Don’t Take My Cast Iron

There are a few things the Southern cook can not live without. Cast Iron is one of them. Recently, my husband and I went to buy a stove. I’ve never had the joy of buying one. Ours came with the house 16 years ago.  After a short discussion, before we left, we agreed on getting a sleek, smooth ceramic top. Good thing, that’s mostly what they had in the store. I walked around looking at all the models. I opened doors, checked the listed features, then found a salesman.

 

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We were moments away from paying for it when he said, “You can’t use cast iron.”

“What?” I almost yelled from shock.

No cast iron!

My husband looked at me in question. I mentally rolled through the list of things I need iron to make. Moments later I said, “No. We can’t do it.”

We left without a stove that night.

What’s so important about cast iron?  Everything. As a Southern cook part of my identity is wrapped up in that glossy black skillet. Families pass down well seasoned skillets from one generation to the next. They are sacred to Southern cooking.

My daughter questioned me about it later. I told her without cast iron I wouldn’t be able to make gravy. She almost cried. Here’s a short list of cast iron uses:

  1. Cornbread– You can’t make cornbread without a cast iron skillet. People try but you can taste the difference. Granted cornbread cooks in the oven but I start it on the stove.
  2. Roux– The gooey dark slime that is the start of multiple dishes must be made in cast iron. Gumbo, gravy, jambalaya- all of these start with a roux. The necessary rich, copper color can only be achieved in cast iron.
  3. Gravy– yes you need a roux, but it’s so important I’m listing it separately.
  4. Fried Chicken– actually everything you fry. Come on, this is the South.

Actually it would be easier to list what I don’t cook in cast iron:

  1. things that boil- i.e. veggies
  2. things heavy on tomatoes- i.e. spaghetti

That’s it. I can’t live without my cast iron. As I post this I’m waiting for old school electric stove.

What’s your favorite utensil?

-CK

 

The Cookbook

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I know cookbooks are not something normally discussed on fiction writer blogs, but I love cookbooks.  I have been known to read them for fun.  Especially, the ones that have family or regional history. You can learn  a lot, beyond just cooking.  My husband built me a cabinet, just for my cookbooks. OK, I might need a 12 step program.

There is a point, I promise.  This week I was given a beautiful covered casserole dish, for my birthday.  No laughing. So of course, I immediately began thinking of things I could make in it.  I didn’t go straight to my cookbooks, no I turned on my laptop and went to Pinterest. It wasn’t until later that I realized I haven’t used my cookbooks in months.  I go straight to Pinterest or some other online resource for recipes.

In response to that realization, I made a point of planning to cook something out of one of my cookbooks each night.  What does all of this mean?

It means, I’m no expert, that peeps are now looking to the web more than grannies tried and true cookbook. I wonder if this change is proven by cookbook sales.  Unlike regular books, cookbooks tend to be photo heavy.  I know I prefer cookbooks with a photo for every recipe.  I want a visual reference proving my Croquembouche is supposed to look that way. Or that my Flan fell flat and is an udder failure.

Pictures are key!

Cooking blogs have figured that out.  They can take an eternity to load, because they are so heavy with photos. They take a photo of the ingredients and then of every step until the very end.  So, are traditional cookbooks dead?

I hope not.  I have spent many hours pouring over beautiful morsels to make.  My children have enjoyed picking out sweets to make for birthdays, Christmas, and school events. It’s not quite the same thing, huddling around the laptop.

So in case you were wondering, here are my top 5 go to Cookbooks:

  1. Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.  You know the red and white checked one your mother, and possibly your grandmother, owned.  It’s a great starter book, with plenty of photos.
  2. The Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer and etc… This is the hands down best book.  If you only own one cookbook, this is it.  It covers techniques and everything.  Sadly, no pictures.
  3. The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook, by Gloria Bley Miller.  Again no pictures, but this is by far the best Chinese cookbook.  Each recipe has plenty of variations to chose from, so it’s never the same thing twice.  Heat up the wok and get chopping.
  4. Chocolate, by Nick Malgieri.  Do I really have to explain this one! Plenty of scrumptious, drool inducing photos.
  5. Martha Stewart’s Cookies.  OK.  I’m not always a fan of Martha, but this is the best cookie book ever. Lot’s of photos.  Santa’s favorites are bound to be inside.

There are many other favorites I could add to the list, but these 5 cover the basics.  These are the ones I would take with me, if I was given a limit.

Do you have a favorite cookbook?

CK

 

 

The Humble Cast Iron Skillet

Every kitchen in the South has one of these.

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I have 2, plus a dutch oven. What does this have to do with writing?  Depends.  OK probably not much, but I write about all things Southern and yes, there is a cast iron skillet in my WIP.  Just a cameo.  When my grandmother died, I was curious to know who got to go home with her jet black, well seasoned skillet.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t me.  But that’s OK, it went to a great home and is well loved.  I like mine.  I don’t know if these are as popular up North as they are here.  Down South,  they are indispensable.  They are better than non-stick.  Actually, if taken care of, they will be non-stick.  Eggs’ll peel right off. Cornbread can should only be made in a cast Iron skillet, otherwise it tastes funny.  The same is true for making gravy and roux.  It’s impossible to get the deep copper color needed using stainless.

A worthy skillet is heavy. Most people will tell you to only buy a certain brand, and I agree. It starts with an L.  If you drop it on your toe, it’ll break.  The toe not the skillet.  It also makes a great weapon.  I’m positive the chick in Tangled wielded a cast iron skillet and not some flimsy stainless steel thing.

The only thing I can compare a cast iron skillet to is a wok.  What? No, I have not lost my mind.  My wok is my second most loved piece of kitchen equipment.  Both must be seasoned.  Both are very versatile. And both are culturally significant to those who love and use them. Trust me.  These skillets become members of the family and heaven help the person who messes one up.  The only other item that has the same feelings attached to it is the biscuit bowl.  Biscuit bowls are rarely seen or used these days.  My great-grandmother’s biscuit bowl was stolen from the family house after she died.  People are still talking about that fiendish theft.  Sorry, I’ll get back on track.

Things never to do with cast iron, or the owner of said skillet will never make you fried chicken and gravy again:

  • use a harsh cleaner or scouring pad to clean.  Honey, if it is seasoned right this isn’t necessary.  If something does stick, just re-season it, or make a pan of cornbread.  It does the same thing.
  • cook with tomatoes.  I know this is hard to believe but the acid in tomatoes eat the seasoning off.  Unless, you are frying the tomatoes, then it’s all good.
  • The Cardinal sin: Never leave water in the skillet for prolonged periods.  Water is the archenemy of cast iron and will cause it to rust.  That is one problem you do not want  to fix.

These skillets have been known to last decades, and in a world where everything seems disposable it’s nice to have something to hold onto.  Something that is both beautiful and useful.  Especially, when that something is associated with wonderful memories involving people and food.

What’s in your kitchen cupboard that you can’t live without?

CK