tatties
  • neeps
  • eggs
  • salt
  • pepper
  • oil or fat for deep frying
  • (optional) truffle oil

  1. If your skillet is cast iron, preheat it over medium heat.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, mix tatties and neeps, roughly 2 to 1. Add salt and pepper to taste. (And don't be afraid to taste.) If your tatties don't already have truffle oil in them, then for God's sake, add some! Add one beaten whole egg for each cup or two of vegetable. Mix well.
  3. Using your hands, form the mixture into croquettes. These can be very similar to Tater Tots (but are more expensive, because they sound French). You can also make them into small patties, which fry nicely.
  4. Spread the paper towels on a plate, ready to receive the croquettes when you are done frying them.
  5. Place the skillet on medium heat, and add your oil or fat, a couple of inches deep. (A word about your choice of frying fat. For the purist, I suppose rendered sheep fat would be the only option. For the rest of us, options include other animal fats, olive oil, clarified butter, and coconut oil.)
  6. When the oil is hot (which you can test by throwing a tiny bit of vegetable mixture into it and waiting for it to sizzle), gently put your croquettes into the pan, being mindful not to crowd them. If you have a lot of croquettes, or a smaller pan, do them in batches. Don't splash oil on your hands if you can help it.
  7. Carefully turn the croquettes every minute or so, until they are a nice golden-brown shade on all sides. Total cooking time will depend on the size of the croquettes, the heat of your stove, the moisture content of your vegetables, and too many other factors to list here. So keep your eye on them.
  8. Remove the croquettes from the oil (with the slotted spoon if you have one) and put them on the paper towel.
  9. (Repeat with subsequent batches, until you are done.)

Serve hot, warm, or cold, with fancy home-made mayonnaise and parsley.