Baby tomatoes

Baby tomatoes

Monday, December 15, 2014

Can't get more country than chicken fried steak

But you can cook it like a City Girl! Ha! 

My Chef hates making chicken fried steak. He hates cooking it. I, however LOVE the stuff, but I don't like that I have to eat out to get it. So we are going to make it, with the little City Girl twist of using the recipe of one of my idols- Mr. Alton Brown. Alton Brown recently visited Des Moines and sadly, I was unable to go see him, or see him at the many local food hot spots he popped in to. My friends did though, and continue to tease me with pictures of themselves and Alton. I'm so jealous !!

My good friend Paul and Alton
I've been a fan of the Food Network ever since it's been on the air. Many chefs have come and gone over the years but some leave a lasting impact. Sarah Moulton was the first Food Network chef that I seriously began to follow. She was not only a tv chef but also the Executive Chef for Gourmet Magazine. Her show, Cooking Live, had a unique format in that viewers could call in live on the air and ask questions. It was great and I learned a ton from her. Ming Tsai and his East Meets West was also a big favorite of mine. Mario Batali, Ina Garten, and before long, Alton Brown became, to me, sort of a culinary instructor. Alton's show Good Eats educated the viewers in such a fun way, always entertaining. 

But let's get back to chicken fried steak. Living out here in rural Iowa there are lots of places to get a decent chicken fried steak. Almost every small town has a diner or restaurant and the chances are pretty high that you will find that American comfort food staple on the menu. Almost always the steak and mashed potatoes are covered with tons of white gravy. I might be a super fan of chicken fried steak, but I am not a fan of white gravy. This is where Alton Brown's version comes in. After the steaks are cooked the gravy is made in the same pan, but with chicken broth and a LITTLE milk for richness- this unique version is going to make me very happy. 

We had to make a few adjustments, however, with the limited resources of our small store. I was not able to get 2 pounds of bottom round so I had to substitute cubed steaks, and got 4 portions. This isn't a huge deal, but it changes the recipe slightly, as Alton dredges, tenderizes, dredges again and continues. My steak is already tenderized. I also will be using turkey broth instead, because, well, I have a ton of it canned from the Thanksgiving Day turkey frame. It will be just as delicious. 

Alton Brown's Chicken Fried Steak

2 pounds beef bottom round, trimmed of excess fat
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 whole eggs, beaten
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

Cut the meat with the grain into 1/2 inch thick slices. Season each piece on both sides with the salt and pepper. Place the flour into a pie pan. Place the eggs into a separate pie pan. Dredge the meat on both sides in the flour. Tenderize the meat, using a needling device, until each slice is 1/4 inch thick, Once tenderized, dredge the meat again in the flour, followed by the egg and finally in the flour again. Repeat with all the pieces of meat. Place the meat onto a plate and allow it to sit for 10 to 15 minutes before cooking.

Place enough of the vegetable oil to cover the bottom of a 12-inch slope-sided skillet and set over medium high heat. Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the meat in batches, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. Cook each piece on both sides until golden brown, approximately 4 minutes per side. Remove the steaks to a wire rack set in a half sheet pan and place into oven. Repeat until all meat is browned.

Add the remaining vegetable oil, or at least 1 tablespoon, to the pan. Whisk in 3 tablespoons of the flour left over from the dredging. Add the chicken broth and deglaze the pan. Whisk until the gravy comes to a boil and begins to thicken. Add the milk and thyme and whisk until the gravy coats the back of a spoon, approximately 5 to 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper if needed. Serve the gravy over the steaks.

NOTE: This recipe is property of Alton Brown and Food Network. You can see Alton's original recipe by clicking HERE.

Ok, so here is the breakdown of how I did it. As I said, I was only able to get steak that has already been through the tenderizer, so after the first dredge I just lightly finger-tapped the flour into the meat, and continuing from there.

I used the cast iron skillet to make this so I got a nice evenly hot oil.

Funny thing about cast iron on a black glass-top stove- it
looks like I'm cooking in an invisible skillet.
I swapped turkey broth for the chicken broth and it was just as delicious. Instead of whole milk I used half and half so the gravy was super luscious and rich, but nothing at all like gloppy white gravy.

I asked The Chef to give me a hand in the kitchen, since he makes awesome homemade mashed potatoes, and served good old American green beans on the side. Filling, comforting and without a doubt the BEST version of chicken fried steak I have ever had. With Alton's help I just may master gravy yet!

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Chef's Last Minute Lentil Soup

Things at The Little Lake House have been a bit out of sorts this week, with me out  of commission and The Chef being required  to step up and hold the fort down- including ALL the cooking. I've been needing some comfort food big time and tonight he  threw together a pot of soup that was so much more delicious than it's ingredients make it seem. 

I'm a huge fan of lentils, and with lots of fresh vegetables in the fridge The Chef came up with a homey, hearty and meat-free lentil soup I think will be a new regular item around here. Using up some leftover mirepoix from another recipe a couple days ago, the last of the zucchini from the garden, home canned tomatoes and beef stock and of course, lentils, which we always seem to have on hand, this soup hit the spot. 

The Chef's Last Minute Lentil Soup
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped onion
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped celery
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped carrots
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1 cup chopped zucchini
  • 1 bag lentils
  • 1 quart beef stock
  • 4 cups chopped tomatoes
  • handful sun dried tomatoes
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • pinch of crushed red pepper
  • 1 tsp crushed oregano
  • 2-3 bay leaves
  • 2 tsp crushed dried thyme
Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in a large stockpot. Add the onion, celery and carrot. The Chef used some that was leftover from another meal so it was pretty good sized chunks- worked perfectly. Nice and substantial. 

Cook and stir about 8-10 minutes, then add the garlic and cook another minute or two. Add the vegetables, beef stock (you can use chicken or vegetable stock if you prefer) and the seasonings.

Rinse and sort the lentils, add to pot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer about 25 minutes until the vegetables and lentils are tender.

Look at all those chunky vegetables!
You can add any veggies you like to this recipe- and before serving you can add some baby spinach, chopped kale, big handful of fresh herbs such as parsley or basil. Serve with a sprinkle of shredded Parmesan cheese. It reminds me of a minestrone with the chunky veggies and tomatoey broth. 

This soup really hit the spot for this couch-bound girl. This is definitely going to be a Lake House classic.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Easy as Pie Almost Homemade Chicken Pot Pie

Sometimes you just have to cheat a little with some shortcut products. 

I've said it before and I freely admit it, I make terrible chicken gravy. Of course, my mother set the bar incredibly high with her homemade gravy, and my friend Mary set it even higher with her perfect cream gravy. Me.......... I have to stick with gravy mix or gravy in a jar to have edible chicken gravy. Unlike gravy, pastry is my area of expertise. Really. It's not hard to make pastry but I make REALLY good, super flaky, buttery pastry. But that also means dragging out my food processor, flouring the table, rolling pin, and rolling it out. Some days I'm really thankful for ready-made pastry!

I really love pot pie. It's so homey and simple, but filling, comforting- just the thing on a cold, drizzly gray day. Chunky chicken, mixed vegetables (my favorite!) and rich gravy bubbling away under a crisp pastry crust, this is really comfort food. It's not only comfort food, it's super easy to make with just a few store-bought shortcuts. This easy pot pie gets a big flavor boost from Feiny's Everything Rub. You want to try this stuff, folks. You can get yours by clicking HERE.  Now, for the recipe-
  • 1 refrigerated pastry sheet (the rolled kind)
  • 2 boneless skinless chicken breast halves
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 small onion, chopped
  • 1 potato, cut into cubes
  • 1 bag frozen mixed vegetables (allow to thaw for an hour or so)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 jar chicken gravy (about a cup and a half)
  • 2 teaspoons Feiny's Everything Rub (plus more for poaching chicken)
Set the pastry out to come to room temperature. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. 

Place the chicken in a stockpot and cover with water. Season with salt and pepper and a couple shakes of Feiny's Everything Rub. Bring to boil over medium high heat, then simmer until done (usually about 15 minutes or so). Cover and let rest.

In a cast iron skillet, melt the butter. Add the onion and potato. Cook and stir for a couple minutes, then add the water. Cook until the potatoes are almost tender. Add the mixed vegetables. When the water has mostly evaporated, remove from heat add the gravy and the Feiny's Everything Rub. Mix well.

Can't finish any recipe without some Feiny's Everything Rub

Remove the chicken from the pot and cut into cubes. Add to the vegetable mixture. Unroll the sheet of pastry dough and place over the top, pressing to seal around the edge of the skillet. Cut slits in the pastry and pop into the hot oven. Bake for 45 minutes or until deep golden brown and gravy is bubbling. If you don't have a cast iron skillet, just heat everything in a skillet and transfer to an oven-safe baking dish.

Super easy, almost homemade pot pie! This is a great way to use up leftovers from Thanksgiving too- just use about 2 cups of cubed turkey instead of chicken and some leftover turkey gravy. I like mine deep dish style with only a top crust but you can also line a deep pie pan with pastry, add the filling and top crust and bake about an hour.

Now, just a quick note about Feiny's Rubs- I love supporting friends and their business ventures, and Feiny's is the company founded by Adam Feinberg, a chef and pitmaster from Denver. He has a nice line of rubs already with more in development. You can find out more about Adam and his rubs by visiting Fein Tasting Foods.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 55: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Friday, November 28, 2014

Cooking Basics- Mastering Turkey Stock

I am that relative. Yep, you know the one- the crazy aunt who comes to holiday dinner and ends up going home with a plastic bag full of turkey remnants. It was easy to hide when I was the hostess cooking and serving dinner, but now our family has handed to reigns to the next generation of cooks and I no longer have to do it. I still make my own stock however so I need those old turkey bones!

A short while back we covered making beef stock. Turkey stock (as well as chicken and other poultry) is a bit easier. Typically you are using the bones from already cooked birds so roasting isn't as necessary, and you generally don't cook poultry stock quite as long, but the results are no less amazing. 

Bones. All stock begins with bones. For me, the best time to make a batch of stock is during the holiday season. I can always find a turkey frame somewhere. I've been known to keep a giant ziploc bag of chicken bones in the freezer also, waiting until I have enough to make a batch. If you are not the holiday meal host, go ahead and ask if the host will part with the frame! Can't hurt! 

It's not the prettiest sight, but there is a ton of flavor
in those bones!
Once you have a good amount of bones you can start planning your stock. Browning the bones is a very important step in making beef stock but it's not a necessary step in poultry stock. In fact, I recommend against it, as you often have little meaty bits left on the frame and they might get charred. One or two turkey frames in a giant pot (I use my water bath canning pot) is a good amount to start with. As long as I've got a pot started I'll make a last check of the freezer for stray chicken bones I might have been saving, and I'll throw those in as well.

Herbes de Provence are always part of my aromatics
Aromatics. Like beef stock, your aromatics should enhance the stock and provide some background flavors but NOT be an overdone flavor element. Remember, stock should be something that's a foundation, with your flavors being built for each individual dish. The traditional mirepoix, carrots, celery and onion, will lay the groundwork, and simple herbs- thyme, parsley, bay leaf- and peppercorns are about all you need but you can use any spices or herbs you like. I never add salt to my stock, saving this seasoning step for when I am preparing a dish with the stock. 

You don't have to fuss with peeling onions- just throw them in.
I didn't have fresh celery but I have tons of dehydrated- it
gives just the same celery flavor as fresh and stores in a jar.
Ok, so I am going to start by breaking down the turkey bones. Make sure you have picked off as much meat as you can and break the frame up into smaller pieces. Place in big stockpot. Add several bay leaves, a small palm full of peppercorns, several sprigs of fresh thyme and Italian flat leaf parsley. Add the vegetables- 2 or 3 carrots, scrubbed and cut into chunks; 3 stalks celery, washed and cut into chunks; 1 large onion, cut into chunks- you don't even need to peel it; 1 head garlic, cut in half crosswise. Our turkey was roasted with onion, garlic, thyme and apples inside the cavity- I left them in and will cook them with the stock. Fill the pot with cold tap water. Bring to boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer for at least 6 hours. Check the pot every once in a while and skim off any foam that's accumulated. This is a great project for a cold, gloomy day so you can let it simmer away while you settle in with a good book, some movies, or relax.

Let the stock cool slightly, then carefully remove the large pieces of bone and vegetable chunks and discard. Strain the stock through a fine sieve to catch all the herbs and small pieces. Place in pot and refrigerate overnight. The next day, scoop off any fat that has solidified on top. You won't get 100% of the fat but get as much as you can, especially if you are going to can it- excessive fat can prevent the jar from sealing.

After straining out the bones and vegetables my stock still has
some herb bits and isn't clear- but I like it this way. Here I am
condensing it slightly so I can use smaller jars and have more
flavor impact. I can always add water when I make soup later.

If you are going to freeze the stock, ladle into freezer containers, seal, label and freeze. If you want to can the stock you must have a pressure canner. Prepare your jars and lids. Reheat the stock to boiling, ladle into hot jars, seal and process at the correct weight for your altitude for 20 minutes for pints, 25 for quarts. Complete canning instructions can be found HERE

You now have jars of liquid gold, ready to turn into homestyle soups, rich flavorful gravies and luxurious reductions.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

On the bookshelf- Reading at the Little Lake House

I don't know why I haven't talked about this subject before! You would think this would be one of the first things I've ever blogged about. I am an avid reader. Love books.....LOVE books. I love the library, I love book stores. I love lots of different kind of books. I love reading text books of subjects I am interested in. I love silly Danielle Steele romances, Stephen King horror novels and biographies of all kinds of interesting people. I love reading about World War II, history, and I am hopelessly addicted to the "Prey" series of novels by John Sanford. My dad, also an avid reader, calls me regularly to ask what I'm reading, talk about what he is reading, and he sends me home with books he has finished with. My dad has always been the biggest influence in the things I study and am interested in, ever since I was a kid. You see, like me, my father is a cookbook collector.

The Chef says I am a cookbook hoarder and with the internet there is no longer a need for buying actual books. That may be, and my concession there was to stop buying cooking magazines every month (but I still buy one occasionally....shhhhh). My daughter and son-in-law gave me a Nook for Christmas last year- a wonderful and very thoughtful gift, as my kids know me oh so well and knew that I'd always wanted one, and would use it all the time (and I do). But when it comes to cookbooks I still need the feel of the paper, the weight of the book in my hand, the smell of the pages. I need an actual book. 

I have cookbooks of all sorts. I have many many many of the "thin" Better Homes and Gardens cookbooks. They aren't much bigger than magazines but are hard-covered and single subject, such as Meals in Minutes, Barbeque and Salads. I have three of the classic red-checked-covered Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. I have old church cookbooks. Ladies' Auxiliary cookbooks. Celebrity chefs, some autographed and some not, and the classics like The Joy of Cooking and Julia Child's most famous book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I have cookbooks you might never have heard of. I have cookbooks many of you probably own. Some are worn from years of reading and reference. Some are taped back together and the dust covers long gone. I even have a cookbook compiled by Mary Kay consultants- their favorite recipes.

But why cookbooks? Well, to me, as a young woman years ago, I had no earthly idea what to do with food. I never cooked until I was on my own. I never had to. Never took home ec or any of those life skills classes in high school, preferring to take French and art and sciences instead. Back in those days Meredith Publishing used to have an annual book sale. Cookbooks were dirt cheap and I just started getting a few every year, and reading. Meredith Publishing, for those who may not know, is the company that publishes Better Homes and Gardens and happens to be headquartered in Des Moines- how awesome is that? Reading the recipes, seeing all the beautiful pictures, and growing tired of pizza, burgers and those boil in bag frozen meals (before microwaves were common), I began to experiment with cooking. 

At first it wasn't pretty. Those early meals were not often successful but I never gave up. Moving to England for several years and raising a family in a tiny English town with no drive thrus meant Mommy had to figure it all out, and I did. Quite successfully! I won my first recipe contest in 1983 at the ripe old age of 21, thanks to all those cookbooks.

These days my style of cooking is very diverse. Home cooking to nouvelle cuisine. Home canning to a luxe gourmet dinner for two. I still look to my cookbooks for inspiration. Of the 400plus I own I do have some definite favorites. Let's talk about some of them.

Chez Bonne Femme Cookbook- One of my very favorites is also one of my newest. The Chez Bonne Femme Cookbook by Wini Moranville has landed a spot on the top ten list immediately. I will definitely wear this one out, undoubtedly. Getting to meet Wini in person was a real delight- and if you follow either of my blogs you have seen at least a couple posts about Wini or the cookbook or a recipe of hers. Unlike Julia Child all those years ago, Wini brings French cooking into the American kitchen with some recipes that are incredibly easy and delicious, no obscure ingredients and techniques most of us are already accustomed to. If you don't own this book, you simply must get it.

Anything by Ina Garten- How can you NOT love Ina and her beautiful kitchen, the big glass "Ina Jars" on the counter (yes I have Ina Jars of my very own), and her outstanding recipes? Seriously, besides this incredible life story she has, she lives in the Hamptons and owned that gorgeous little shop The Barefoot Contessa. Ina's recipes are simply amazing. She makes everything look so easy and perfect. Her Perfect Roast Chicken is something everyone should master. Pot pie goes gourmet when it is Seafood Pot Pie. Her Lemon Loaf Cake is the perfect picnic dessert. She masters everything from bechamel sauce to roasted potato wedges, and you can too.

The Quarterback Killer's Cookbook- Of course I would own this one. I can't say for sure if I bought it as a Viking fan or a cookbook collector but regardless, it's turned out to be one of my favorites. Former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen is much more than a sports figure. He is a hunter, supporter of veterans, restaurateur, and surprisingly, a pretty amazing cook. His book is FUN- stories and pictures from his childhood, his father and grandfather- his idols- and recipes from ducks and pheasant to fish to bears, elk and deer. How about some Ostrich Steaks with Piperade? Venison with Blackberry and Horseradish may be more up your alley? I'm big into braising.....wonder if I can track down some bear meat for Braised Bear Steaks?  Even if I don't get to cook too many of the recipes, this cookbook has been a fun addition to my collection and is very treasured, If only it were autographed........

Nadia G's Bitchin' Kitchen Cookbook- Speaking of autographs.....If you don't know who Nadia Giosia is, you need to get out more. The Cooking Channel's star of Bitchin' Kitchen is a ball of fun- she reminds me so much of myself as a younger woman- all high heels and heavy metal attitude. Pepper Crusted Teriyaki Tuna with Wasabi Smashed Potatoes is just one of the recipes in her cookbook that YES !!! sports an autograph *insert happy face* Her cookbook is arranged as complete meals, rather than chapters on meats, vegetables, appetizers, etc., and have silly titles such as Break-up Bonanza, consisting of Splitsville Salad with Caramelized Figs, Reverse BLT, Mascarpone Honey Toast; The Single Life, which is Crispy Salmon with Leek Sauce, Mac & Cheese and Perfect Spinach Salad with Grilled Pears. Fun stuff, great recipes and lots of useful information laid out in a wacky rock girl style this is one awesome cookbook, or as Nadia G might say "Bitchin!!"

The 150 Best American Recipes- Fran McCullough and Molly Stevens did a fantastic job compiling recipes from all kinds of sources- cookbooks, magazines, newspapers, and so on. The Appetizers section contains some truly delightful tidbits. Vodka-spiked Cherry Tomatoes with Pepper Salt sounds like a bite-sized Bloody Mary. Lots of delicious soups and interesting salads made the cut, and entrees from Black Bean Burgers to Shrimp and Grits to Braised Short Ribs make me want to cook everything!! The cookbook includes breakfast and brunch recipes, breads, and an awesome selection of desserts. Lots of gorgeous photos fill the pages of this fantastic collection of recipes. I think this cookbook was actually a gift, and couldn't have been a more perfect gift for me.

I really have way too many books to really pin down the absolute favorites, and what I am loving changes from season to season, year to year, as I learn more techniques and discover new foods and ingredients. You could say........I've never met a cookbook I didn't like!

Note: Almost all of the above books are available on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble- except for the vintage and community cookbooks. Those I have collected over the years from book sales, garage sales, thrift shops and even a few on Ebay. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Life and it's crazy ups and downs

It's been a pretty crazy couple of weeks here at The Little Lake House.

Winter has arrived, and with much fanfare. No, not feet of snow or crippling ice, but with single digit temperatures and just enough snow to make it beautiful. Normally I am so excited to see the first snowfall and this year inside I am still a little bit giggly about it, but with our furnace on the fritz it's not as enjoyable. But like life's many challenges this too will pass and we will soon be warm and toasty again. It's strange to think that a few weeks ago people were still boating, and today the lake is nearly frozen over.

The Chef is in the midst of his busiest time of year, with the country club hosting dozens of events and Christmas parties, a big Thanksgiving Day meal and a few weddings here and there. Speaking of weddings, The Chef surprised me the other night with a beautiful engagement ring! I was so happy I cried! Now we just need to agree on a date and make it official. It was a very touching moment as he gave it to me, and yes, it's mushy but he truly is the love of my life. I can't stop staring at my beautiful diamond ring.

Recovery has been slow going, but I am finally getting back up and around more. I have missed cooking! I have even missed washing the dishes to be honest. Knee surgery seems pretty simple but those are joints you bend all the time, without even thinking about it. The Chef has been an amazing caretaker and spoiled me terribly.

It has been a couple weeks but Halloween was fun with the grandkids- my oldest grandson was a scary hockey masked slasher this year, his first ever scary costume, my granddaughter was a princess, as she truly is, and my youngest grandson was a ninja turtle. Halloween is always such a fun time with kids in their cute costumes. We don't get trick or treaters at The Little Lake House which is one thing I do miss about city life. It's also hockey season for my oldest grandson, and as soon as I get back to driving all the time, I'll be watching him on the ice.

I've been thinking about decorating for Christmas this year. After many years of missing my holiday spirit, I feel like it is creeping back a bit. I have so many things to be thankful for in this life, and so much to be happy about, it's time to reignite that flame and at least do a Christmas tree and some stockings by the fireplace. I'd love to have more of those holidays where everyone drives out in the country to Gramma's House, where it's decorated so cute, with lots of delicious things in the oven, cookies on plates and bowls of homemade candy to share. I miss those big family gatherings at my house, now that my kids are grown and on their own, they like to host the holidays at their homes.

So friends, as Thanksgiving is right around the corner, please take a few minutes to reflect on the good things in your life, your family and friends, the people you love, the blessings you have received. I am so very thankful for everything I have in my life- my amazing children and grandchildren, wonderful friends and the man I love with all my heart, and for all of you, who inspire me. Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

In the kitchen- Cooking with cast iron

When I think of a country kitchen my mind's picture always includes a row of neatly spaced cast iron pans hanging on the wall. For a lot of years, as a city dweller, I turned my back on cast iron. "Too rustic" and "too countrystyle" for my urban, contemporary kitchen and cooking style back then, I chose instead to furnish my kitchen with hard anodized cookware and pricey accessories. The only cast iron I was really interested in was enameled cast iron from Le Creuset. Friends offered me different skillets and grill pans to try and convince me I should try it, but I was stubborn. 

Vintage cast iron deep pan for frying
Ohhhhh life is filled with regrets, is it not? Now, several years later, I don't live in a big country farm house but I do embrace a different kind of life and after all this time cast iron cookware has a piece of my heart. My "collection" consists of one solitary skillet given to me by my sister but using this one skillet has started me on a journey I wish I had begun long ago. I think of all the times I passed on a rough looking old skillet in a thrift store that my friend Jessica would snap up in a second. Garage sales with the odd piece here and there that I left on the table continue to haunt me. I think the biggest reason I wasn't interested in getting any was not wanting to mess with seasoning and not wanting to worry about getting them completely dry after cleaning. My Calphalon is just too easy to care for and I was spoiled.

We all know cast iron has been around for centuries. What is it about this ages-old material that keeps cooks all over the world in the fan club? I asked my cooking friends to share their thoughts on cast iron and here is what they had to say-

Becca's awesome thrift store treasure is
featured on her blog,
Leslie says she loves the ease of being able to cook and bake in hers. She also loves the easy clean up and good flavors that a well-seasoned pan provide. Marie also loves using hers for baking.

Jennifer owns three skillets and loves them, although she feels eggs don't do as well in them as in other pans. 

Mary stresses NO SOAKING to reduce the risk of rusting. I agree completely. I have never had to soak mine. Even if stuff appears to be stuck really bad, just a few minutes wet loosens everything right up. She has skillets that once belonged to grandparents, and says they are the best for fried chicken.

Chef Todd's innovative use of cast
iron in the restaurant kitchen.
Paul likes his for cooking bacon (which is the easiest way to quickly and continuously season the pans too!) and for using on the grill. He is an advocate of the No Soap Policy, which I agree with. Todd had a very clever use for his skillet- he flips it and uses the flat bottom like a grill, perfect for searing tuna. Ingenious! As a professional chef he uses this clever idea in the restaurant kitchen, where single-use items are a hassle and finding multiple ways to use cooking equipment is important to your overall efficiency and creativity.

Deb's cast iron collection
My good friend Deberah has an awesome collection of cast iron skillets in a range of sizes. I NEED this in my life! She has a big ol' skillet for frying up piles of food for her hungry household of guys, and one of the small ones I really really want bad! 

Becca scored a piece at a thrift shop for 50 cents! Even though it had a badly corroded spot she reseasoned it. It's not perfectly non-stick but she says it's awesome for fried chicken and cornbread.

It's interesting to me that my friends who responded represent a wide difference in cooking styles yet they all expressed the same basic pro and cons- durability, ease of use and great for frying. Some of them are home cooks like me and others are professional chefs, food writers and bloggers, culinary students and cookbook authors. I can't think of too many other kitchen items that have such a broad appeal. 

My one and only cast iron skillet
Now I have an overwhelming need to get to as many thrift stores, estate sales and auctions as I can to search for vintage pieces. I'm sure I'll be learning all about restoring cast iron to it's beautiful, usable form. Of course, I'd love to find a larger, deeper skillet for frying chicken and things like that. A Dutch oven is a must-have and something I would use all the time for breadmaking and a cornstick pan would make a nice addition. I could use several small skillets for table service, hot dips, baking cornbread and such. This is one hunt I'm looking forward to!

Right now, let's cook something in cast iron. Something simple, rustic and homey that will demonstrate everything we love about cast iron- the perfect crusty sear, the nonstick seasoned surface and the heat distribution you only get from a heavy solid pan. I'm going to make a quick German style toss of crispy fried potatoes, perfectly sauteed cabbage and juicy kielbasa slices, seared golden brown outside and perfect on the inside. This is a favorite weeknight meal for me, easy to pull together and on the table in minutes- simple flavors, easy techniques, just toss in a bowl and add some spicy mustard.

Fried potatoes are nothing else if not amazing when cooked in cast iron. Most people who use cast iron proclaim fried potatoes as THE best in cast iron. Yukon Gold potatoes are a great choice for fried potatoes. They are firm and less starchy and get that delicious crunchy brown exterior while staying tender and creamy on the inside. For this dish I leave the skins on (well, for every dish really) and cut the potatoes in half lengthwise before slicing. Give them a nice toss with oil and place in the hot pan, avoid crowding them as much as possible which tends to steam the potatoes rather than crisp up and fry. I am frying uncooked potatoes here, which is typical in the German kitchen, so they take a little longer than American "home fries." Turn the potatoes often to evenly brown, and place in a large bowl when they are all done. Season with salt and pepper. I like to use my giant stainless steel bowl and hold it in a warm oven.

Next up we are going to fry the kielbasa. This is the quickest step, as the sausage is already fully cooked. We just need to get that golden brown sear on the slices. Cast iron is made for searing meat. I put the sliced sausage in a bowl and toss with some oil, and add to the hot skillet. Just a couple minutes on each side usually does the job and into the bowl they go to rest with the potatoes.

Now the skillet has lots of gooey, crusty browned bits inside. We want to get that incorporated into our dish. Frying the cabbage last is a great way to do that. The vegetables release a little bit of juice, which deglazes the pan and the browned bits help caramelize and flavor the cabbage. This method is very similar to stir frying and demonstrates how versatile cast iron can be. I have a small head of green cabbage which I have cut into bite sized chunks (usually I use about half the head since it's just two of us). I add one onion, also cut in chunks, to the bowl, four minced garlic cloves and add to the sizzling hot skillet. Cooking over fairly high heat gives good caramelization to the edges of the vegetables without overcooking and the fat from the sausage adds tons of flavor. I like the cabbage a little on the crunchy side still so after a few minutes I season with salt and pepper and toss with the potatoes and sausage in the big bowl with a scoop of homemade German style mustard and a splash of vinegar.

Toss with a bit of grainy mustard- delicious!
That's it! Quick German-style dinner that is delicious with some grainy rustic mustard and buttered crusty bread. Cast iron makes dinner easy and delicious and cleanup is a snap. A quick rinse, wipe, heat to dry completely and that's it! 

I'd love to hear some of your cast iron stories!