Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Glory of Cast Iron; Hot Sauce Made at Home

I have recently had the opportunity to discuss the glories of cooking with Cast Iron with a number of serious cooks.  Not all of these folks are fans however.  And from what I am learning are pretty common reasons.  I heard repeatedly, “things will stick”; “you can’t cook everything in them”; “once they get messed up, they are done”, etc. I am here to tell you that all of those beliefs are false.  It just takes a bit of time and practice and care of the cast iron and they will become your favorite medium with which to cook.  So, let’s confront these fears one by one:

  1. Things will stick - actually if properly seasoned, nothing will stick if you follow a few simple basic cooking practices.  After a pan is well seasoned, it is necessary to use a bit of oil or fat - just a tiny bit  - to avoid any experience of “sticking”.  And let’s face it, some of what was sold to us in the latter half of the 20th century as “non - stick” was lethal!
  2. You can’t cook everything in them - OK, there is one caveat - cooking highly acidic foods - like slow cooking tomato sauce - is not recommended in cast iron. Other than that, feel free to try anything.  I regularly make scrambled eggs, omelets, frittata, vegetables, just about everything.  I also bake in my cast iron. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, like a good steak of chop done in a searing hot cast iron pan.  
  3. Once they get messed up, they are done” - Nothing could be further from the truth.  We have purchased cast iron at flea markets and tag sales that have looked way beyond hope.  We use them regularly.  We have also been gifted with cast iron from friends’ relatives who have passed away.  Those mean more to us than we can say. Think of the food history in those pans. Unfortunately,  often they get packed away in a basement, sometimes get wet and end up rusted and sad. Bringing them back is totally possible!  If you get a chance, do it. 

OK - so what follows is a quick lesson in saving and maintaining Cast Iron that has worked in my kitchen.  Folks have different methods but the basics are generally the same. 
With poorly cared for cast iron, or if your own well cared for cast iron that starts behaving badly, here’s a tried and true technique.

  1. Rub the cast iron all over with a neutral oil and then add a half inch or so of the oil into the pan - if you are dealing with a griddle, get the oil as deep as you can.  
  2. Heat it on the stove top over medium heat and then put into the oven set on 250 degrees for an hour or so. 
  3. Let the pan cool in the oven and then wipe it out with a paper towel.  
  4. If the surface is not where you want it to be, repeat the first three steps.
  5. When you use the cast iron heat it before adding oil, butter and ingredients.
  6. After you cook, rinse it with very hot water.  If it needs to be scrubbed, use kosher salt on a paper towel - NEVER USE SOAP ON THE COOKING SURFACES OF CAST IRON! (did I make that clear?). If you cooked fish or seafood in the pan, instead of salt, use baking soda. 
  7. Dry the cast iron very well.  If your oven is warm put it in the oven to dry.
  8. You want the pan to have a nice smooth finish.  If it doesn’t, wipe it with a little oil after it has dried.
  9. You CAN use soap on the outside, non-cooking surface of cast iron if it gets really dirty but don’t make a habit of it and rinse and wipe it dry really well. 
  10. Get yourself into a schedule of re-seasoning your pans, especially if you don’t use them - or the ones that you don’t use - very often.  The trick is to USE them. They and you will be happy! 
See?  Not at all difficult.  Just a little time and attention is all that is needed. 
Please never look at a piece of cast iron as "shot" -  unless it is pitted. Unfortunately, that is hard to conquer and you will not be able to get a nice cooking surface.  Rust?  No problem.  Start with steel wool, get the rust off and start the seasoning process described above. 
Cast Iron is a wonderful thing for cooks to learn to love and use.  You are cooking through generations in many cases.  The price point of new cast iron is very reasonable and it is definitely something that you can pass from generation to generation. 

Why Use Cast Iron?

A Very Useful Reference Book
Recipe:  Making Hot Sauce at Home
Many of us like a little heat.  However, often, I prefer the heat with some flavor, too.  Many commercial hot sauces are just very hot peppers, vinegar and salt.  NOT that there’s anything wrong with that!  I want that hot sauce for a lot of things - oysters and pizza for sure. But when you want some flavor, making hot sauce at home will be a real treat for you.  And the best thing is, it is easy to do and just requires a little patience. 

Select one pound to one and a half pounds of fresh chilies.  I like to try different combinations.  I always use a few bell peppers for balance.  To this I add medium heat, like a Serrano, Fresno, or Jalapeno.  Then I add the serious heat:  just a couple of Habanero, or, as with my last batch, ghost peppers.  
1 - 1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 to 1 cup of minced onion
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 1/2 - 2 cups of distilled white vinegar

Pulse the peppers with the garlic, onions, and salt in a food processor  - for this stage you want the mixture to be a relatively coarse chop
Transfer the mixture into a large glass jar
Cover the jar loosely.  I use some cheesecloth over the opening, held in place with a rubber band.
Let the jar stand overnight at room temperature.
The next day, add the vinegar, stir the mixture and again, loosely cover.
Store at room temperature and away from direct light for at least 7 days - 10 maximum.
Pour the mixture into a blender (if you want a really smooth hot sauce, use a blender; use a food processor if you want some bits in the sauce. I highly recommend smooth).

Bottle the sauce and keep it refrigerated.  It is normal for the hot sauce to separate; just shake before using. I like to hold onto small bottles with good tight caps or corks to store my hot sauce.  Also, a small, labeled bottle of your sauce makes a great host gift for your heat loving friends.


Ready to Start the Process

Hot Sauce Bottling Time!

Il Moya Hot Sauce

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Pantry Purge. It’s Time! Comfort Food. It’s Time!

So the weather is cold, many of the days are gray and windy and there has not been enough snow, in my opinion.  Pair that with the current state of “things” in our country and I find that I have been spending a lot of more time in the kitchen - not just my usual constant cooking, but rather I’ve been devoting time to cleaning cabinets and drawers, getting rid of unused implements, and things that are broken.  I’m also taking stock of the freezer and the larder (now that the holidays are over), and - most importantly - I’m checking on all of the spices and salts and sauces that make cooking so much fun.  I offer this to you because, not only should you purge your dry spices once a year, but also because these activities create order, are calming, and offer a respite from all of the disturbing things going on in our world right now.  

As a second counterpoint to the challenges of 2017 so far, I also heartily recommend shopping and cooking your favorite Comfort Foods.  Now - don’t take those words lightly.  Comfort foods are important. Think back to your childhood.  Dream about the things that your Grandmother used to cook for you.  What do you like most to eat when you are emerging from a bad cold or flu and your appetite is returning?  What are those dishes that, when you see them on TV or in a movie, you can’t stop thinking about having?  Yes. There you go. Now you are getting it.  It’s true that much of Comfort Food is also cold weather food.  Perfect. It’s cold. The last step is promising yourself that you will make these favorite dishes with Real Food and you are ready to get going. 

Some Tips for Updating Spices and Pantry Items:

1.  Obviously check dates on anything that offers a “use by” date;
2.  Any dry spice that is a year or more old should go - let's face it, it has lost its bang and will do nothing for your recipes;
3.  Start a list of what you have purged and as you shop for replacements, try to buy dry spices in small quantities.  Chances are by the time you get through that mammoth plastic jar of dried oregano, what’s left in the jar will have no flavor at all;
4.  Make sure that you are happy with your Spice vendor.  I find that vendors with huge plastic containers of various spices are not always the best.  Not unless they have a really large customer base, because if they don’t you may be purchasing spices that are past their prime; and
5.  I strongly suggest that you store your spices in small, glass spice jars. And don't forget to label. 

Recipes:  A Few Comfort Food Favorites

Pappa al pomodoro
Homemade Stock is always best

“Pappa al Pomodoro” (Bread and Tomato Soup)
This is another recipe from “Cucina Provera” - kitchen of the poor -  that I have truly come to love.  This is comfort food in all caps.  It also makes use of bread that has been around for a few days, so no waste.  There are many, many variations of this soup - I prefer not to fool around with it too much.  I do use my own homemade vegetable stock, but the original recipes generally use water.  I also like a couple of gratings of parmesan over the bowl at service.  But that is totally gilding the lily. 

Extra virgin olive oil - at least 4 - 5 tablespoons
1 small onion, chopped
4 small garlic cloves minced - If your garlic cloves are large, use 2
Canned tomatoes - I use the tomatoes we can in the Fall (32 oz jars); you can definitely use 1 28 oz can of good tomatoes with their juices
2 tablespoons of tomato paste
Red chili flakes, to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 cups of water - or a low or no salt vegetable stock
Stale bread which has been cut into cubes; remove the crusts; about 7 cups
Fresh Basil, if you have it, slivered - 2 or 3 tablespoons
Note:  I use a scant tablespoon of dry Sweet Marjoram as a substitute

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy soup pot over medium - low heat
Add the chopped onion, stirring, until the onions are softened, 5 - 7 minutes
Chop the tomatoes. You can do this in a food processor but I prefer to use the tried and true “scissor method”.  Simply insert the scissors into the jar or can and chop away.  You can chop again when you pour the tomatoes into the pot.

Next, add the garlic to the pot with the onions.  Cook, stirring, for about a minute - you want to smell the garlic.
Add the chopped tomatoes, the tomato paste, red chili flakes, and salt and pepper

Stir and cook this mixture over medium low heat for at least 10 minutes. The tomatoes should cook down.  Remember.  This is the time when you can do more chopping. 

Stir the bread cubes into the tomato mixture.  Add the water or stock, a pinch of salt and stir about half of the basil or sweet marjoram into the soup

Increase the heat to medium, stirring and mashing the bread cubes for about 10 minutes
Stir in the rest of the basil or sweet marjoram, taste and adjust the salt and pepper and chili levels

Ladle into bowls, drizzle extra virgin olive oil over, along with a grating of parmesan cheese if you wish.

NOTE:  this soup is even better the next day.  You definitely want leftovers!


Sweet Cherry Almond Buttermilk Tart

Sweet Cherry Almond Buttermilk Tart
Comfort for dessert! I love this simple tart because it is so versatile - and delicious. For me, it is another way to use the wonderful local cherries that we pitted and froze when they were in season. It works with coffee in the morning and with a dollop of ice cream or whipped cream for dessert in the evening. I would advise that if real buttermilk is not available, substitute whole milk.  This is “comfort” food after all.

3 large eggs
1/2 cup of buttermilk
1 cup of turbinando sugar - “Sugar in the Raw”
1 tablespoon of good almond extract
A pinch of salt
2 cups of all purpose flour
Softened butter for greasing the pan
1 1/2 cup of pitted sweet cherries

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees
Beat the eggs and the buttermilk together
Add the sugar, the almond extract and the pinch of salt and beat again
Add the flour and continue to beat into a soft batter (add a few drops more of buttermilk if it is too dry)
Pour the batter into a 10 inch greased cake pan
Dot the pitted cherries all over the top of the batter - how you do it is up to you. Have fun with it.

Bake for about 50 minutes, until it is set and browning on the top
Sprinkle with powdered sugar
Before the tart cools, run an off set spatula around the edges to loosen it a bit and then turn it out onto a large plate.  Using another plate, turn the tart right side up.

Let it cool.